I love snakes. What is not to like about a reptile that decided it didn’t need legs? The best snake of all in my area is the rattlesnake. Why?
Because so many people irrationally hate or fear them.
There is this huge mythology built up about rattlers. They don’t chase you. The don’t lie in wait for you. They can’t strike you from 6 feet away. A bite on the extremity won’t cause you to keel over dead in minutes. Most of the old school snakebite remedies do lots of harm and no good at all.
Out of the many millions of people who recreate in wildlands containing rattlesnakes, there are 5 deaths a year. All the caution and mindfulness I talk about in the following article is to protect you from a very low probability event. After you have seen a couple rattlesnakes from a distance, you’ll understand what beautiful creatures they are.
People who chase snakes, try to grab them, harass them, collect them, handle them without full precautions, keep them as “pets”, or kill them for rattlesnake roundups get little sympathy from me if they are bitten. Leave them alone and they will leave you alone.
Nicked his artery. That’s why so much blood and how it took him down so quick. His father died a few years ago from the same thing.
I usually see a rattler on average once a year. That is more than most people and less than some. When I do I consider it a special treat. They are not easy to spot and their first instinct is to keep perfectly still. It does not want you to know it is there. All kinds of predators are after snakes and they “key” on motion when they look for a target. Other snakes, roadrunners, coyotes, badgers, hawks, wild pigs, and eagles all consider them dinner. At some level, a rattlesnake understands that in a knock-down drag-out fight between it and any larger mammal, it will probably die. Even if it gets multiple bites in on a coyote, the coyote could kill it before venom takes effect.
It is because of this that only about half of all defensive bites inject venom. The others are referred to as “dry bites”. It wants to frighten you off, not eat you. Venom is expensive to make. If it injects something it can’t eat, there won’t be anything left to nail dinner with. If you have really pissed off the snake it will inject a full load. There is a (very small) chance it will nail a significant artery or vein and you will collapse very quickly.
(Aside: This is all instinctive. The snake does not literally consider its options.)
Rattlesnakes are members of the pit viper club. In the US it also includes water moccasins and copperheads. The venom of all these are similar enough that only one antivenin is produced, Crofab. But there is a fly in the ointment. Certain subspecies of the Mojave green and the southern Pacific rattler have pronounced neurotoxic ingredients that Crofab doesn’t do as well with. Crofab is best for rattlesnake bites that are primarily hemotoxic in nature. Hemotoxins break down capillaries and destroy blood cells. Neurotoxins kill by causing your nerves to misfire or fail to fire leading to breathing paralysis. The neurotoxic “type A” Mojave green is considered the most dangerous.
I do not worry about being snakebit while I’m hiking. I hike mindfully, with awareness of the trail ahead. I give a wide berth to bushes next to the trail. When I go off-trail I go slowly. I scan the area where my feet will go carefully. A walking stick helps considerably in pushing back brush that I might be going close by, parting grass I might go through and in warning snakes to leave. Given a chance, they want to avoid the encounter as much as you do.
When in snake country make sure there’s no snake on or right by the trail before you walk down it and stand still when you gaze at the scenery. Step on top of logs and rocks and then well over after you’ve looked where you are going. The same thing is true of climbing onto a ledge – look before you grab. It is all part of the discipline of never putting your feet or hands where you can’t see. You could step on or grab a snake you didn’t see.
I like to keep my dogs on a 26 ft. retractable lead and I don’t hike with more than one at a time. It means they will reach a snake long before I do. A snakebit dog is in as much trouble as you would be. You still want it with you on the trail, right?
One option is rattlesnake vaccine.
I am looking for a peer-reviewed study showing the effectiveness of rattlesnake vaccine. Haven’t found one yet. I have heard anecdotal evidence that it has some effectiveness. I have also heard anecdotal evidence of it rarely causing an autoimmune response resulting in idiopathic canine thrombocytopenia. Using it is an act of faith in your vet’s judgment and the manufacturer’s honesty. It should also depend on a realistic assessment of rattlesnake risks. I’m thinking “no” but my mind is open.
You could carry some rattlesnake antivenin with you to get an early start while self-rescuing or waiting for rescue.
Because of the Crofab US monopoly, antivenin is spectacularly expensive these days, running $10,000 per vial. A really severe envenomation on a dog might require several vials. A person might require several dozen vials. A few decades ago it was only a couple hundred dollars here and I kept a vial for emergency use under instructions from my vet. That same identical vial is lately $100 in Mexico. Think about it.
Another option is snake avoidance training.
I have no problem with mild electroshock for rattlesnake training. Other people are appalled by the idea and opt for kinder methods. I don’t want “kind“. I want my dogs to see a rattlesnake as an existential threat. I want them to know fear and I want their natural “warn the pack” instinct to kick into overdrive.
