Co-existing with Rattlesnakes

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I’m from the Netherlands where we don’t have rattlesnakes. I had recently ‘moved’ to California and had not seen, let alone heard a rattlesnake before, but when I opened the trailer door that summer night to let one of the dogs out, I knew immediately, possibly instinctively, that the loud, hard to describe sound that greeted me outside belonged to a rattlesnake. It resembled the rattling of the wooden children’s toy, but amplified and sped up, accompanied by an eerie harsh whisper-like sssshhhhhhhhhhh.

I must have spooked the animal with the sudden light beam erupting from the door swinging open. Grateful for the warning, I grabbed my eager-to-exit dog – she is blind and deaf, so had not gotten the message – by the collar, shoved her back inside and closed the door without even having seen the snake.

Curious, of course, I grabbed a flashlight and observed the beautiful 4-feet western rattlesnake from a safe distance. This was my first encounter with this species, but definitely not the last. I have seen many since as I live here in rattlesnake country, just a half hour drive from Hollywood’s Sunset Strip that, at some point not too long ago, was of course rattlesnake country too.

When you choose to live here, it is your duty to learn about these legless neighbors and how to co-exist with them.

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My first rattlesnake encounter

For uncaring people, finding a rattlesnake in their yard or anywhere else does not present much of a dilemma. They apply the ‘shovel method’, a disrespectful way to say they kill him or her with a gardening tool.

Killing rattlesnakes, or any other snake for that matter, is not only barbaric and cruel, but also ignorant, as snakes play an important role in the ecological system.

The natural diet of rattlesnakes consists of rats and mice, squirrels, young rabbits, gophers, small birds, frogs and large insects. They keep the populations of rodents in check. That’s how a healthy ecosystem works!

The above means that rattlesnakes do not deliberately stalk human beings. They do not see you as a food source.

It also means that if you don’t want snakes around your house, you should remove outside food sources, such as food waste, pet food and birdseed that attract rattlesnake prey. If there is no prey there will be no snakes.

Snakes do not built their own dens. They will utilize pre-existing shelters such as rodent nests and rabbit holes, woodpiles, rock crevices, garbage heaps, long grass, brush & undergrowth, piles of building materials or the crawlspace under your home. If you don’t want snakes in your yard, remove or make inaccessible potential shelters!

A short lawn or pavement offers no hiding places for snakes and makes it easy for you to spot a rattlesnake.

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You could build a rattlesnake proof fence around your entire backyard or, much better, a selected area where your children play, your pets frolic and you sit down to sunbathe, drink a beer, barbeque or read. Use mesh that is not wider than a quarter of an inch in diameter or use solid un-textured material, as snakes cannot climb smooth surfaces; they need grip. Construct a fence of a minimum height of three feet and make sure to remove the vegetation bordering the fence or anything else leaning against the fence that a rattlesnake might use to crawl over.

Know your snakes! The presence of some snake species can actually deter rattlesnakes. Gopher snakes defend their territories against encroaching snakes and kingsnakes, black racers and indigo snakes are ophiophages: they kill and eat other snakes, including rattlesnakes.

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Gopher snake
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Gopher snake, sometimes mistaken for a rattlesnake
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gopher snake

There are several types of snake repellents on the market, naphthalene flakes or mothballs (paradichlorobenzene or 1,4-dichlorobenzene) that you should ignore, as there is no proof that they are effective and, depending on use, these products might be bad for your health as well.

There are snake traps available, usually referred to as ‘snake guard’ or ‘snake trap’, open-ended flat boxes with a sticky bottom that work like ‘roach motels’. These contraptions are designed to get a snake looking for shelter stuck with his or her head inside. The victim usually dies from starvation, exposure or from being eaten by a predator or scavenger.

There are also snake fences for sale, which consist of synthetic netting on small posts about a foot high that you stake to the ground. They work in the same vein as the drift nets that are emptying the oceans of life: a snake that tries to crawl through the net will get caught and suffer the same fate as if he or she was caught in a trap.

Cruelty in any form to get rid of snakes should be unacceptable.

