In her sort-of-memoir Where I Was From, Joan Didion recalls her grandfather's philosophy about rattlesnakes: "If my grandfather spotted a rattlesnake while driving, he would stop his car and go into the brush after it. To do less, he advised me more than once, was to endanger whoever later entered the brush, and so violate what he called 'the code of the West.'" This article of the code, he insisted, was something newcomers to the Sacramento River Valley did not understand, a failure that was one of the major strikes against them.
That attitude persists in much of California today. Although the mass slaughters euphemistically called "rattlesnake roundups" have never caught on here -- they're more of a Southern and Midwestern thing -- preemptive killing of individual rattlers is not uncommon. (The first Mojave green rattlesnake we ever saw was lying in the middle of a road in a national park, still twitching a bit, as the driver who had run it over walked back, revolver in hand, to finish it off. Not a matter of mercy, he assured us: as long as it had a head, it might yet bite somebody.) Venomous snakes are still not cut a lot of slack.
But that's not universal. Rattlesnakes have their advocates.
We spoke with two of those advocates, one in the San Francisco Bay Area, the other in the Mojave Desert, who make house calls to remove unwelcome rattlers from private homes and commercial properties and relocate them to remote locations out of the way of human traffic. What they've seen over the years has given them a unique perspective on rattlesnake behavior and how the age-old interaction between rattlers and people may be changing as the drought drags on.
Rattlesnakes were here first, of course. They're all-American serpents, endemic to the New World, whose rattle-less pit viper ancestors crawled across one of the Beringian land bridges tens of millions of years ago. In a continent full of large clumsy mammals, a sonic warning might have helped ancestral rattlers avoid fatal trampling. (The sound of proto-rattles may also have lured prey within striking range.)
Native peoples in California had a nuanced relationship with these snakes. Rattlers were important to the Chumash of the Santa Barbara coast. According to Jan Timbrook's Chumash Ethnobotany, some Chumash believed they only bit with malice aforethought; not inherently venomous, they would fill up by biting into the root of the hallucinogenic jimsonweed. Specialist rattlesnake shamans used a parsley-like plant called chuchupate to recruit snakes for an annual rite intended to protect the community against snakebite. A decoction of chuchupate root squirted into the rattler's mouth through a cane tube kept it docile while the shaman danced with it -- solo, unlike the Hopi snake ceremony. The Chumash also thought carrying a piece of the root would induce any hidden snakes to reveal their presence by rattling, and used tobacco smoke to drive off rattlers. In the San Joaquin Valley, Yokuts women rubbed their legs with tobacco juice as a rattlesnake repellent before venturing into the grasslands to harvest wild seeds.
Rattlesnakes have signified in other cultures as well. In the last century, southern evangelicals seem to have brought their snake-handling practices to the San Diego area, although precise details are elusive. The temperamental rattlesnakes available in the West might have been more challenging than the docile copperheads and sluggish timber rattlers commonly used in Southern church services. For whatever reason, this is one esoteric religious tradition that did not take root in Southern California.
All of California's severely venomous native snakes are rattlesnakes. A number of California serpents other than rattlesnakes can produce venom, but not in quantities dangerous to humans. (Usage note: snakes and spiders are venomous; puffer fish, newts, and death-cap mushrooms are poisonous.) As with hummingbirds and orchids, rattlesnake diversity increases as you go toward the equator. Northern California has a single form, the northern Pacific race of the wide-ranging (British Columbia to Baja California) western rattler. The deserts are a hotspot, with western diamondback, Mojave green, speckled, and Panamint rattlesnakes, not to mention the anomalous sidewinder with its horned head and looping lateral gait. The striking red diamond rattler and the southern Pacific form of the western occur in the south coastal counties and down into Baja.
