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A rattlensake’s rattle is a warning

Your best bet is to heed it and move along

Cale Morris of the Phoenix Herpetological Society using his fake leg to step on a rattlesnake during his research.
Cale Morris of the Phoenix Herpetological Society using his fake leg to step on a rattlesnake during his research.

Recently, a much-shared Facebook post by the Phoenix Herpetological Sanctuary about a study conducted by their rattlesnake expert Cale Morris caught my attention. Morris used a boot and pant leg on a stick to tread upon rattlers found in the wild, and the result was that only six of the 175 trod upon by the fake leg struck the boot. Three went into a coil position. The rest just froze in position or tried to get away. (And no, it wasn’t because the fake leg lacked a heat signature. Pit viper sensory glands are employed during nighttime predation, when the body heat of a rodent would stand out against the surrounding cool.)

My experience with rattlers began before I was five years old; my father used to milk them for venom used in studies and for anti-venom. He was installing air conditioning in Twentynine Palms during the mid-1960s, and on the side, he worked with a herpetologist named Ed Hayes. I can just barely remember terrariums with snakes inside them. Later, as an adolescent living in Arizona’s Avra Valley, I hunted for them as a kid might, checking them out, and even learning to handle them. I learned that by looking closely at sidewinder tracks in the sand washes, or dry rivers, I could tell in which direction they were traveling, and that some were “left-handed” and some the opposite. Once, I found tracks adjoining another set, making crude squiggly Xs in the sand. I followed them upstream and found the breeding pair in the shade of a Palo Verde tree overhanging the sand wash, still stuck together.

It was during those days that I was bitten, even though I had handled many snakes without incident. Gaining control of the snake by pinning the head down with a forked limb, then carefully grasping it just behind the head, wasn’t too hard. And as many of my friends were deathly afraid of snakes, it was a way gain some street cred, which I badly needed as a recent transplant from California. But on that occasion, I lost control of the head. Happily, while the bite was painful, it was glancing; the snake did not squeeze down and inject venom. Still, that was the last time I held a live rattlesnake without using a utensil.

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I have always been an advocate for the slithering creatures. All snakes, including rattlesnakes, are very important members of the various biospheres in which they exist. The best method of dealing with them is to simply avoid them, give them their space, and move along. When a rattler coils and rattles, it is a defensive thing, not an act of aggression. They evolved their rattles as a warning to larger beasts that might step on them.

The San Diego Natural History Museum blog page on rattlesnakes notes, “Studies show that the largest group of people who are bitten by rattlesnakes are those who try to engage with or handle them.” Yup, I can attest to that. The best thing people can do to reduce interactions on their property is clear debris piles, keep weeds down — preferably before they go to seed, as that will draw rodents, which snakes prey upon — and mind their reach when working outdoors. With the wet winter, rattlesnakes will be more abundant this summer. Snake training dogs and advising children on what to avoid are also good practices.

There are several for fee snake removal services offered in San Diego County, or contact Animal Control in your area. In Poway, Trapper Pat’s Rattle Rescue offers free removal of rattlesnakes in the 92064 ZIP code, though tips are appreciated.

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Cale Morris of the Phoenix Herpetological Society using his fake leg to step on a rattlesnake during his research.
Cale Morris of the Phoenix Herpetological Society using his fake leg to step on a rattlesnake during his research.

Recently, a much-shared Facebook post by the Phoenix Herpetological Sanctuary about a study conducted by their rattlesnake expert Cale Morris caught my attention. Morris used a boot and pant leg on a stick to tread upon rattlers found in the wild, and the result was that only six of the 175 trod upon by the fake leg struck the boot. Three went into a coil position. The rest just froze in position or tried to get away. (And no, it wasn’t because the fake leg lacked a heat signature. Pit viper sensory glands are employed during nighttime predation, when the body heat of a rodent would stand out against the surrounding cool.)

My experience with rattlers began before I was five years old; my father used to milk them for venom used in studies and for anti-venom. He was installing air conditioning in Twentynine Palms during the mid-1960s, and on the side, he worked with a herpetologist named Ed Hayes. I can just barely remember terrariums with snakes inside them. Later, as an adolescent living in Arizona’s Avra Valley, I hunted for them as a kid might, checking them out, and even learning to handle them. I learned that by looking closely at sidewinder tracks in the sand washes, or dry rivers, I could tell in which direction they were traveling, and that some were “left-handed” and some the opposite. Once, I found tracks adjoining another set, making crude squiggly Xs in the sand. I followed them upstream and found the breeding pair in the shade of a Palo Verde tree overhanging the sand wash, still stuck together.

It was during those days that I was bitten, even though I had handled many snakes without incident. Gaining control of the snake by pinning the head down with a forked limb, then carefully grasping it just behind the head, wasn’t too hard. And as many of my friends were deathly afraid of snakes, it was a way gain some street cred, which I badly needed as a recent transplant from California. But on that occasion, I lost control of the head. Happily, while the bite was painful, it was glancing; the snake did not squeeze down and inject venom. Still, that was the last time I held a live rattlesnake without using a utensil.

Sponsored
Sponsored

I have always been an advocate for the slithering creatures. All snakes, including rattlesnakes, are very important members of the various biospheres in which they exist. The best method of dealing with them is to simply avoid them, give them their space, and move along. When a rattler coils and rattles, it is a defensive thing, not an act of aggression. They evolved their rattles as a warning to larger beasts that might step on them.

The San Diego Natural History Museum blog page on rattlesnakes notes, “Studies show that the largest group of people who are bitten by rattlesnakes are those who try to engage with or handle them.” Yup, I can attest to that. The best thing people can do to reduce interactions on their property is clear debris piles, keep weeds down — preferably before they go to seed, as that will draw rodents, which snakes prey upon — and mind their reach when working outdoors. With the wet winter, rattlesnakes will be more abundant this summer. Snake training dogs and advising children on what to avoid are also good practices.

There are several for fee snake removal services offered in San Diego County, or contact Animal Control in your area. In Poway, Trapper Pat’s Rattle Rescue offers free removal of rattlesnakes in the 92064 ZIP code, though tips are appreciated.

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