Killing a snake does not deter other snakes from coming to your backyard. If you don’t want a snake near your house, prevention is the only effective way and certainly the only ethical way.

Approximately 300,000 dogs and cats are bitten by venomous snakes each year in the United States, according to the Red Rock Biologics website, a vaccine manufacturer.

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One of my dogs, Manotas, in rattlesnake country

Some dog owners pay for ‘avoidance training’ to get their dogs to steer clear of rattlesnakes. Electrical shock collars are used as ‘negative stimulation’ on the dogs and live, rendered-harmless rattlesnakes are exploited for the dogs to encounter before being shocked. This is inherently cruel to both species. It is also questionable if the training is effective. A running or playing dog might never even notice the snake that ends up biting him or her.

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A vaccine, licensed by the United States Department of Agriculture, Crotalus Atrox Toxoid was developed to provide protection for dogs against Western Diamondback Rattlesnake venom. Because of the similarities in the venom, “this vaccine may also provide protection against the venoms of the Western Rattlesnake (including the Prairie, Great Basin, Northern and Southern Pacific varieties), Sidewinder, Timber Rattlesnake, Massasauga and the Copperhead. Partial protection may be obtained against Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake venom, but does not provide protection against venom from the Water Moccasin (Cottonmouth), Mojave Rattlesnake or Coral Snake”, according to the manufacturer.

The treatment in no way provides immunity! Vaccinated dogs are said to experience less pain, less swelling, less tissue damage, experience a faster recovery and have a reduced risk of permanent injury from rattlesnake bites than unvaccinated dogs, but there seems to be little scientific data to back up these claims.

UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine states on the subject:

“…Although there may be circumstances where a rattlesnake vaccine may be potentially useful for dogs that frequently encounter rattlesnakes, there remains little fact-based data to support the efficacy of the vaccine to date.”

Vaccination might buy you a few extra minutes to reach a vet, but, again, prevention is the way to go: Keep your dog on a short leash, walk them in the early morning when snakes are less active, stay on clear trails and avoid rocky and overgrown areas.

Snakes don’t have ears; they sense movement from vibrations rather than sound! They’ll probably be aware of your presence long before you are aware of theirs.

A rattlesnake’s first line of defense is to remain motionless or retreat. Rattlesnakes use their color and pattern to blend into their surroundings to hide from both prey and predators. They often hunt by sitting still, waiting for a prey animal to pass within striking distance. They do not rattle, because that would give away their location.

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If you surprise or threaten a rattlesnake they offer an audible warning, but they will still do everything they can to avoid confrontation and to avoid striking, biting and using up their valuable supply of venom. Venom is intended to kill and digest prey, so they’re reluctant to bite, and 25 to 50% of all bites are dry – no venom is injected, according to Herpetologist Leslie Anthony.

A snake is a very vulnerable creature: no legs, no ears, bound to the ground, no body armor to speak of, no formidable size, not particularly fast, but tasty to many carnivorous and omnivorous predators. Poisonous venom is their last line of defense.

A rattlesnake fang has an opening near the end, connected by a duct to a poison gland behind the eye. Normally, the fang lies against the roof of the mouth, but when needed, the fang is pushed forward and the poison injected into the deepest part of the wound.

They will not strike without a reason, but they will aggressively defend themselves. A snake’s instinct is to protect itself! With his or her body partly coiled and the tail rattling loudly, the head up ready to strike, a rattlesnake will normally give you a last, very clear warning to not come any closer or (s)he will attack!

Remember, however, that there might not be an audio warning. Young rattlesnakes are born with fangs and venom but will not produce a rattle for the first couple of weeks. Rattles on older snakes may be broken off, malformed or silent. Wet snakes are said not to rattle. Do not rely on the rattler as the only form of identification!

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There has been a lot of discussion lately about rattlesnakes that are said to have evolved to remain silent instead of using their rattle as a warning. Some claim that rattlesnakes that do not rattle to remain undetected are less likely to be discovered and killed by humans, and that this trait is passed on to succeeding generations.

