Rattlesnakes: your newest neighbors
By Chris Rooney
As temperatures rise, all forms of critters seek food, water, and a shady haven from the elements. Thanks to California’s prolonged drought — and landscapes still charred from fires — wildlife is encroaching on human habitats. The result is a significant increase in rattlesnake encounters.
“It’s not necessarily true that the rattlesnake population is growing,” said Roy Blodgett of Rattlesnake Relations. “The drought is driving snakes into further conflict with people. That’s where the resources are.”
Blodgett, who helps relocate rattlers that have become perilously close to houses, participated in an educational presentation at the Glen Ellen Forum monthly meeting via Zoom on April 6. Over the past decade, he’s helped usher snakes to safety — and away from humans.
During his presentation, Blodgett explained that the northern Pacific rattlesnake lives from central California all the way up to British Columbia. While variety may be the spice of life, having just one type of rattler in the region is actually beneficial because it makes diagnosing and treating bites that much easier, and only one antivenom needs to be in stock.
However, delving into venomous topics may be unnecessary: Blodgett said you’re four times more likely to be struck by lightning than bit by a rattler. And while he didn’t go so far as to utter the old trope, “they’re more afraid of us than we are of them,” Blodgett did state rattlesnakes pretty much want nothing to do with people.
“Of the hundreds of snakes I’ve relocated, they are always trying to get away,” he said, adding that snakes almost never want or seek out confrontation with people. Instead, they typically flee. “They don’t want anything to do with us.”
Still, he conceded that he’s receiving more calls about snakes found perilously close to houses. He explained that the long drought has shriveled the areas where snakes can hunt and find cool respite from the elements.
While snakes might be scary to some folks, it’s actually beneficial to have them in the neighborhood. After all, their prey — mice, rats, and vermin — are also moving closer to humans, and they create far more problems for people than snakes.
While Blodgett pointed to the drought as the main reason people might encounter more rattlers, he is interested in finding out if recent wildfires play a significant role. The burnt areas that once yielded lush, shady grasses — ideal shelter for snakes — have in many areas not grown back, he observed.
What should people do to discourage rattlers from moving too close to home? The first thing is to not create welcoming snake environs around the house, Blodgett said, such as woodpiles or leaky hoses or spigots. Also, anything covered in tarps inevitably creates a cool, moist region that will beckon rattlesnakes.
Sometimes, though, the problem is confounding.
Greg and Lani Muelrath’s property abuts Trione-Annadel State Park. As science teachers, they’re pragmatic about these things. “Rattlesnakes are part of our ecosystem,” said Lani Muelrath.
Still, one day last October, it seemed like the ecosystem turned on its head. They found six grown rattlesnakes on their property in one day. That’s more like an invasion than simply living in coexistence.
“It was very alarming,” she said. They called Al Wolf, director of Sonoma County Reptile Rescue. He’s been rescuing snakes and other reptiles for more than 30 years and had just made news for helping remove nearly 100 rattlers from a home near the Mayacamas Mountains.
Wolf tried to help the Muelraths reconfigure some of their grounds to make it less homey for snakes, but he couldn’t explain why so many appeared all at once. Since then, they have found one in March and another in April.
Greg Muelrath admitted that they “might not have moved” to the area if they had any idea of the rattlesnake problem.
What do you do if you happen to see a snake? If it’s close to home and needs to be deterred, Blodgett suggested that spraying a hose at its tail, more or less guiding it away, will usually do the trick. “They’ll move on to the next place,” he said.
And while this might sound like absolutely the worst idea in the world, you could also try your hand at rattler wrangling — training programs that teach folks how to use tongs to grab snakes and place them in a bucket for relocation.
If a snake bites, Blodgett said you’re not likely to die. However, “time is tissue,” he said, meaning the venom will cause necrosis and receiving treatment as soon as possible is vital. He suggested calling ahead to the hospital so that they can prepare an antivenom while you are on your way.
“It’s easier said than done, but try to remain calm,” he suggested.
Because people recognize the sound of a rattler and know to step back, it’s often pets that are vulnerable. Snake avoidance training programs are available for dogs, Blodgett said, and they should be repeated every year just before the warm months.
Xochitl Fisher of Valley of the Moon Veterinary Hospital agrees, strongly endorsing the aversion training course. She said most of the snake encounters she’s treated happened at Jack London State Historic Park and Sonoma Valley Regional Park. Depending on the year, her hospital treats between three and 10 cases. Overall, cases have gone down, she says, “because people are more aware.”
Still, prevention is advised. “A rattlesnake vaccine is readily available for dogs,” she said, along with boosters. Not unlike people seeking treatment, it’s best to call ahead to a veterinary hospital — instead of your veterinary office — to alert staff of your pet’s situation.
Rattlesnake antivenom works on dogs, but there’s worse news for cats. “Cats have an allergic reaction to the antivenom,” Fisher said, noting veterinarians would most likely just keep an eye on felines and treat symptoms as best they can. On the positive side, cats instinctively are less likely to pursue a snake in the grass: In this case, curiosity seldom kills the cat, but is more likely to harm a dog.