Locally, here, training rattlesnakes are real and not defanged and have been placed in cages located where you’d expect a snake to be. The “brutality” of a sting under the collar is insignificant compared to the brutality of a venomous snake bite. I know it works because of how my dogs react to rattlesnakes on the trail. If the snake stays perfectly still, they’ll walk right over it. I’ve seen that twice. (Apparently, not much scent to a snake and unless it moves a dog is unlikely to notice it.) If it moves, especially if it rattles, they back away from it, hackles up and growling. Staying perfectly still is the smart move for the snake.
The snake you step on or put your hand on will not rattle. It will bite first and then rattle. Occasionally a snake will have lost its rattle and can’t. Moccasins and copperheads and coral snakes don’t have a rattle to start with. Don’t expect a warning. Just watch where you put hands and feet and you’ll be okay.
Okay. Let’s say you’ve done something really mindless and you sat down on a rock without noticing the perfectly innocent Northern Pacific rattler curled up next to you, minding its own business and doing a bit of relaxing sunbathing. Bang! Something just jabbed a red-hot fork into your hand. It slithers away and then gives you a rattle. You’re thinking, “Why the &^%$! couldn’t you have warned me before you did that!?”
That is really how it happens. Snakes have a limited strike range, usually a half of their length. They aren’t going to chase after you but if you intrude on them, you can’t blame then for self-defense. The overwhelming majority of venomous snake bites on humans involve alcohol with adolescent and young adult males being the victims. Hand and feet are the most common targets. Amateur snake owners and handlers get a lot of bites too. You figure the rest out.
Now we have to deal with first aid and evacuation. You are not going to wait to see if it was a dry bite. You grab your SPOT or sat-phone or PLB and send out the message, “Rattlesnake bite, immediate evac”. Failing that, you start walking slowly and calmly to somewhere you have a chance of rescue. A permanent marker is useful to outline the discoloration progress after each hour. It is an important diagnostic in the ER.
First aid for a pit viper bite is easy. Treat it like any dirty puncture wound. Wash it with clean water or povidone-iodine if you have it. Apply some Neosporin or equivalent. A
small band-aid over each puncture hole. Hope your tetanus shot is current.
Remove anything that might be potentially constricting. Prepare for your arm to swell up to three times is size and skin to feel as hard as a rock. Anything like a ring or a watch or even a sleeve would constrict enough to cause compartment syndrome and you do not want that. Even without constrictions, 6 to 10% of the time the doctors have to do a fasciotomy just to keep the blood flowing enough to avoid gangrene.
That is it. There are no medicines to take, no heroic measures. (My vet recommends prophylactic antibiotics which I have with me. Snakes eat rodents and germs from them have just been injected into your system.) Keep the bite below the level of the heart and remove anything that might be potentially constricting. If you must walk, walk slowly and rest often. This applies to dogs as well. (Pound for pound, dogs seem to be a lot better at handling snake bite than people.)
Never apply any kind of suction on a pit viper bite on dogs or people. Very bad idea. Snake venom is designed to diffuse into your system almost instantly. Suction won’t get it out. (What it will do is collapse any remaining wound channel.) Suction also destroys local tissue by creating a hickey. Venom damage in that area will be enhanced.
No compression bandage nor pressure immobilization. Aside from the risk of compartment syndrome, you want the venom to very slowly diffuse into your system and dilute and be processed away by the liver and by antibodies your body will start producing. It travels through the lymph system and a compression bandage will stop that. It is also why you want to stay calm and still and keep the bite low. Excitement and exercise make the venom diffuse too quickly. No trying to massage the venom out. No electroshock, no cryotherapy and eating rattlesnake bush won’t help in the slightest. In the absence of antivenin, you must let nature take its course.
Only in the event that it is a coral snake bite would a constriction bandage be useful between the bite and the heart. Fortunately, coral snakes are relatively uncommon and don’t live outside the south.
Gila monsters can put a nasty bite on you too. Gotta be really stupid to be bitten by one.
A little knowledge is useful here. Rattlesnakes come out the most on spring days and in the cool of summer nights. Their heat vision is better able to spot a warm rodent against a cool background. Probably a large majority of rattlesnakes I’ve seen have been evening or night. Their biology works best between 70 and 90 degrees. If nights are cool they like to bask in the sun in the morning to warm up. If days are hot, they like to hide in shade or in the burrows of other animals. When it starts to cool in the fall they den up for the winter.
Should you see signs of rodents, you have a better chance of seeing rattlesnakes. Leather boots are effective against the strike. Even denim has been shown to offer significant protection.
Rattlesnakes are a part of the ecology necessary to control rodent populations. They are in their home and we are visitors. Given the low rate of rattlesnake envenomation of ordinary hikers and my personal experience of the effectiveness of avoidance training, I’m not letting snakes keep me off the trails