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A Bad Rap: Follow a few rules in rattlesnake country 

click to enlarge Whoa there, that's a western rattlesnake.
  • Whoa there, that's a western rattlesnake.
Whoa there, that's a western rattlesnake.
Among the magnificent variety of reptiles you may meet up with as you're wandering around the Northwest is the much maligned, greatly feared and infamous Great Basin Rattlesnake, a subspecies of the Western Rattlesnake, Crotalus viridis (spp).

Contrary to popular opinion, rattlesnakes are not "poisonous," they are venomous, and as such, they do pose a threat to humankind. However, the idea of "impending doom" to humans has been exaggerated to the point of absurdity. If you are in rattlesnake country, you should use the same amount of caution when you drive your vehicle through a construction project or school zone.

If you traveled any distance in a motor vehicle to visit the land of rattlesnakes, you have experienced a greater threat to your safety and welfare than meeting up with a snake. Motor vehicle accidents have killed and maimed - and are still killing and maiming - thousands of times more people than all the rattlesnake deaths in the US ever since we began keeping records about such things.

As an example, no one has ever been bitten by a rattlesnake in the 83 years Lava Beds National Monument in northern California has been in existence. However, on the highways leading to and from the Monument, thousands of people have been killed and injured in motor vehicle accidents.

If I had a nickel for every time someone told me how proud he or she was of themselves for killing a poor old rattlesnake that wasn't hurting anyone, I would be a rich man.

Looking at this from another perspective, rattlesnakes have no defense for onrushing motor vehicles. That's why, when you're traveling through Lava Beds, and other National Parks and Monuments where they ask you to respect the speed limit sign, you should do so.

A rattlesnake on the roadway has little to no sense that a motor vehicle is speeding toward them. They cannot hear or see it in time to avoid it - UNLESS - said vehicle is traveling slowly. Then they have a ghost-of-a-chance of getting out of the way, but unfortunately, that doesn't happen very often - especially after a thunderstorm has rolled through the countryside.

Rattlesnakes, gopher snakes, whipsnakes and others of their ilk often move to pavement pools to slurp up the fresh water. True, most reptiles do not require water, as they obtain such from the prey they eat. But like you and me, they also delight in fresh water when it is available. I sincerely believe it is your responsibility to see that they are safe in their desire to slake their thirst.

Please, when you're hiking, use plain old common sense and watch for rattlesnakes. When you are climbing in a magnificent, scenic rocky area, don't let the beautiful experience be ruined by worrying about meeting a rattlesnake. Just keep in mind you are in the snake's territory; it is your responsibility to stay safe; snakes have "Grandfather Rights."

Hey, look at this from a rattlesnake's point-of-view. Here is an animal that cannot tell the difference between a barn and an elephant at 20 feet. If it's big, doesn't move, and there are no vibrations coming from it, it's probably a barn. On the other hand, if it moves, and the snake can feel vibrations in the ground it could be an elephant, or truck, or cow, or whatever big animal, maybe even a hippopotamus.

To make things worse, the poor snake cannot hear anything; like me, it's deaf as a post.

When this "thing," whatever-it-may-be, gets close enough to the snake it may be able to taste it with its tongue and the "Jacobson's Organ" in the roof of its mouth. Tongue goes out, brings in sample of the air, sticks samples on Jacobson's Organ. "Ohhh, it's a cow," snake may think, if it CAN think that objectively.

A rattlesnake is known as a "pit viper," for the two openings on either side of their face, right below the eyes. The pits sense heat: "small amount of heat means small animal, probably good to eat. On the other hand, "lots of heat means too big to eat, probably best to get out of the way!"

That's sort of how it works. If the poor snake cannot outrun the large heat source, it coils up and prepares to defend itself. If it's you making all that heat and you are bitten, whose "fault" is that?

Here's a suggestion: take the time to learn a rattlesnake's rules for living and you will then be careful about where you put your hands and feet. If you are bitten, please remember that is not a "mean" snake. In the world of nature, there is no "right or wrong," "good or bad;" it just is.

There is only one organism on this beautiful old Earth we call home that has the ability to make those judgements - to be deliberately "mean," - you and me. It is up to you and me to watch for those animals that can hurt us; they have enough to worry about just trying to stay alive without us cluttering up their lives.

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