SAFFORD — As the weather warms up, rattlesnakes are coming out of their winter dens, so certainly some of us will have a snake encounter this year. Whether that encounter is good or bad may depend on how you react to the occasion. A good encounter is memorable in that all go their separate ways and no one is injured, neither man nor snake. Otherwise, it’s a bad encounter if blood is shed by one or both parties.
The people most likely to be bitten are those who try to kill, injure, capture or interact in some way with the reptiles. Statistically, those are called “illegitimate bites” because the victim should have known better. Clearly, the best course of action for a favorable outcome is to leave the snakes alone. The other category is called a “legitimate bite”; it is made up of those people who were unaware of a snake and consequently bitten through no fault of their own. This group is often composed of gardeners, hikers, fishermen, children at play, workmen, etc.
In Arizona, we average only about 200 rattlesnake bites annually, which really isn’t many compared to the number of people who are outdoors during snake season. The risk of a fatal envenomation is considerably lower, at approximately two deaths per year. Nevertheless, the fear of being bitten by a rattlesnake is ever on our minds despite the statistically low number of bites. It’s a fear that television producers exploit to maximum effect with bogus programs such as “Gator Boys,” “Call of the Wildman,” “Rattlesnake Republic,” “Duck Dynasty” and others of that ilk. Loaded with misinformation, hyperbole, and bad advice, they do not present the truth about snakes.
It is nearly impossible for people to tolerate a snake in their yard. But it’s likely that a snake found in your neighborhood is just one of several who roam the area, and it has probably grown up there, having learned to live alongside humans by avoiding detection. If your property is adjacent to the desert, then you will certainly have snakes visiting your yard, and conversely, the further you are from the desert, the fewer snakes you will see.
If you are too far removed from nature, then you have probably forgotten that snakes play important roles in a healthy ecosystem. To our benefit, they keep rodent populations in check, thereby saving crops, slowing the spread of vector-borne diseases and mitigating property damage. Additionally, snake venoms are being used to create new drugs that combat several debilitating physical disorders. Show me someone who says the only good snake is a dead snake and I’ll show you someone who flunked biology class.
For more than 10 years, I’ve been working on a personal project called “Reptilist — Reptile Conservation.” Although my Web site is now defunct, I still make educational snake safety presentations on request, and also perform safe and humane reptile relocations. I catch them and let them go in the nearest suitable habitat, where they are unlikely to be seen again. In the summer months, you might also see me stopping to escort snakes off the road.
Sometimes I get called about a snake in someone’s house. If that happens to you, it’s best to close the doors around it so that it’s isolated, and don’t attack it. Last year, I captured a severely wounded Western diamondback rattlesnake from inside a house. The homeowner had hit it with a shovel, but it got away and was wedged behind a dresser. Because the animal was hurt and cornered, that made it more dangerous than normal, and it reacted to my good intentions by taking a long, lunging stab at my nearest foot. An unmolested snake is a lot easier to remove than one that is provoked.
In case of snakebite, first, get away from the snake. Then calm and reassure the victim to prevent him or her from panicking. Call 911 and follow instructions. Do not apply any snakebite kit or home remedies. (No tourniquets, no constriction bands, no “cut and suck,” no ice, no electricity, no granny’s poultices…) Simply keep the bitten extremity immobile and nonconstricted. People who are bitten by a venomous reptile should either wait for an ambulance or have someone else drive them to the hospital.
With rattlesnake bites, the doctors say that “time is tissue,” which means don’t delay getting qualified medical treatment. Because if it is a severe bite, then the longer a person goes without anti-venom, the more local tissue damage there will be. Medical treatment isn’t cheap, either, Cro-Fab anti-venom costs around $1,000 per vial, and 12 vials are considered to be a minimal dosage. Snakebite hospitalizations routinely cost tens of thousands of dollars, $60,000 being a common figure. You’re better off leaving rattlesnakes to the experts!
To narrow your chances of an unexpected encounter around the house, trim your bushes, organize and/or remove the backyard junk pile, use a flashlight at night, and look twice before stepping or reaching. Don’t put your hands where you can’t see them. Make sure your doors close tightly. Keep in mind that snakes love to bask on warm concrete after dark, and they appreciate a water source, too. Snakes of all kinds love to stretch out on blacktop roads. Most of the time, if a snake is given an escape route, it will leave of its own accord and probably never be seen again.
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