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At the Wildlife Waystation, where all accompanying photos were taken, the rattlesnakes rarely rattle and are not aggressive. The (wild) snakes are truly protected here; no one will kill or harass them and they might have learned that.

If ‘hot’, meaning aggressive, snakes are encountered on the property, they usually look very skinny which is abnormal as there is plenty of food around on the sanctuary and ‘our’ rattlesnakes are normally well fed and happy. The suspicion is that these are snakes removed from urban yards and dumped in the canyon by ‘exterminators’. Sometimes new snakes, displaced by brushfires elsewhere, move in from the outside.

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In the end the duty really rests with you to avoid being bitten: behave responsible, with common sense, be alert if you live in rattlesnake habitat. Be wary, be certain and keep safe. Leave the snakes alone!

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Snakes are ectothermic, which means that their body temperature adjusts to that of the environment. If the air temperature is low, they will seek warmer spots, position themselves on surfaces that absorb heat from the sun. In the heat of summer they will protect themselves from overheating by taking cover in the shade of rocks and vegetation during the day and become more nocturnal, coming out in the cool of the evening or the night. The ideal air temperature for rattlesnakes lies between 70° and 90°F or 21° to 32°C.

If you really have to move a rattlesnake, spraying cold water from a distance might just work, as they do not want to cool down too much.

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Never pin – holding the animal down with force at their necks – a rattlesnake. It is harmful to them and traumatic, as predators will normally attack their necks and heads in an attempt to avoid the fangs.

If you absolutely need to handle them use snake hooks or snake tongs.

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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) “[i]t has been estimated that 7,000–8,000 people per year receive venomous bites in the United States, and about 5 of those people die.”

More than half of all rattlesnake bites are provoked by the person bitten!

A 1988 USC Medical Center (Los Angeles) study found that 44% of snakebites were accidental, more than half resulted from the victim handling a snake, 28% of the victims were intoxicated and 90% of the victims were male, most of whom were in their 20s. In other words, stupidity is the main reason for people to get bitten by a snake.
Most snakebites are avoidable by leaving the snake alone. Don’t try to catch, kill, handle or provoke and harass a rattlesnake into acting in self-defense.

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Watch where you walk and where you put your hands. A rattlesnake’s striking distance can be up to one third to one half of its overall length. Rattlesnakes can swim and can climb trees!

Juvenile rattlesnakes can be very small and just as dangerous as adults.

The summertime nocturnal habits of rattlesnakes mean they come out when human eyesight starts to fail. Use a flashlight when walking about and wear good footwear.

As the majority of bites occur on the hands, arms, feet, lower legs and ankles, clothing is an important defense against snakebites.

If you go hiking off the beaten path, make sure your cell phone is charged (only useful when there is cell phone coverage and then you are not that far off-the-beaten-path after all) or even better, take a buddy.

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Keep alert as you hike, walk, climb. Stick to well-used trails and do not wander off into rocky areas, tall grass, underbrush and weeds. Step on and not over logs and rocks. Do not stick your hands in places where you cannot see them. You could carry a stick to thump the ground. Don’t sit down on tree stumps, logs or rocks without first checking the surroundings.

Check a campsite before setting up. Arrive in daylight and set up in daylight. Shut the tent flap at night and check before going to bed that no snakes are inside.

When you encounter a snake that you think might be poisonous, keep calm. Send children, pets and scared adults indoors or a safe distance away.

Don’t do anything to provoke the snake, move away slowly and leave it alone.

Again, most rattlesnakes will only strike if acting in self-defense. If you remain out of the way, there will be no harm done.

Make sure that young children understand the dangers of rattlesnakes, know what to do to avoid a rattlesnake encounter and how to behave if they do encounter a rattlesnake.

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Relocating a rattlesnake isn’t necessarily a humane option. Rattlesnakes use familiar dens to survive colder spells and predation. Female rattlesnakes give birth around their dens in fall and the young benefit from that security.

