Rattlesnakes: Don’t fear the viper by Sheri Williamson
The return address on the envelope was in New York City.
I’d love to visit Arizona to see the hummingbirds, the letter began, but I’m wondering if I should be worried about rattlesnakes.
Thanks for your concern, I typed, but the rattlesnakes are doing just fine.
I immediately apologized for the flippant response and assured the writer that it’s all about what you’re used to. Venomous snakes don’t bother me because they’re something I live with, but muggers and pickpockets would make me think twice about exploring the Big Apple.
I added our standard educational spiel about rattlesnakes:
- They’re beautiful and interesting creatures in their own right.
- Being shy and mainly nocturnal, they’re seldom encountered by visitors.
- They’re more afraid of us than we are of them.
- You’re more likely to be hit by lightning than die from snake bite.
- The typical snake bite victim is young, male, and under the influence of alcohol and/or recreational drugs.
Start your visit at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson, I suggested. It’s a great place to get acquainted with all kinds of desert wildlife, including snakes, in a safe, non-threatening environment. And please let us know if you need any additional help in planning your trip.
We never heard from her again.
With nowhere to hide, a frightened Mojave Rattlesnake adopts an S-curve striking stance. © Sheri Williamson
Rattlesnakes are such icons of the desert that it’s hard to convince the average visitor to the Southwest that they’re unlikely to see a live one except through the glass wall of a zoo exhibit. Sadly, most wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s a shame that the demonization of snakes in our culture has made it almost impossible for people to enjoy them the way we enjoy birds, mammals, and even most other reptiles.
Though many people wouldn’t use this adjective, we consider ourselves blessed with viper diversity here in the Southwest. Our 13 rattlesnake species (of 16 found north of Mexico) range in size from the dainty Massasauga to the burly Western Diamond-backed and Mojave. They come in colors and patterns as varied as the environments they inhabit: black, rust, pink, olive, blonde, and gray, barred, banded, blotched, mottled, speckled, and of course diamond-backed. The legendary Sidewinder is a rattlesnake, too, though one with an unusual mode of locomotion adapted for sandy deserts.
A Banded Rock Rattlesnake retreats from an intruder © Sheri Williamson
Excellent camouflage plus sluggish behavior help to conceal rattlesnakes from both their prey and potential predators. Of course, you can’t avoid something you can’t see, and this rightly puts many desert travelers on edge. You could walk right by a rattler nestled under a bush or tucked away under a rock ledge and never be aware that it’s there. It’s a dangerous myth that they always rattle to let you know they’re there. They may not be aware of you until you’re too close, or they may opt to keep quiet if they don’t sense immediate danger. I’ve had a couple of close calls with quiet ones when traveling off the beaten path (another good reason to stick to roads and well-marked trails).
For such well-armed creatures, rattlesnakes are surprisingly timid. They’d prefer to avoid a confrontation with you, but most are so heavy-bodied that they can’t move very fast. Larger specimens in particular tend to stand their ground when threatened and wait for you to retreat. The appropriate response to seeing one in the wild is to stop and, if necessary, back off to a distance at which it feels comfortable (you’ll know because the rattling will stop). If you only hear one, the safest response is to freeze and determine where it is. Once you locate the snake, back slowly away until it stops rattling. Then you can enjoy it from a distance comfortable to both parties and give the snake enough room to make its getaway.
Though snakebites are extremely rare, it’s important to know what to do and what not to do. Despite what you may have heard about cutting, suction, tourniquets, ice, and/or whiskey, you risk complicating the injury and delaying expert treatment if you try any of these discredited first aids. Snakebite specialists now recommend just washing the site of the bite, immobilizing the affected area (below the level of the heart, if possible), and getting to a hospital as soon as possible. Our friend Alan Tennant, author of The Snakes of Texas, liked to emphasize this point by jingling his car keys when asked what snakebite kit he recommended.
Another dangerous myth about snakebite is that it’s important to catch or kill the snake and bring it to the hospital. All rattlesnake bites are treated with the same antivenom, so it’s not crucial for the ER staff to know which species it was. Leave the snake where it is and use your Audubon Guides app to identify it.
Rattlesnakes may not live up to their mythical reputations, but encountering one is still a thrill and a privilege. Be safe, and savor the experience.