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    Rattlesnakes on the prowl, officials warn

Wednesday, May 10, 2000

By CYNTHIA HUBERT Scripps-McClatchy Western Service

SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Drawn out of their dens by unusually lush spring vegetation, rattlesnakes are encountering and biting Californians this year in unusually high numbers, experts are warning.

The California Poison Control System recorded more than 40 cases of rattlesnake bites statewide in April, about a 25 percent increase from last April and a continuation of a trend that began three years ago, officials said. None of the bites were fatal but most of the victims had to undergo hospital treatment.

Although most of the bites occurred in southern California, experts in the north state said they are seeing more snake activity than usual as well, and expect it to pick up as the weather warms.

"More snakes are being seen by people, and what really concerns us is we are seeing more accidental bites," said Dr. Kent Olson, medical director of the San Francisco division of the poison control system. "People are getting caught completely off guard, getting bitten after putting their hand into a bush while gardening, or walking on a trail, or camping."

Traditionally, he said, most snake bites occur as a result of someone "hassling" the reptiles.

Snake experts said the apparent increase in encounters this year probably is a result of heavy, late rains that have produced vegetation in which rattlesnakes hide and seek food.

The building boom in foothill and other outlying areas also is partially responsible for rousting snakes from their longtime homes, they said.

"We live in rattlesnake country, make no mistake about it," said Len Ramirez, an Auburn snake wrangler whose business is capturing unwanted creatures and releasing them into the wild.

"Heavy rains in recent years have had a major impact on species at the bottom of th food chain. You have more vegetation, more lizards, more rodents, more opportunity for snakes to find food."

April is the beginning of rattlesnake season, when adults and babies are emerging from their winter havens, such as gopher and rat holes.

"Right now they're all waking up. They want food, then they want to find a mate and get on with life," said a Linda Boyko, president of the Northern California Herpetological Society.

Boyko said snakes generally shun humans and bite only if bothered. Left undisturbed, they do not slither far and use the same dens for generations.

"They don't want to bother you, they don't want to mess with you. They just want to be left alone," she said.

But they are apparently having a harder time avoiding humans.

Mike Walsh, a pharmacist in the Sacramento division of the poison control system, said his staffers have responded to several rattlesnake bite calls in recent weeks. "One guy was carrying in wood and was bitten on the finger. Another was 10 years old, also bitten on the finger."

Poison control experts first try to determine whether the bite truly came from a rattler, and not a harmless gopher or garden snake. "You look for fang marks, and you typically have intense pain and swelling at the site of the bite," said Walsh.

Tingling around the lips and tongue, abnormal bleeding and muscle weakness also may occur.

Bites are rarely fatal, but left untreated they can result in severe tissue damage or loss of fingers, toes or limbs.

Boyko, who also wrangles and relocates snakes, said despite their negative image, snakes have some good points. "They do rodent control, and they are an important part of the food chain," she noted.

In Folsom, where Boyko does most of her snake wrangling, "things are growing unbelievably fast and we are invading their territory," she said. "The snakes were there first, but people see them in their yards and the first thing they do is get out the shovel."

great books about rattlesnakes:
Rattlesnakes by Laurence Klauber (photographer)
Rattlesnake: Portrait of a Predator, Manny Rubio
Rattlesnakes : Their Habits, Life Histories, and Influence on Mankind, Laurence Klauber

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