Sunday, May 16, 2010

Desert Tidbits: Rattlesnake Rodeo

It has been a good, long while since we had a Desert Tidbits post here at DTBA, so what the heck. 

The very upset sentient being in the above photo caused a lot of trouble yesterday. He wrecked a bird's nest, and then he went after some furry critters. The rabbits came to the back door with a petition. Since this is the political season, and since rabbits are inveterate voters, I had to give in to their demands and relocate him.

Contrary to popular opinion, rattlesnakes are not particularly aggressive. They react more from fear than from anything else. Of course, the young ones are the exception -- always trying to prove something -- so you need to be more wary of them. Nevertheless, it is instructive to examine why rattlesnakes rattle. Most people think they rattle in anger. Actually, when they rattle they are saying, "Hey! Down here! I'm a snake! Don't hurt me!"

That being said, you cannot always depend on the rattle. Sometimes they will just nail you out of pure instinct.

I have seen rattlesnakes do unusual, very snakey things, and do them so quickly that it left me astonished. I have some pipes going into the wall by the back door, and the way they are configured is quite singular: the hand of an unskilled plumber has obviously tampered with original wisdom. Last year, I came home one evening and surprised a rattlesnake at the door. He was more startled than I was, and immediately threw himself against the wall in imitation of the pipes. This is to say he looped himself precisely as the pipes are looped. This happened in a flash.

You hear all sorts of folklore about rattlesnakes, and most all of what you hear is nonsense. Since I frequently encounter them, I made the effort to find out the facts -- and while this is with narrow reference to the Mojave Green rattler, it is also generally appropriate to others as well:
1) Are rattlesnake bites fatal?

Well, they can be, but it isn't inevitable. As an example, approximately 800 rattlesnake bites are treated in California each year, with one or two deaths. I am told that the national average is four deaths for every 1,000 bites.

2) Do rattlesnakes always strike for the leg?

No, they do not. Eighty percent of all bites are at the feet and ankles, and roughly twenty percent are at the hand. What does this tell us? If you are in snake country, you can wear boots or gaiters, but sandals won't help. Also, don't put your hand in places where snakes like to hide. About the best thing you can do is always go about with a walking stick, and watch where you step.

3) Do rattlesnakes always envenom when they strike?

No, they do not. Roughly twenty-five percent of all strikes are "dry," meaning no venom is released. With mature rattlesnakes, there is only a single, partial release. With juveniles, watch out! They will release it all, or they will strike multiple times, releasing each time. I guess we all remember how that is.

4) How to treat a rattlesnake bite?

Out in the Western deserts, ALL the search and rescue teams, rangers, hospitals, and so forth use the Sawyer Extractor, which is a powerful yet pocket-sized suction device. We have several of these kits, and if we are going out for any reason, each person carries their own kit. This is about a USD $15.00 kit, which beats the money it costs to treat necrosis.

If you are bitten, keep calm, and keep the bite below heart level. Vigorously apply the suction device to the bite during the first five minutes. This is the ONLY proven method of relieving the situation. Note that you do NOT cut an "X" on the bite and suck out the venom. That razor in the kit is for shaving off hair that might interfere with the suction device. Also, do NOT ice pack the bite or immerse it in water.

Get to a hospital as quickly as you possibly can. Remove all rings, watches, shoes, and so forth before the swelling begins. Ask for CroFab anti-venom. This is derived from sheep. It is the only anti-venom effective against Mojave Type A neurotoxin. Rattlesnake bites are rated from 1 to 5, with a 1 being a dry bite, and a 5 being extremely life threatening. Usually, if swelling begins very quickly, you know you have a problem.

Be prepared for a bite worse than a rattlesnake. The hospitals charge USD $2,500 per vial for Cro-Fab, (sometimes more) and the average bite will require ten to twelve vials. So, say $25,000 to $30,000, to which you add the helicopter transport (standard protocol -- ambulance not fast enough), and the emergency room fees. People who know tell me that it is not uncommon to see a $50,000 medical bill for a single rattlesnake bite.

Also note that CroFab is sometimes described as a "poorly designed anti-venom," and trials are underway on a new anti-venom called AnaVip, developed in Mexico, that is supposed to be much better. Despite this, CroFab is still the one to go for when Mojave rattlesnakes are involved -- the worst bites you could possibly suffer anywhere in North America.

5) Interesting rattlesnake factoid.

Rattlesnakes bite men (72%) more than women (28%). This could be one of those alcohol-related statistics, and then again, it could be something else. I better keep my mouth shut.

6) Rattlesnake wrangling.

The best way to catch a rattlesnake is with a snake noose. This is a hollow PVC or aluminum pole, with a rope inside. A loop is exposed at each end. You throw the loop over the snake and pull, snaring the snake. You then place the snake inside a bucket (not a bag, as some do) and relocate elsewhere. I use an ash pail as seen in the above photo, because the bail locks in place, and the lid is easy to remove. Note that you can also get a professional snake catching stick, which has a clamp on the end of it, but I think those stress the snake too much.

The best way to keep rattlesnakes in check is to have king snakes, peacocks, or road runners around.  The rattlesnakes sense their presence and leave. I often stay at the site of an old peacock ranch, where they used to raise peacocks to sell to the orchard groves. The people tell me that raising peacocks to patrol orange groves for rattlesnakes used to be a big business. There is also a snake repellent you can pour along the outside walls of the house. This may or may not have napthalene in it anymore, I just don't know.  Snakes hate coal tar, but I have never used repellents like that, so cannot speak from experience.

It is easier to remove a ruby from the head of a live rattlesnake with your bare hands, and not get bitten, than it is to get anywhere with Vajrayana. Your lama probably already told you that, so I am just reminding you.

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