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Experts: No need to be rattled by snakes in region


Photo By: Bill Bouton/Special to the Town Crier
Photo Bill Bouton/Special To The Town Crier

The local area is home to rattlesnakes, but experts claim that the reptiles are shy.

It’s not uncommon to spot a slithering snake on a stroll through Los Altos Hills or nearby Rancho San Antonio Open Space Preserve, but the odds of getting bitten by one are long.

According to the Santa Clara County Emergency Medical Services System, 15 snakebites were reported in 2012 within the county, none resulting in serious injury or death. But for hikers who happen to stumble upon a Northern Pacific Rattlesnake – the only venomous species found in the area – it’s best to act politely.

“Rattlesnakes are naturally very shy,” said David Allen, an ecologist and wildlife management expert who operates a professional snake removal service, Got Snakes? “They want to avoid an encounter with a human as much as you want to avoid an encounter with them.”

Poisonous or not?

Those who step in the path of a rattlesnake should stop, remain motionless and assess the situation, according to Allen.

“Give the snake space,” he said. “Nine times out of 10, the snake’s going to move off on its own.”

Hikers who abruptly move, poke or throw something at a snake increase their chances of a bite, because “the snake views you as a threat and will stand its ground,” Allen noted.

Determining whether the snake encountered is a rattlesnake or an impostor can be challenging. When threatened, species like the gopher snake – also common in the county – can mimic the diamond-shaped head of a real rattler as well as its brown and green hexagonal pattern. Allen said nearly 50 percent of the snake-removal calls he responds to are for creatures misidentified as poisonous.

Rattlesnakes, which range from approximately 8 inches to 5 feet long, are noticeably heavier than gopher snakes and have a detectable rattle at the end of their body.

A bite from such a snake can be fatal if not treated by an antivenin, an antitoxin to a venom. The American Association of Poison Control Centers reports that of the 800 rattlesnake bites reported annually, one to two cases result in death.

To avoid the harsher effects of a snakebite, rush the victim to a medical treatment facility, keep the area of the bite as still as possible and remove jewelry or objects that may contribute to swelling.

Contradicting the common instinct of some, do not apply a tourniquet, place ice on the bite, attempt to cut the wound to extract venom or allow the victim to drink alcohol.

Removing the rattler

Allen said he receives scores of snake calls in the spring and summer months. That’s when snakes emerge from hibernation and are on the prowl for food, particularly rodents and insects.

Rattlesnakes often navigate near homes, garages and backyard gardens because they provide accessible entry points, food and shelter, according to José Colomé, a community resources specialist for the Santa Clara County Vector Control District.

Two to three Los Altos-area residents per week call Allen to inquire about unwelcome snakes on their property. Removing a snake can take as little as 20 minutes, but the larger task is identifying a legal space for relocation that poses no public safety concerns or disruption to the biology of the habitat. To mitigate the problem, Allen has built a network of private landowners who welcome snakes on their property. He said some property owners consider rattlesnakes integral to controlling the population of ground squirrels, known to damage property.

For homeowners seeking a long-term solution for repelling rodents – and the snakes they attract – Allen conducts property inspections and designs physical barriers. Services generally range from $75 for a quick removal to several hundred dollars for inspections.

The vector control district does not provide emergency services, but technicians offer pest management advice.

To contact the vector control district, call (408) 918-4770 or visit sccgov.org/sites/vector.

To contact Allen, call (925) 997-3730 or visit gotsnakes.org.

Snake bite prevention

• Wear heavy boots and long pants when hiking or walking outdoors.

• Protect your feet, legs and arms – the most common locations of snakebites.

• Watch your step, especially when moving through tall brush or near rocks and other objects that provide shade cover.

• Never try to touch a snake or move closer to it for examination.

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