Monday, July 5, 2010


I consider it a privilege any time I encounter reptiles of any sort, but especially venomous ones. Maybe it is because I have been a “city kid” most of my life, and grew up in Portland, Oregon where rattlesnakes are rare, if not extirpated entirely, but I consider rattlers, copperheads, and cottonmouths to be beautiful serpents.

Don’t get me wrong, I have a very healthy respect for any creature that can kill me. Even in snakebite cases that do not end in fatalities, the experience changes the victim forever (or it should). The venom of most pit vipers (family Viperidae, subfamily Crotalinae) is “cytotoxic,” meaning that it destroys living tissue. This helps the snake in killing prey and beginning the digestion process before the serpent even eats its meal.

My most recent encounter was with a Western Diamondback Rattlesnake, Crotalus atrox, courtesy of my friend Margarethe Brummermann. We were walking her dogs (or vice versa) across her property and adjacent state land on the evening of May 22, 2010. The instant Margarethe exclaimed “Rattler!” I saw the snake, stretched out on the other side of a small shrub.

It was not an impressively large specimen, only about three feet long as I estimate it, but it certainly stood its ground at my approach. I was impressed that Margarethe’s dogs (the three that had stayed with us and not taken off on their own) sat patiently while I took images of the increasingly agitated reptile.

Rattlesnakes look plenty calm and placid when you come upon them, but can instantly slither into a striking coil. The sheer speed at which rattlers operate, and their maneuverability, is amazing. I once witnessed a Black-tailed Rattlesnake crawl backwards while maintaining a striking pose. This Western Diamondback gave an equally awe-inspiring display, rising from the ground in the classic S-curve of movie Westerns. I think even my camera was intimidated. That is the theory I have for why most of my images did not have the entire snake in focus.

I felt no need to further antagonize the snake, so left it in peace after about five minutes. I do wish more people did the same. Residents of Tucson suburbs and more rural areas frequently dispatch rattlesnakes on their property. Those with slightly more humane intentions call Rural Metro Fire to have the snakes removed and relocated. Budget cuts have rendered snake removal services almost non-existent this year, and research has shown that snakes relocated a substantial distance from their home range will often die anyway as they fail to compete with other rattlers, or are unable to find their way back to their winter den site.

One can argue convincingly that rattlesnakes are valuable animals to have around. They are very efficient predators of rodents like wood rats (aka “pack rats”) that otherwise wreak havoc by chewing the electrical cables inside vehicles, steal shiny objects, and harbor other pests like kissing bugs (assassin bugs in the genus Triatoma). Personally, I’d rather tolerate rattlesnakes than have to expend the time, energy, and cost to eliminate a rodent problem myself.

There is, of course, the flip side of the coin. The physical and financial anguish in the aftermath of a snake bite cannot be overlooked. Rattlers often deliver “dry bites” in self-defense, saving their venom for predatory activities. This is by no means the norm, however, and envenomation is nothing to trifle with.

It takes little time for the venom to have a catastrophic effect on a human victim. A bitten extremity swells to grotesque proportions as blood seeps from perforated veins and arteries into surrounding tissue. This damage cannot always be mitigated, and it is not unusual for medical personnel to amputate a digit or more in the interest of saving the person’s life. Antivenin, mostly derived from horse serum, usually prevents a lethal outcome, but if you happen to be allergic to horses like I am, things can get complicated. Then there is the cost: Evacuation to the hospital (often by air), administration of antivenin, and a hospital stay of several days or weeks. I hear that an average snakebite ordeal costs over $100,000. I’m certainly not going to confront a snake with that potential pricetag.

Unfortunately, our collective society seems bent on ridding the world of these marvelous animals. I urge my followers to show support for organizations like Rise Against Rattlesnake Roundups, and educate their friends and neighbors on rattlesnake avoidance for people and pets. Want to read more? Consider The Red Hourglass: Lives of the Predators by Gordon Grice (New York: Delacorte Press, 1998) and Zero at the Bone: Rewriting Life After a Snakebite by Erec Toso (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2007). Thank you.


  1. Nice pictures! Remember when we came back from Harshaw Rd and Randy told me over the phone that I shouldn't open the bin in the garage because a rattler was waiting for transport (away from the dog-run)? It was a very pretty buzzer, that is his rattle had only two members and he wasn't much over one foot long. But when we fed the dogs, Frodo stayed away with a sad expression: he had been bitten in the lower jaw. It's his third time, and he IS trained. Last time I paid $1500 for antiserum and IV. This time I just put him on antibiotics. Infection from snakebites is dangerous by itself. Our Quater-Coyote was fine the next morning and is completely recovered and very spoiled by now.

