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Rattlesnakes Biting Californians More Than Usual in 2014

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Even the cranky and highly venomous Mojave green would just as soon leave you alone | Photo: squamatologist/Flickr/Creative Commons License

2014 is on track to be one of the worst years for rattlesnake bite in the last decade, according to figures provided by the California Poison Control System (CPCS). Just halfway through the traditional snakebite season, the number of snakebite victims treated in California hospitals is more than half the total for all of 2013. And so far, 2014's rattler bite tally is within striking distance of half of the total for the full 2012 season, which was the worst in the last 10 years.

As of Thursday, June 12, reports CPCS, 128 Californians sought medical attention after being bitten by a rattlesnake. That figure is more than half last year's total of 220, and it's alarmingly close to half 2012's total of 278 snakebites requiring medical attention.

Though rattlesnakes are often active year-round in some parts of the state, our traditional snakebite season tends to run from April through September. That means that if the pace of snakebites so far in 2014 holds steady, this could easily be the second-worst year for snakebites in the last ten years.

Those figures are almost certainly incomplete: CPCS can only report on those snakebite incidents it hears about. The figures also don't include snake bites reported to CPCS as having been treated "on site," meaning without medical intervention. According to CPCS's Justin Lewis, "on-site" reports likely include a fair number of "mistaken identity" bites wrongly attributed to rattlers. "We'd never recommend someone bitten by an actual rattler go the on-site route," said Lewis.

Though it's hard to track down peer-reviewed information on the relationship between snakebite occurrences and weather, there's a chance that the drought of the last three years has played a role in increasing the likelihood of human-rattlesnake encounters. There were reports earlier this year that warmer weather throughout the state had brought the snakes out of their winter dormancy earlier than usual. In the Sierra Nevada, a record low snowpack meant snakes could emerge from their dens earlier, while early high temperatures in the deserts meant greater snake activity there as well.

Is the drought a factor other than in the case of nonexistent snow? Hard to say. There's a common assumption that dry years mean more snake encounters, the thinking being that dry years mean less grass seed which means fewer rodents. That means that snakes must travel out of their way to find food, as well as the water they usually obtain from their prey. And that desperate exploration, the thinking goes, brings the snakes into contact with humans more often.

Then again there's also a common assumption that wet years mean more snakes, in that more grass seed means more rodents which means more snakes. Either or both may be true depending on where you are in California.

But what is reliably true is that warmer weather makes snakes more active. When nighttime temperatures stay above 70° or so, snakes will remain active through the night, making it more likely that you'll have an accidental encounter with a rattler.

There are a couple pieces of good news, though. The first is that even in years with lots of snakes abroad, the likelihood of dying of a snakebite is fairly low. About a quarter of rattler bites are "dry," meaning the snake injects no venom. And of those humans injected with venom, though the non-fatal effects can be markedly unpleasant including loss of fingers and toes and lifelong nerve damage, a very small percentage succumb to their injuries: statistically, less than one person each year in California die of rattlesnake bites.

And the other piece of good news is that you can almost completely eliminate your chances of being bitten by a rattlesnake. I wrote more on that here a couple years ago, but for those of you disinclined to click, here are a few easy rules, in increasing order of importance:

  • Wear boots and long, loose-fitting pants when hiking or walking in rattlesnake country to lessen the chance of an unforeseen bite.
  • Pay attention to your surroundings when hiking. Conversation or deep thought are fine things, but when hiking in snake country leave the earbuds at home and the smartphone in your pocket. Snakes will try to give you warnings if you get too close, and if you're watching Youtube videos as you hike you're going to miss those fair warnings.
  • Watch where you put your hands and feet. When stepping over large rocks or logs on your hike, step on top of them first and have a quick look at what's on the other side. When climbing in rough country, try not to put your bare hands on ledges you haven't scoped out. And most importantly:
  • Don't be a jerk. The vast majority of rattlesnake bites occur when someone's messing with a snake on purpose, either to show off or to try to move or kill the snake. Don't be that guy. Give snakes a wide berth and let them make their own escape.

And if you are bitten, don't bother with the folkloric "cut and suck" snakebite kits, icing the area, or anything else you might remember vaguely from television shows or the internet. Grab your phone and call for medical help.
But take it from a guy living in the Mojave Desert: it's easier to not get bitten. With any luck, we can keep 2014 out of the record books.

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