People who live in rattlesnake country learn to develop a healthy respect, and sometimes downright dislike, for the venomous critters. Unfortunately, many people feel it necessary to kill them, but herpetologist Dr. Emily Taylor is quick to dispel that notion.
“Most things you’ve heard about rattlesnakes are a myth,” she said to a class of Fort Hunter Liggett employees who wanted to learn how to understand and safely relocate rattlesnakes when they show up in unwanted places. “They don’t want to bite people, but they will if they feel their life is at risk,” said the Cal Poly herpetology professor, who also owns Central Coast Snake Services to help landowners relocate snakes and keep them off their property. “They are also important in rodent control.”
Employees in post housing, Directorate of Public Works, Emergency Services or the Safety Office, may be called on when a resident or employee discovers a rattlesnake posing a hazard to people or pets.
Understanding rattlesnake behavior is important, said Taylor, and avoiding them is always the best course of action. But when necessary, using the proper relocation equipment will assure safety for both the human and the snake. The star of the show was Buzz, a 23-year-old, well-fed and mellow southern Pacific rattlesnake, the species found in California’s Central Coast area.
Taylor assured the class that Buzz, with his full complement of venom, was used to being handled, but everyone had to sign waivers just in case. After Taylor demonstrated how to use a grabber and where to place it on the snake with a firm grip that wouldn’t hurt it, how to tie it in a bag and place it in a five-gallon bucket, and the best way to relocate it, everyone took turns doing the same steps under her supervision.
The first volunteer was Ann King, FHL Staff Action Control Officer, who was bitten by a baby rattler two years ago. “I don’t blame it,” she said matter-of-factly. “I accidentally stepped on it.” She said she was mad at herself because she was wearing sandals instead of the boots she normally wears. A quick trip to the hospital and an expensive dose of antivenin prevented major damage to her foot.
King learned how to properly contain the snake by setting a large white bag around the rim of the bucket, then carefully placing the grabber around the snake’s belly, standing as far from it as she could but still obtaining a good grip. Then she placed Buzz head-first into the bag in the bucket and helped the tail go in before she removed the bag to tie it.
“Sometimes they will try to get out,” said Taylor. “If they do, just start over.”
There was a special technique to bagging it to be sure it didn’t wriggle out. Then the snake was placed in the bucket and the lid fastened, first with the gripper, then by hand. Taylor said snakes should always be relocated within a quarter or half mile of where they were caught as they will be vulnerable without their normal shelters to keep them safe from hawks, eagles, and king snakes. “Release them in dense shrubs or rocks where they can hide,” said Taylor.
Then King reversed the steps and “released” Buzz. Everyone had a turn, and then Taylor coaxed Buzz into a clear plastic tube, business-end first, so everyone could touch him. His beautiful scales covered a surprisingly cool and muscular body. Taylor said the delicate rattles don’t necessarily tell the age of a snake, which can live 20 to 30 years in the wild.
FHL wildlife biologist Jackie Hancock arranged for Taylor to give two classes to employees. “I feel that the more people that are educated about rattlesnakes and their importance for our ecosystem, the better it would be for the snakes and our community,” said Hancock. “Dr. Taylor was on my graduate committee at Cal Poly so I was already familiar with her competence and expertise and knew the training would be excellent. She didn’t disappoint!”
Taylor said rattlesnakes have been documented to protect their live-born babies for the first two weeks, often within a protective nursery of other females. “Rattlesnakes are actually very good mothers.” They average three to six babies, but broods can be larger.
Hancock said that was the thing that surprised her the most about the presentation. “Not only was this a fascinating tidbit about rattlesnake behavior that I didn’t know, I also found it to be a relatable behavior and perhaps one that may help sway people’s perception that snakes are more than just cold, scaly reptiles. These are the gems that I look for as a science communicator—ways that I can inspire curiosity and compassion. I believe our class was indeed inspired and may have a new interest and respect for rattlesnakes!”
Hancock also emphasized they help keep down the population of ground squirrels, one of the biggest “pests” at FHL. (Rattlesnakes can also shelter in ground squirrel holes.)
Gopher snakes are often mistaken for rattlesnakes, especially since they can do a convincing imitation of one, even swishing their pointed tails in dry leaves to make a rattling sound. Rattlesnakes have blunt tails and are more likely to be coiled up than non-venomous snakes, which are often killed by people who think every snake is dangerous.
Jasmin Zamudio, supply technician at FHL Housing Office, said, “I have been really terrified of rattlesnakes but the instructor made me feel safe when it came time to handle it. This class showed me the importance of the snakes and the effect that they have on the food chain. I really liked that she took the time to show us the different types of snakes that are common in the area and explained to us the differences and how to tell them apart. I really enjoyed learning about the snakes.”
“It’s important to protect rattlesnakes here,” emphasized Taylor. “Respect rattlesnakes and give them distance. That’s our theme. But if they’re in your garage you have to know what to do.”