While in the hospital recovering from my bite, I did a lot of snake thinking and learning.
I became freakishly drawn to snakes. I read about them. I watched TV shows about them. I spent hours lying in bed with my laptop perusing the Internet for snake facts. I spoke to other snakebite victims. I spoke to snake experts. I spoke to snake bite experts. It was almost as if I was becoming a snake.
When I thought of swallowing mice whole, my mouth would start to water.
And although my life hasn’t changed much, I still hike the same trails and do all the same things—maybe with a little more caution.
What has changed is that I know a heck of a lot more about snakes, what happens when you’re bit by one, and what to do when you’re bit by one, than I did a year ago.
One of the first things I learned was that rattlesnakes don’t necessarily rattle before they bite you. Their first line of defense is to blend in with their surroundings. Many people who are bitten either step on a snake, like I did, or the accidentally put their hand on a snake.
It usually takes a serious threat to cause them to rattle—like a giant size 9½ running shoe crushing down on them.
Here are some things I learned that you should know:
Baby rattlesnake heading home.
1. Rattlesnakes rattle when they are scared: It is a warning, not an act of aggression. The snake that bit me did not rattle first—I stepped on it first. It bit me, then it rattled.
2. Rattlesnakes will not attack you. They are very shy and reclusive. They will only strike as a last resort. Given the chance, they move away from you every time.
3. Rattlesnakes are found only in North America, Central America, and South America. They’re found in 46 states, but not in Alaska, Delaware, Hawaii or Maine.
In our area, the rattlesnake is the only type of venomous snake that can actually harm you. And we have only one type of rattlesnake here: the Northern Pacific Rattlesnake.
So, if you are bitten in the Bay Area, there is no need to kill, handle, or identify the snake. Our snake, the Northern Pacific, is sort of middle-of-the-road as far as venom toxicity goes. However, they are known for releasing a lot of venom when they do bite.
I know this first hand. Actually, first leg.
4. The snake with the most toxic venom in the US is the Mojave green rattlesnake. This one is found in Southern California, not around here—thank goodness.
5. Some rattlesnakes give “dry bites,” which means that sometimes they don’t inject any venom. Approximately one third of all rattlesnake bites are dry bites. They may just give you a warning bite.
If that happens, you are considerably luckier than me.
6. Never pick up a rattlesnake. Some people think that if they grab a rattlesnake just behind it’s head and it can’t bite. These people are oh so wrong.
I watched a film of a rattlesnake being held just behind its head. This snake stretched out its neck, turned its head 180 degrees, and bit the person holding it. This happened so fast it had to be viewed in slow motion.
No touchy the snakey.
7. Rattlesnakes are a very important part of our ecosystem. They help keep down the rodent population, and in turn, they’re a food source for raptors such as hawks.
8. Never, ever mess with a rattlesnake. If you find one on your property, call Animal Control. There are also people called snake wranglers. They will drive out to your property and pick up a pesky snake. Snake wranglers will actually look for snakes and remove them for you, as a preemptive step to clearing your property.
9. Rattlesnakes are most active April through October. They are, of course, cold blood so they can move around better when it’s warm.
They don’t like really hot weather. They can easily die if they overheat. During heat waves, they seek shelter from the heat. During these times, they’ve been known to slip inside people’s houses. I know two people who were bitten this way.
10. Rattlesnakes are pit vipers. They hunt by sensing heat and using their tongues to smell. They hunt mostly in the evening and at night. Adult rattlesnakes eat mostly rodents, which are, of course, warm-blooded. Snakes can sense the heat of prey better when the air around them is cool.
11. Rattlesnakes shed their skins 2-4 times a year. Every time they shed they gain a new segment on their rattle. When the rattle gets old and brittle it can break off—just like a fingernail.
So you cannot always tell how old a rattlesnake is by how many segments it has on its tail.
12. During the winter, rattlesnakes hibernate, usually in groups. Sometimes these groups have been found to number in the hundreds. Around here the winters are cold enough so rattlesnakes do hibernate, but in areas like San Diego, you can find them moving about all year ‘round.
Next up, the answer to the controversial question: Which is more dangerous a baby rattlesnake or an adult rattlesnake?