The red diamond rattler is an interesting case. A creature of the vanishing coastal sage scrub, it's the state's only rattlesnake species with any kind of protected status. Under state fish and wildlife regulations, residents may kill any other kind of rattlesnake by any means without a hunting or fishing license, subject to a two-snake bag limit. Since the red diamond has been designated a California Species of Special Concern, it's listed in the regulations with a bag limit of zero. In their Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles of California, Samuel McGinnis and the late Robert C. Stebbins called this a "paper protection." State law, as currently worded, appears to continue to allow the unlicensed and unrestricted take of any rattler. Janice Mackey of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife says this means it's legal for someone to kill a red diamond "on their property or where they felt their safety was threatened," although not to capture one alive. Along with other coastal sage scrub inhabitants, the red diamond rattler is covered by some of the multi-species conservation plans set up in Riverside, Orange, and San Diego Counties after the federal listing of the California gnatcatcher.
Snakebite happens. But it remains a highly unlikely event for most North Americans, and public health records and epidemiological studies suggest you really have to go out of your way to get bitten, let alone fatally envenomed. (The situation in places like West Africa, South Asia, and the American tropics, where a diversity of venomous, aggressive, and often arboreal serpents makes snakebite a serious health issue, is quite different.)
Herpetologist Harry W. Greene, who finds the distinction between "legitimate" and "illegitimate" snakebites useful, refers to "testosterone tyranny" and "young men [who] disregard or do not appreciate the inherent hazards of handling venomous snakes." We've heard others blame the lingering influence of the late Steve Irwin. Alcohol is also frequently involved; in one study (in West Virginia, not California), 40 percent of the victims had been drinking prior to being bitten. If the patchy data allowed the creation of the profile of a typical California snakebite victim, it might be some dude who has just said, "Hold my beer and watch this." Of 78 patients treated for rattlesnake bite at Loma Linda University Medical Center in 2003 and 2004, 65 were male and 63 had been bitten on hands and/or forearms. A longer-term study at a Fresno hospital found similar patterns.
Why would any sane and sober person intentionally pick up a venomous snake? If they're like Bert Lies of Joshua Tree or Joe Lam of Vallejo, it would be to get it out of someone's yard or patio and transport without doing it unnecessary harm. Both men have been doing this for a while, so far unbitten. For both, it's more of a labor of love than a paying gig. Lam and his wife Wendy Roz also promote understanding and tolerance of snakes and their scaly relatives through their nonprofit, JnW Reptiles.
Lam gets most of his rattler removal requests from Napa County, where northern Pacific rattlesnakes thrive as well as wine grapes. Lies says speckled and Mojave green rattlers account for 80 percent of his calls, with an occasional sidewinder and only one red diamond in seven years. Their experience of where unwanted rattlers are likely to turn up is mostly congruent. "People create their own private oases," says Lies. Pools, ponds, and irrigated landscaping attract birds and rodents, a veritable rattler buffet. "They eat more birds than people think," he adds -- finches, doves, Gambel's quail. In the last few years, Lam has picked up an increasing number of rattlers around private swimming pools. He speculates that the drought may make pools a magnet for the snakes' prey, and they've adapted to lurking in ambush under patio furniture.
The California drought has generated concern about an increased incidence of human-rattler encounters. As Lies sees it, the status quo prevails in the Mojave: He gets about as many calls as in pre-drought years, and most of the rattlers he sees are what he calls "middle-aged, between two and six years." Lam, though, has seen or heard about more rattlers in unusual places: a sidewalk on the outskirts of Napa, a college campus, a Starbucks parking lot. And the demographics have been different lately: more large adults (aged by size, in the four-pound, five-foot range; the number of rattles is uninformative) and this year, so far, no juveniles. "Something has changed," he says. What that might be -- a decline in the prey base? -- he can only speculate. For whatever it's worth, Lam is also meeting more rattlers that don't rattle.
Whatever the influence of the drought, Lam has had a busy summer. Statewide, the signals are mixed. Stuart E. Heard, executive director of the California Poison Control System, reports that 131 snakebite cases were called in to his office through August 31. That's trending behind comparable figures for the last few years: 231 through August, 285 total for 2013, and 220 through August, 268 total for 2014. (This may include bites by captive snakes, exotic or native, as well as al fresco rattler bites.) Heard also says the overall use of snake antivenin is down this year, which tracks with the lower number of reported cases.
Are there fewer rattlers around, or fewer Crocodile Hunter wannabes? Are Californians getting out less? Being more careful in rattlesnake country? Could the increasing price of beer be a factor? At this point, all open questions.