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.