  2. I have never seen a rattlesnake while in Arizona, but then I'm there in winter, so they aren't generally out and about. I don't worry so much for myself, but for my dogs, especially my older dog as she knows I like to photograph frogs and snakes, so if she finds one, goes to it and stands watching me until I notice. When I was in southeast Arizona last year, I had to take my dog to a vet for something - not related to snakebites. I noticed an information display on some kind of vaccine type of thing which can be given to minimize the effects of a snakebite. I can't imagine such a thing working, but the literature seemed to imply that it does. I guess this is something only given to dogs or other animals and not to humans. It takes a couple or so injections to work. I'm curious as to whether such a thing would work and have asked around a bit. Others have heard of it too, but no one that I know has given it a try on their dogs. - bev wigney

  3. Well said! E. O. Wilson wrote a really convincing essay about why people fear snakes, which basically boils down to our primitive selves having a real reason to fear them - being eaten. People with mental disabilities also exhibit extreme fear of snakes - which I witnessed when I worked at a zoo. This could be because their brains are closer to our primitive ancestors and therefore these basic fears are emphasized. Still, the rest of us should learn about our reptilian friends and learn to a) avoid them and b) live with them. Maybe some day.

  4. Your snake post is a timely one. I was out walking with my puppy (10 months old now) about 3 weeks ago and a snake bit her.

    The snake was laying across the middle of a woodland trail, and neither me nor my puppy saw it. In a flash, I saw movement in front of her as it struck and then quickly moved off to the side of the trail. It stayed there, looking at us and rattling its tail in the dry leaves. At that point I got a good look at it and was dismayed to see it was indeed the only venomous snake in my area: a copperhead.

    My puppy acted fine at that moment, and I wasn't even sure the snake had made contact. I didn't see any obvious wound, but I picked her up and started making my way back to the car as fast as possible. It took an hour to get to the car and drive to my vet. They took her right in and examined her. A vet came out and asked plainly if I was sure it was a copperhead. I knew it was and said as much. At that point he said he did find puncture wounds on her chest, and I should go straight to the emergency vet.

    It turns out copperhead bites to dogs are not uncommon. Usually they are fine the next day. We had two things working against us. First, my puppy is small, only 15 pounds. Second, the snake struck her near her heart (usually they strike on the paw or nose). The prognosis wasn't good.

    Over the course of a few days she underwent a variety of treatments. One thing they didn't do is use antivenin. That's a last resort with dogs, because most have an adverse reaction. They kept her on IV, giving all kinds of meds and transfusions.

    The vet released her after a few days, but even at home she was having a rough time. One day at a time though, she started recovering. After a day she finally ate something, which was the biggest concern. Then after another day she started to show interest in her toys again. A few days later, she was eyeing the squirrels in the backyard. Finally, after a week, she seemed almost herself again.

    Now, three weeks later, she has a large scab on her chest where the venom collected and destroyed tissue. She may yet have to have some of that cut out and stitched up.

    Happily, she survived. Compared to the pricetag of human treatment you mentioned, we got out cheap (~$2500).

    On the downside, my wife has now declared that our dog can no longer accompany me on my outings :(. Formerly not much of a dog person, she realized just how much she's come to love our dog. I'm hoping she'll change her mind on that one.

  5. One of my volunteers Cindy told me the other day that a friend of hers has killed three timber rattlesnakes. She has tried to no avail to convince him to leave them in piece, but his fear is too great. He worries for his grandchildren who play in his yard where the snakes keep showing up. She told him that she would be willing to come and move them further away from his yard for him, but he won't wait. So many people have this extreme fear that it is hard to convince them that they need not worry to such extremes.

    I got a phone call two days ago at work from a man whole lives near Happy Holler Conservation Area in Savannah, MO, which is notorious for having numerous timber rattlers. He said that two have showed up in his yard this past week. He relocated the first one, but killed the second one since it was close to his basement door. He wanted to know what he could do to keep them out of his yard, and why they were suddenly coming into his yard. I told him the reason they are suddenly showing up on higher ground in backyards could have something to do with all the rain and flooding we've had in the area. Their normal habitats near the river are being flooded and probably forcing them out. To prevent them in your yard may be a little more difficult. I told him to put rat bait out in his sheds to eliminate or reduce food sources. Mow the grass as short as possible (this won't keep them out of the yard, but it makes the more visible), I told him to remove rock piles, brush piles, clean up any tall grassy areas in fence rows or near barns. In other words make it as inhospitable as possible and with any luck the won't want to be there. I gave him my number and asked him to please call me so I can remove them for him. He too has small children he is concerned for....which is understandable. We are seeing an increase in the numbers of these snakes that are being seen this year. On our farm alone three have been spotted in two weeks.