By Heather Constable, Campus Administrative Officer, UC Riverside NRS
Rattlesnakes are an uncomfortable fact of life in California. From the state line with Oregon, where the western rattlesnake holds sway, to the border with Mexico, where sidewinders rule alongside speckled, red diamond, and western diamondback rattlers, these venomous reptiles are notorious for frightening the snot out of their human neighbors.
However, few Californians know what to do when they encounter a rattler close to home. In recent years, that problem has become all too clear to Chris Tracy, director of the NRS’s Boyd Deep Canyon Desert Research Center. Located on the edge of the Coachella Valley, Deep Canyon abuts a luxe country club and golf course known as The Reserve Club. Tracy kept hearing hair-raising tales from club security who had been asked to remove rattlesnakes from residences and other buildings. The staff had relied on their own quick thinking and ingenuity, but admitted none of them had any formal training on venomous snakes.
As a remedy, Tracy hosted a Rattlesnake Safety Training workshop at Deep Canyon this fall. The workshop was led by biology professor Emily Taylor of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Taylor is the founder of Central Coast Snake Services (CCSS), which has provided free identification, removal, and relocation of rattlesnakes in Santa Barbara County since 2019. She gives workshops on rattlesnake biology, ecology, and pathology, as well as training on safe rattler relocation.
Security staff from The Reserve Club met at Deep Canyon’s new Tevis Building on Oct. 28 for a lesson on the life history of the genus Crotalus. Taylor outlined the critical role snakes play in food webs: to prey on lizards, small birds, and mammals, while being preyed upon by hawks, roadrunners, bobcats, badgers, coyotes, and other snakes. She showed photos of the five different rattlesnake species found in Riverside County, including the red diamond, a California species of special concern.
Taylor noted that drought conditions attract more animals than usual seeking food, shelter, and water near human habitation. Attendees noted that a golf course in the middle of the desert was an attractive place to find water. Taylor also spoke about the snakes’ acute sensory and tracking abilities, and the complex cocktail of proteins in snake venom that is used to kill and digest prey.
Most people know about the paralytic effects of venom, which can be quickly countered with antivenin. The digestive enzymes are what cause lasting tissue damage. Taylor emphasized never to cut open a snake bite or try to suck the venom out. Nor should bite victims be treated with ice or tourniquets. Current medical recommendations, she said, are to elevate the extremity to promote dilution in the bloodstream. Most important is to keep the person calm and bring them as soon as possible to a medical facility that keeps antivenin on hand. It’s always a good idea to know which facilities in the area stock antivenin ahead of time.
Taylor added that it is no longer necessary to know the species of snake to receive the proper antivenin. That means there’s no need to try to capture or take photos of the snake. Antivenin also can be very expensive, costing thousands of dollars per vial, providing yet another reason to let sleeping snakes lie.
What should someone do, then, when a rattlesnake is hanging around where it could endanger people, pets, or itself? Statistically, the most dangerous thing is to harass or kill the snake. Even a severed head can still inject venom. In many cases, the best course of action is to safely and humanely relocate the snake.
Taylor recommended using snake tongs—long pincers designed to pick up snakes while keeping them at a safe distance—to secure the reptiles. Taylor prefers 36-inch tongs made by https://www.whitneysnaketongs.com/. To hold the captured snake, she recommends a large bucket fitted with a screw top lid that won’t open accidentally during transportation. Screwing an eye hook into the lid lets one lift the lid on and off from a distance using the tongs.
Taylor then demonstrated how to use snake tongs with the help of Buzz, a recently fed and very docile Southern Pacific Rattlesnake. Reserve Club staff got to practice lifting Buzz in and out of a large bucket, then securing the lid while keeping hands, feet, and faces out of striking range. Some were eager to volunteer while others watched from around the corner.
Taylor also said that while removing a snake, it is helpful to minimize any distractions at the scene. That means requesting anxious, talkative homeowners retreat, removing barking dogs, or, in the case of an NRS reserve, asking excited and curious students to disperse someplace else.
Once captured, the rattlesnake should then be relocated to a safer spot. Ideally, Taylor says, find similar habitat with shade and protection no more than a quarter-mile away from where the animal was found. Because rattlesnakes are territorial, they will try to return to their home range if moved. In fact, a return to the snake’s own territory is the desired outcome, with the hope that the reptile will linger in a more discreet location in the future.