Rattled in the West: Shedding myths that bedevil venomous snakes
The sound of a rattlesnake elicits fear for most Westerners.
Even for those who haven’t seen one themselves, there are plenty featured in old Westerns and even recent movies like 2011's Rango. Much like sharks, they’re almost always portrayed as a bad guy.
“Second only to the Bible, Hollywood has done more to damage the reputation of the humble snake than any other single factor on Earth,” said David Jensen, owner of Wasatch Snake Removal LLC.
Jensen's colleagues operate around much of Utah, helping relocate snakes. He argues rattlesnakes aren’t evil.
“Evil is not a force found in nature. There are no evil animals or clouds or trees or plants or water or whatever. Evil is a human construct,” he said.
In Utah, it’s generally illegal to kill any species of rattlesnake there. Some specific rattlesnakes are also protected elsewhere in the Mountain West, including Wyoming’s midget faded rattlesnake and the New Mexico Ridge-Nosed Rattlesnake — not that everyone follows the law.
The Wyoming Game and Fish Department website states that the general public has “NO good reason” for handling the midget faded rattlesnake, and warns that it has some of the most toxic venom in North America.
“Remember fellas, youth, alcohol, and snake venom are a very bad combination. Most people bitten by rattlesnakes are either trying to catch the snake, or kill it,” it says.
You even need a permit to move these venomous critters in many states. However, you can kill rattlesnakes in Utah if you think they’re a threat to your person or property. Many feel threatened just seeing them.
That exception is the same across much of the Mountain West, from states like Montana and Nevada that have hardly any rattlesnake protections, to states like Colorado, which has its own snake hunting season.
But how dangerous are these noisy snakes, really?
Data from the American Association of Poison Control Centers shows that about 1,000 people were bitten by a rattlesnake last year. Only one of them died, or about 0.1%.
In 2020, there were about 1,200 bites. Three people died. The year before that, there were zero recorded deaths.
“Deaths are very rare when individuals are treated with antivenom following snake bite,” the AAPCC states. “Most deaths occurring from rattlesnake bite are due to the individual not getting treatment with antivenom in time or due to an anaphylactic reaction (severe allergic reaction) to the snake venom when bitten.”
Still, that’s just a few more deaths than from sharks, which average one death every other year in the U.S. It’s also far less likely to kill you than a lightning strike, which kills about 20 people a year nationwide.
People should still be wary of rattlesnakes, though.
This summer, a 6-year-old boy died in Colorado Springs, Colo., from a rattlesnake bite. And around 10% of those bit still faced major, life-threatening effects, including nerve damage, internal bleeding, amputation and trouble breathing.
In the field
Out in the foothills of Boise, Idaho, Kristina Parker poked around bushes, actively looking for rattlesnakes, with help from a metal snake-grabbing tool.
Parker is with the U.S. Geological Survey, and she’s studied snakes, including rattlers.
“Oh yeah, this is snakey,” she said, looking at an area with larger rocks, shrubs and bushes.
She noted that such an area allows them to maneuver around better than in thick brush like dense cheatgrass. However, you have to be careful where you step.
“Always step on top of rocks. Never step next to or over the rock because snakes could be on another side of the rock that you can’t see,” she said.
Parker says the species we’d most likely find in southern Idaho, the Great Basin rattlesnake, is pretty docile.
“A lot of the time they won’t rattle in hopes to not be seen. So not until you’re really digging around and poking around will you start getting a rattle from them,” she said. “I’m sure a lot of people walk by rattlesnakes without even noticing them.”
She says it’s one of her favorite snake species, partially because it is so persecuted and misunderstood — like so many other kinds of rattlesnakes.
“The snakes are more afraid of you than you are of them,” she said. “They really don’t want anything to do with people, and so they’re just trying to stay away and defend themselves. No snake is actually going to come and attack you.”
Rattlesnakes are important to the ecosystem, eating rodents and cutting down on the diseases they carry. Right around now, some of the snakes are giving birth and getting ready to ride out the colder months in a den with other snakes.
Oftentimes, Parker says you can discourage them from coming into your yard just by making sure it isn’t inviting to prey, like rodents, or doesn’t have shady hiding spaces, like under a deck.
Rattlesnakes in this drought may also come into yards and irrigated fields to find water.
However, if they do come into your yard, you can call wildlife officials to help move them. And if you are bit, don’t try to capture the snake to take it with you.
Parker added, “Don’t tourniquet, don’t try sucking the venom out, don’t try any of those snake bite kits.”
Instead, make sure there isn’t anything tight around the swelling bite area. And of course, you should call 911, followed by a call to a poison control center.
“Poison control knows a lot better on care for a venom injection than a lot of medical doctors because a lot of medical doctors don’t have snake bites that often,” Parker said.
Poison control centers can give further instructions. Beyond that, just stay as calm as possible and get to a hospital.
Dogs can get bitten, too, and should also be taken directly to a veterinarian. However, there is snake aversion training for dogs that go out in rattlesnake country often.
And one last thing: that old saying about baby rattlers being more deadly because they can’t control the amount of venom they give?
“Yup, that is 100% a myth,” Parker said.
She says a baby snake bite may even be less of a threat because those little bodies have less venom.
Ultimately, her trek around the Boise foothills didn't turn up any rattlesnakes, much to the relief of those who recreate there. It also goes to show how challenging it can be to even find one in many areas, let alone face a deadly bite.
If you are bitten by a rattlesnake or exposed to any poisonous, toxic substance, you can call the Poison Helpline at 1-800-222-1222, or visit poisonhelp.org.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.