Leave them alone – they’ll leave you alone

By Tracy Demetropolis

CAVE CREEK — Spring means different things to people in different parts of the country. Spring to a Midwesterner might mean tulips and green grass, while someone in California might associate spring with wild poppies and beach picnics. In many parts of Arizona, spring means baseball, spectacular weather and rattlesnakes.

While many people cringe at the mention of the venomous reptiles, rattlesnakes are often misunderstood, according to reptile enthusiast Mark Paulat, who is an Interpretive Ranger at the Cave Creek Regional Park. Paulat caught his first snake with a fishing net at the age of seven. He’s been a fan of snakes and other reptiles ever since. 

Paulat cares for the reptiles and other critters at the park’s Nature Center. He said rattlesnakes are shy creatures who just want to “find food, water and a date.” People who live in “rattlesnake country” don’t get bitten very often, he said, but when they do it’s probably because they did something stupid like poke the snake with a stick.

“You live in the Sonoran Desert, but you’re walking in the backyard in the dark, barefoot? You have to use common sense because snakes are all around us. You just don’t see them most of the time,” Paulat said. According to the Arizona Game and Fish Department, Arizona has 52 species of snakes. Among those snake species, 13 are rattlesnakes. That means Arizona is home to about one third of the world’s rattlesnakes. Arizona also has dozens of other reptiles, including 49 lizard species and six turtle species. Eleven of the reptile species, such as twin-spotted rattlesnakes, Mexican garter snakes and ornate box turtles, are protected in the state and are illegal to collect from the wild.

“Ninety percent of rattlesnake bites occur on the hand,” Paulat said “What does that tell you? It means somebody stuck their hand in somewhere they should not have – like a hole or a bush – and they got bitten.”

While the snakes will usually rattle before they strike, Paulat said you can’t always rely on that sound to alert you to the fact that a rattlesnake is nearby. The snakes can actually lose their rattles; they can be damaged or fall off and the snake won’t make a sound, Paulat said.

“Rattlesnakes are harmless if you just leave them alone. We walk by them all the time and don’t even know they’re there. It’s when a snake feels exposed and threatened that they bite,” Paulat said.

Russ Johnson, president of the Phoenix Herpetological Sanctuary (PHS), said everything a rattlesnake does is instinctual. If they sense a large mass, like a human, coming toward them and they are not concealed, they will take a defensive posture and rattle. If the person comes too close, they will defend themselves by biting. But he said they don’t actually want to bite people.

“They don’t want to waste venom on a person they know is too big to eat,” Johnson said. “It could take six days for them to produce enough venom to replace what they lost biting you. They may only eat seven or eight meals a year, depending on the year, and if they miss a meal – like a rat – because they bit you, that could put them in jeopardy.”

Johnson is co-founder of PHS, a rescue and rehabilitation center with an onsite reptile clinic and research center located in north Scottsdale. PHS works with state and federal wildlife officials and law enforcement to care for and house unwanted or seized reptiles from across the country. For $75, PHS will remove and relocate an unwanted rattlesnake from someone’s property.

The most common rattlesnake in the Valley is Crotalus atrox, the Western diamondback rattlesnake. The Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum in Tucson describes the diamondback as a heavy bodied snake with a triangular-shaped head and diamond-shaped patterns along the back. The tail has black and white bands just above the rattle. The snakes also have two dark, diagonal lines on each side of the face, running from the eyes to the jaws. Paulat said those black lines do for rattlesnakes what black lines under the eyes
do for football players – they help them see better.

Johnson said rattlesnakes, who are cold-blooded, spend the cooler winter months underground, conserving energy. They may come out occasionally to sun themselves, but they won’t be as active as they are in warmer temperatures. He said the snakes are weather-directed and often come out in the early morning to bask
in the sun, trying to raise their body temperature.

According to the University of Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center, people can greatly reduce the possibility of a snake bite by taking the following precautions:

            Leave wild animals alone. Fifty to 70 percent of reptile bites managed by the Information Center were provoked by the person who was bitten – that is, someone was trying to kill, capture or harass the animal.

            Be aware of peak movement times. Reptiles in Arizona are most active in the warmer months of April through October. During the hottest months, they will be most active at night. They may be encountered during the day in spring and fall or during a warm day in winter.

            Watch where you put your hands and feet. Try to keep your hands and feet out of crevices in rocks, wood piles and deep grass. Always carry a flashlight and wear shoes or boots when walking after dark.

            Dead snakes can bite. Never handle a venomous reptile, even after it’s dead. Reflex strikes with injected venom can occur for several hours after death.

            Install outdoor lighting for yards, porches and sidewalks. (Motion-activated) If you see a venomous reptile in your yard, it is probably just “passing through.” But if you are concerned about a dangerous animal in your yard, seek professional assistance in removing it.

In part two of Rattlesnakes 101, learn how to keep man’s best friend safe, how to make modifications to your yard to help keep snakes off your property and what to do if you are bitten by a rattlesnake.