This article was contributed by Save The Snakes Board Member & Wildlife Biologist Eric Stitt.
As we write this, the days are becoming lighter and the nights are warming up in Northern California. Most folks are thinking about maximizing their exposure outdoors as they make plans for the summer. At Save The Snakes, we are thinking of rattlesnakes and the upcoming active season, roughly mid-April through September. We believe this is as good a time as any to lay out safety and awareness guidelines for maximizing your outdoor enjoyment while minimizing risks of adverse rattlesnake encounters.
How Can We Be Safe in Rattlesnake Country?
It’s been said many times and it bears repeating: rattlesnakes (in fact, all snakes) are much more afraid of you than you are of them. Think about it: a rattlesnake may weigh three pounds and be a whopping six inches high when coiled and sleeping. That’s 1/60th the weight and 1/12th the height of a six-foot human! Luckily, nature has equipped rattlesnakes with a warning device to alert unwary people and pets. However, do not count on that rattle to let you know it’s there.
When in nature or at home in rattlesnake country, vigilance and alertness are key. When walking nature trails, look ahead and to the sides of the trail as you go. Distracted walking- say, browsing one’s phone as you’re traversing a single track, for example, is not recommended. Wear appropriate clothing- long pants, hiking boots, and if you’re especially wary, snake gaiters. If walking a dog, keep it on a short leash and do not let it nose into areas you cannot see into. Look ahead of where the dog is walking so you can proactively avoid a snake on or beside the trail if need be. If going off-trail by yourself or with a pet, always scan ahead and look under small topographic features (rocks, logs, etc.) before stepping over them. Your heightened senses will serve another purpose in this case as well: you will notice many more unique natural features when you actively and alertly interact with the landscape. Children should be watched closely and reminded to always look where they are stepping or reaching.
When in nature or at home in rattlesnake country, vigilance and alertness are key.
If rattlesnakes are known to occur in your neighborhood, increased vigilance and attention are needed anytime you go outside, and maybe even when you’re in your garage. Rattlesnakes move around a lot during the active season, and often it is to find areas with favorable temperatures. In the heat of the summer a cool garage may be just what a snake needs to keep out of the blazing sun. Thus, many a rattlesnake is found coiled between boxes when a homeowner starts breaking out the 4th of July decorations!
Encounter a Rattlesnake? Be Responsible & Safe
For rattlesnakes found in the wild or in one’s yard or garage, keep a wide berth. Never attempt to kill the snake because this puts you in greater danger of being bitten. Threatened snakes are dangerous snakes, so it behooves the finder to leave ample room (10 feet or more) between you and the snake. Obviously, clue others nearby into the fact the snake is there. If you feel comfortable, rattlesnakes can be hastened along by making sure a clear pathway is ahead of it and coaxing the snake to move with long-handled implements (push brooms, pool nets, etc.). Use the length of the implement to maintain distance between you and the snake. If possible, keep something between you and the snake and make sure you have an escape route as well. Keep other people, if present, far back and do not allow yourself to be distracted. If you do not feel comfortable removing the snake yourself, call your local rattlesnake removal company or pest control service.
Never attempt to kill the snake because this puts you in greater danger of being bitten.
One phone number that all persons living in rattlesnake country, indeed most adults in general, should have programmed in their phone is Poison Control: 1-800-222-1222. If bitten, that should be the first number you call. Keep the struck area lower than your heart, keep your breathing slow and steady, immediately remove any constrictive clothing or jewelry near the bite, and get to the hospital poste-haste. Although “dry bites” occur with some regularity, always assume a rattlesnake bite has envenomated you and behave accordingly. Do not use snake bite kits, extractors, tourniquets, or any other disproven first aid methods.
The good news according to statistics from the University of Florida is that of the 7,000 to 8,000 rattlesnake bites per year in the United States, on average only 5-6 bites will be fatal. More people in the U. S. die from lightning strikes, bee stings, dog attacks and spider bites than from venomous snakes. Of course, as with any envenomation the faster one can get medical help the better the outcome will be.
If treated with respect and caution, with a full understanding of one’s surroundings; humans, pets, and rattlesnakes can coexist and we can revel in the fact that wilderness is, still, wild.
Rattlesnakes are Important & Deserve Respect
Rattlesnakes are a vital and important part of many ecosystems. They are effective predators on many pestivorous rodent species, including those that carry hantavirus, plague, salmonella, and lymphocytic chorio-meningitis. Many rodents quickly reach high densities if allowed to reproduce unchecked by predation. Rodents can inflict massive damage on stored grain crops, and predation by snakes, rattlesnakes included, helps mitigate that damage and saves money that would be spent on rodenticides.
Beyond their utility to people, research is increasingly showing that rattlesnakes have complex social lives, up to and including providing parental care to young. Rattlesnakes are a uniquely north-and central American group, and to many people evoke the same images as grizzly bears, bison, and John Wayne. If treated with respect and caution, with a full understanding of one’s surroundings; humans, pets, and rattlesnakes can coexist and we can revel in the fact that wilderness is, still, wild.