An early 1990s study radio-tracked timber rattlesnakes in Pennsylvania to compare behavioral differences between snakes that had always lived in a particular area versus snakes that had been relocated to that area from 5 to 107 miles (8 to 172 km) away. According to the authors the “results clearly indicate that long-distance geographic translocation (i.e., relocation) results in decreased survival and an alteration of the behavior of C. horridus. Specifically, translocated snakes made frequent and extensive movements. The pattern of movements suggested either the snakes were searching for familiar environmental features, or they were exploring the new territory in order to become familiar with the existing conditions. Translocated snakes suffered from higher rates of overwintering mortality, predation, and disease than did residents. Only four snakes out of 11 (36.7%) are known to have survived through two complete active seasons following translocation.”

If you need to relocate a snake, only take him or her a short distance from your house or work location, no more than a couple of hundred meters. This allows the animal to stay within the area it knows and close enough to its den to find it back.

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Even when observing all precautions you can still just have bad luck. Rattlesnake bite symptoms may include:

-Puncture marks at the wound

-Redness and swelling around the wound

-Pain at the site of the wound

-Nausea and vomiting

-Labored breathing

-Blurred vision

-Increased salivation and sweating

-Numbness or tingling around your face and/or limbs.

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First aid measures you can and should take in case of a (suspected) rattlesnake bite:

– Get some distance between yourself and the snake.

-Remain calm and immobile! Panic and activity will increase your heart rate and spread the venom through your body faster.

-Seek medical attention as soon as possible. Dial an emergency number or call out for help and/or secure prompt transport to a hospital emergency room.

– Remove jewelry, watches, tight clothing, shoes and other constricting items from the affected area. Bites from venomous snakes can cause rapid and severe swelling.

-Try to remember the color and shape of the snake or take a photo. The identification of the snake can help with the treatment of the bite.

-Lay or sit down with the wound below the level of the heart. Elevation of the bite will increase circulation and spread venom more rapidly.

-Clean the wound with soap and water, but don’t flush.

-After cleaning, cover the wound with a clean, dry dressing.

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If you’re out in the wilderness, without a chance of help, stay calm and inactive, get as comfortable as possible and wait for the venom to leave your system. In most cases, snakes don’t inject enough venom for the bite to be fatal.

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Don’t:

-pick up the snake or try to catch it in any other way.

-go on a revenge killing spree.

-wait for symptoms to appear; if bitten, seek immediate medical attention.

-apply a tourniquet. It could restrict blood flow to such an extent that the resulting damage is worse than a snakebite.

– make an incision of any kind. It could cause infection and worsen the wound.

-suck out the venom. You could poison yourself and it is important to retain traces of the venom for identification.

-apply ice or immerse the wound in water. Ice could do more damage than good.

-drink alcohol or caffeinated beverages or administer drugs or medications. All of these can increase your heart rate and spread venom faster. Instead, stay hydrated with water.

If the snake that bit you was venomous, you’ll likely get treated with antivenin, a combination of antibodies made to counteract snake toxins, in combination with a broad-spectrum antibiotic to prevent infection. A tetanus shot may also be given.

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An exceptionally cruel and ignorant way to ‘deal’ with rattlesnakes is still practiced in some areas of the states of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Alabama and Georgia and is referred to as roundups. A roundup is a carnival-freak-show-kind of redneck-hillbilly gathering where each year tens of thousands of rattlesnakes removed from the wild are displayed and slaughtered for entertainment, food and profit.

The claim is that roundups prevent rattlesnake overpopulation, but the mechanisms to keep a natural balance in a healthy ecosystem work in all directions. Snake populations themselves are maintained by prey abundance, levels of predation by their natural enemies and disease. This means humans do not have to cull or otherwise remove snakes (or any other native animal!) to ‘manage’ nature! Nature needs no human managing, it needs to be treated with respect and that means in most cases leaving it alone!

There are no ‘bag’ or ‘take’ limits for roundups and there is no monitoring or reporting. The collectors are rewarded cash prizes for bringing in the highest number and biggest snakes.

