Every year at about this time, rattlesnake hysteria breaks out all across the West. Just the other day one person was bitten by a rattlesnake in one of the national parks in California, now parks personnel are going out in the field wearing snake protection on their legs and footwear.
Last week, I received an alarming email from a resident of Squaw Creek Canyon Estates near Sisters all in a tizzy because one rattlesnake was found dead on the road near the development and another was seen on someone's back deck. A cry went up to locate the dens where the snakes spend winter and move them somewhere else for fear they'll cause harm to children and pets. Then a report came in from a young lady in the same area who reportedly saw three "small snakes" that she thought were rattlesnakes, adding fuel to the fire.
Let's put things in perspective: Motor vehicle crashes - not snakes - are the leading killer of children, teens and young adults in the U.S. In fact, more than 30,000 people are killed in vehicle crashes each year in the U.S. In 2005, crash deaths resulted in $41 billion annually in medical and work loss costs. As far as I can tell, only two people died last year from snakebites.
Now, here's the point: Most deaths from crashes are preventable. Using effective educational programs and policies, we can reduce the number of injuries and deaths caused by motor vehicles. Shucks, we don't see anyone going around towing cars out of garages and sending them off to the junkyard because they're the leading killer of children and young adults.
So, why single out snakes? If we educate young people about the dangers of driving cars recklessly, we can do the same thing about rattlesnakes and prevent all the snake hysteria.
Even if it were possible to do what a Squaw Creek resident advocates: move all the snakes out of the area. It would cost a bundle, require thousands of man hours and end up being a huge waste of money. Nature abhors a vacuum, and in 10 days, snakes (of all kinds) will begin to move back into the area.
As it is, most of the injuries and the one or two deaths of people bitten by rattlesnakes are among teen-agers and young adults, who, like some young drivers, can't resist saying: "Hey! Watch this!" as they drive too fast, or (try to) pick up rattlesnakes... like that idiot in the photo.
My good friend, and herpetologist, Al St. John of Bend, author of Reptiles of the Northwest, knows rattlesnakes. As a teenager, he was bitten by a rattlesnake near his home (at the time) in McMinneville when he curiously reached under a rock for the animal.
This is the advice Al shares with people who think rattlesnakes pose a threat to the safety and welfare of people, pets and livestock.
Don't leave pieces of plywood or other debris lying around the yard. There is nothing a snake enjoys more than a nice warm place under a piece of roofing, plywood or other flat object where it can be safe and digest a ground squirrel or two.
Turn on the porch light at night before you venture forth to see if one of your reptilian neighbors is passing through.
Teach children about rattlesnakes. Show them pictures of our local rattlesnake and harmless gopher snake. We have only one venomous snake to contend with, the Northern Pacific Rattlesnake - all the others cannot hurt you - unless you insist on picking one up and it bites you.
Treat snakes the way you would like to be treated. Live-and-let-live, or, said another way, be kind to your neighbors.
And for crying out loud, don't go around palyin' with 'em!
The Northern Pacific Rattlesnake that idiotic naturalist is holding in the photo was heading into its den for the winter out near the Alvord Desert, along with about 50 or so of his brethren. It was in excellent physical condition from eating as many belding ground squirrels, sagebrush voles, deer mice and other noxious rodents as possible.
There's an old Hopi saying: "Never let a mouse live in your home, it will steal the breath of your children." That's one of the symptoms of hantavirus, a malady that has killed more people than have rattlesnakes. Hantaviruses is a group of viruses that are carried by rodents, deer mice particularly. And, if you look at a range map of our cute, little Deer Mouse, Peromyscus maniculatus, you'll find hes, shes, and thems, everywhere from Gold Beach to the Wallowas and from the Owyhee to Astoria.
The best news is that snakes - while they are devouring said mice - cannot become infected and cannot spread the hantavirus infection to people or other animals.
Rattlesnakes (and Gopher Snakes) are by far the most helpful animals on this grand old Earth in eliminating rodents. Sure, outdoor cats eat rodents, but they're selective; if a bird is closer, that's what they'll kill - but not necessarily eat - they usually play with it until it's nothing but a bloody mass of feathers. Rattlesnakes do not play with their food, they can't afford to. Winter means not eating, so a happy snake is a fat snake. It's the same with hawks and owls...
Here's something else Al has to say about snakes for neighbors, and I'm with him all the way: "There seems to be a lot of folks (out in) Squaw Creek Canyon development who want to be 'close to nature.' They build their house at the south base of a rocky slope, ending up with a rattlesnake den nearly in their backyard. Then they complain when nature gets too close in the form of a rattler buzzing a warning at them on their patio. The snake is merely saying, 'Back off. This territory has been in my family since the Pleistocene era!'"
Being considerate of your neighbors always pays off, maybe not in cookies and milk, but it will make for harmony in the neighborhood and fewer rodents.