Rattlesnake Danger – Optional, Avoidable, and Mostly Mythology

The author of the following article, Bryan D. Hughes from Rattlesnake Solutions LLC, will be the guest speaker at the January 17 general membership meeting of the SHA.

Rattlesnake Danger – Optional, Avoidable, and Mostly Mythology

“Rattlesnake Attack!”, or “Dog Saves Man from Rattlesnake”, both popular titles in the newspaper around the country, are completely bogus. On Twitter, a running search feed for #rattlesnake spits out a never-ending stream of things like “I saw a rattlesnake. It almost killed me”, and of course, “Had to kill a rattlesnake again.” For as silly as the other statements are, I’ll focus on that last one. Had to, kill, a rattlesnake, again. One of those words belongs, the others are optional.

This isn’t a popular perspective of course, especially with rattlesnakes and their role in some of our lives deeply entrenched in Western culture, but it is a factually correct one.

One thing is clear in my work as a rattlesnake relocation and prevention expert in Phoenix, Arizona – property owners who go after every snake they see with a shovel don’t lose any more horses, dogs, kids, or sleep than the ones that do not. Yes, it is quite true, despite the common scolding I receive from ranchers with tales of 6′ rattlers attacking horses, killing rattlesnakes is an absolutely useless action. It may result in a Facebook profile photo of the hero holding up the dead rattlesnake by the tail and give a slightly more interesting set of stories for the dinner table, but does little else. In fact, this is a great way to earn an expensive helicopter ride to the hospital. “Had to” is myth. “Want to” is more accurate.

A little trick I’ve learned that seems to calm even the most terrified snake encounter screamer is to say that the buzzing reptile in front of us is not aggressive, but defensive. There is a huge difference between the two. Every animal on the planet will try to prevent its own death, and that’s all this slow-moving piece of protein is trying to do, against an onslaught of predators intent on eating it. Rattlesnakes will, when attacked, defend themselves as anyone would do in a life-or-death situation. Like us, they’ll put on a big show to try and look scary, and also like us, they’ll use a weapon if need be. When put like that, a shovel-wielding hero defies common sense by choosing to engage in a situation that forces the snake to defend itself.

So what happens if it ‘escapes’? Won’t it just murder the entire family at the next weekend BBQ? If you live where rattlesnakes are, the fact is that there are always rattlesnakes. Very secretive, great-at-hiding, completely not wanting to get tangled up with any people rattlesnakes, all over the place. Seeing a rattlesnake is not a significant event; the property is not any more or less safe than it was the hour before or after, and most actions to deal with the snake do more to calm the nerves than resolve the situation.

Yet, in some cases, something must be done. Now we come to the “kill” portion of our statement. “Had to kill”. With the fired departments, animal rescue organizations, humane societies, reptile associations, and numerous services ready to come safely capture a snake, “kill” is never a “had to” situation. A snake bite to the hand of a rancher who’s dispatched 20 of the things and declares themselves to be experienced will cost over $100,000 – the cost to have the animal safely relocated will be around $100 or less. Even to the most empathy-challenged animal hater, the math is clear.

On a personal note, to all the men out there, on the subject of “kill”: besting a stationary animal that’s giving fair warning with a shotgun is not heroic, and actually a little embarrassing if you think about it. If these relatively small, shy, slow creatures are truly an epic adversary, it would seem much more of a unique story to face it and walk the other way. I think that’s called “be the better man”; not letting fear dictate action. It might just be that I have a great father who taught me that just because I don’t understand or like something doesn’t make it bad, but I’d hope that’s just a bit of common humanity that sometimes gets lost in the moment.

Back to dissecting that phrase, we’ll go to the best part: “again”. Wait … I thought you had killed the rattlesnake already. Didn’t decapitating the previous roving monster guarantee future safety?

Here’s a little hypothetical experiment – hypothetical because it’s so obviously predictable that nobody actually needs to do it. Put last night’s leftovers out on the porch, and come check it the next day. Uh oh, there are flies! Kill the flies, and try it again the next day. Oh my dear lord, there are even more flies! Kill them all, and repeat. Flies. Kill. Flies. Kill. Exhausting! So how do you get rid of the flies? Yes, throw the meatloaf in the trash and be done with it.

Many of the properties I visit where horses are present have this issue. They leave the meatloaf out and then are surprised when flies show up again and again. Of course it’s not exactly that simple with rattlesnakes, but the “well, duh” bouncing around in your head while reading the previous paragraph still applies. Even if you absolutely despise all forms of reptile, you have options. Stop inviting them in:

  • Control your water. Keep water for animals up off the ground, fix leaky faucets, and don’t create an oasis where none exists.
  • Rattlesnakes eat rodents, and will be attracted to anywhere that they can be found in abundance. Bring the dog food inside or store it in plastic tubs, keep the property free of edible refuse, and get rid of the squirrel-feeder.
  • Eliminate hiding places. Clean up that pile of boards, seal the foundation of the buildings, and keep the property as free of needless refuse as possible.
  • Rotate the hay. I’ve seen countless properties where a persistent 10″ of rotted material exists as the bottom layer in the stack – full of nesting rodents and moist, warm conditions as the material decomposes.
  • Keep compost out of reach of rodents. Rubber garbage cans do well for this.

Even a minimal amount of work towards any of the above can have a huge affect on the number of snakes a property can have in an given year. If you do not offer food, water, or shelter in quantities above surrounding habitat, there will not be any reason for rattlesnakes to come in.

So what is the actual danger? Rattlesnakes do have a quite venomous bite. It can lead to death of pets and livestock, and very occasionally the death of a person. They should be avoided, all agree. Even the rattlesnake with its buzzing warning agrees; let’s just avoid one another, and everything will be alright.

Yes, sometimes horse takes a bite to the nose, or a family dog is unfortunately lost to a rattlesnake. The same is said of the latter by car traffic – where the corrective action is to lower the speed limit rather than blast at pasting cars with a rifle. Rattlesnakes are simply one of the factors a property owner must take into account, so let’s all calm down, take a breath, and let logic prevail. Rattlesnakes can be dangerous creatures, but that danger is most often a choice.

Bryan D. Hughes
Owner, Rattlesnake Solutions LLC