An estimated 80% of rattlesnakes at roundups are collected by ‘gassing’: Gasoline or ammonia is dispersed from a pump-up sprayer into suspected rattlesnake dens to intoxicate and irritate the animals, forcing them to emerge so they can be captured.

The ‘gassing’ method is controversial as it pollutes surrounding land and water and may impact up to 350 other wildlife species as collateral damage that share the same burrows with the rattlesnakes; many of these are insect species, but also other snake species.

29 States have already banned the practice of ‘gassing’ rattlesnakes.  A proposal to ban ‘gassing’ in Texas was introduced in late 2014, but was killed by Texas Parks and Wildlife by removing the proposal from their November 2016 agenda. The commission “decided that, at this time, there is insufficient support from legislative oversight or the potentially regulated community for the department to move forward with regulating the use of gasoline to collect rattlesnakes”, John Davis, wildlife diversity program director at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, said at the time. Rattlesnake roundups depend on the ‘gassing’ method of take and had lobbied hard to can the bill. Roundups are defended as a cultural tradition and beneficial to the communities because it brings in money.

The practice has likely contributed to the decline in some rattlesnake species. In March 2016, the Sweetwater Rattlesnake Roundup collected and slaughtered more than 21,000 rattlesnakes. In a 2006 paper, the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists estimated that 125,000 rattlesnakes were being killed annually for roundups at that time. This barbaric practice has to end!

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People and rattlesnakes can peacefully co-exist, and if you use common sense, the chances of being bitten are very low. The best protection against rattle- and other venomous snakes is awareness, knowledge and prevention.

References:

http://www.wikihow.com/Avoid-a-Rattlesnake-Attack

http://www.wikihow.com/Prevent-Snake-Bites

http://www.wikihow.com/Treat-a-Snake-Bite

L. Walker, J. A. Dorr, R. J. Benjamin, & G. R. Pisani (2009). Successful relocation of a threatened suburban population of timber rattlesnakes (Crotalus horridus): combining snake ecology, politics, and education IRCF Reptiles and Amphibians, 16 (4), 210-221

Nowak, E.M., Hare, T, & McNally, J (2002). Management of ‘‘nuisance’’ vipers: effects of translocation on western dia- mondback rattlesnakes (Crotalus atrox). Biology of the Vipers, 533-560

R. Mohr (2010). Autoecology of the timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) in the South Carolina mountains Dissertation, Clemson University

Reinert, H., & Rupert, R. (1999). Impacts of Translocation on Behavior and Survival of Timber Rattlesnakes, Crotalus horridus Journal of Herpetology, 33 (1) DOI: 10.2307/1565542

Sealy, J. (1997). Short-distance translocations of timber rattlesnakes in a North Carolina state park: a successful conservation and management program. Sonoran Herpetologist, 10, 94-99

http://www.californiaherps.com/info/rattlesnakeinfo.html

http://www.californiaherps.com/identification/snakesid/rattlesnakes.html

http://www.californiaherps.com/snakes/pages/c.o.helleri.html

http://www.wideopencountry.com/proposed-ban-on-gassing-rattlesnakes-in-texas-is-stopped-dead-in-tracks/

http://www.planetexperts.com/stop-gassing-rattlesnakes-texas/

https://www.snakes.ngo/stop-snake-slaughter/

http://www.statesman.com/news/potential-snake-gassing-ban-killed-texas-parks-and-wildlife/IyEb1P2XcG2vNmI8r7CxkJ/

http://www.reptilesmagazine.com/Venomous-Snakes/Rattlesnake-Roundups/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1026007/pdf/westjmed00137-0039.pdf

https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/snakes/

https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/snakes/symptoms.html

http://www.redrockbiologics.com/rattlesnake_vaccine_faq.php

https://www.animalnaturopathy.org/rattlesnake-vaccine-for-my-dogs-no-thanks/

http://www.vetmed.ucdavis.edu/whatsnew/article.cfm?id=1883

http://wildlifewaystation.org

http://www.californiaherps.com/identification/snakesid/common.html

http://animals.mom.me/snakes-can-eat-rattlesnakes-8155.html


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