Why are we conditioned to be so terrified of snakes—especially rattlesnakes?
Put the fear aside for a moment, and consider all the good snakes do for us and the environment. They’re a natural source of pest control. They eat insects and rodents like mice, rats and ground squirrels—which can carry diseases, destroy produce and damage property. Snakes deserve appreciation and respect for their role in our ecosystem.
It’s also important to know that rattlesnakes are not looking to harm people—unless they are provoked. When you are out hiking on the trails, you are in their territory, so always keep an eye out for them. When you see or hear a rattlesnake, back away calmly, and/or safely move around the snake. Respect its space by keeping a distance of at least 10 feet (or 10 steps) as a general rule.
A rattlesnake can strike from any position. If you approach a coiled rattlesnake, or if the head is raised with the rattle rattling, the snake is prepared to strike. It’s best to just leave them be; don’t try to get close enough to identify the type of snake, and never, ever try to pick them up or handle them in any way, unless you are trained to do so. Most bites happen when rattlesnakes are handled or touched, be it on purpose or by accident.
If you take a break and sit on a log or a big rock, always check around it first, as rattlesnakes could be sheltering at the base or in a crevice. Check again before you get up, as you may startle a rattlesnake into striking without warning (or rattling). Also, always step on—not over—logs, big rocks and other objects.
If you hike or run on mountain or desert trails a lot, you’ve likely had multiple encounters with rattlesnakes—and I am no exception. While running, you’re not likely to see a snake at all, unless it is stretched out across the trail; most of the time, you’re either over them or past them before you hear the rattle: It’s a you-startle-them, they-startle-you moment.
I once was running on a fairly wide service trail in the Palm Springs area when I swung too wide on a turn and got a little too close to the edge of the trail—where, little did I know, a rattler was hanging out underneath a creosote bush. It was probably awaiting prey, as it was near sunset, the time when snakes are most active and often hunting for food. When I heard the rattle, I instantly sprung into the air and kept running. That was a close call! It was nearly 10 years ago—and to this day, I jump every time I hear a lawn sprinkler come on.
Another time, I was running along a sandy trail with my dog, and we ran right past a rattler that was stretched out along the right side of the trail. We couldn’t have been more than 12 inches away from the rattler, which blended with the sand and made it difficult to see. The rattler, however, didn’t even make a sound or move; I circled back just to make sure it was what I thought it was and to see if it was alive, while keeping my distance. I took a quick picture—which turned out blurry, due to my shaking hands. Learn from my example: Always stay on the trail (in the middle, when possible), and always keep dogs on a leash!
To gain a better understanding of rattlesnakes, I spoke with Paisley Ramstead, a field biologist at the University of California, Riverside, Center for Conservation Biology. Ramstead is also the creator and administrator of the Palm Springs Reptile Appreciation group on Facebook, a moderator of the Discover Wild Coachella Facebook group, and a trained professional in snake removal. She grew up in Palm Springs and has always been fond of desert reptiles, particularly snakes.
“The creation of the Palm Springs Reptile Appreciation group on Facebook was a response to the growing number of posts requesting snake identification or control in other neighborhood groups—and the heartbreaking ‘the only good snake is a dead snake’ comments that would inevitably follow,” Ramstead said. “Because I was already spending a lot of time with reptiles in my work and play, I wanted to create a space where my findings could help others learn to be less afraid of our scaly neighbors—and, of course, where they could share the excitement of a reptile spotting as well.”
Ramstead said the Coachella Valley has at least 20 species of snakes, including five rattlers, and that rattlers are the only snakes here that are venomous in a medically significant way.
“The possibility of encountering a rattlesnake makes a lot of people nervous about taking advantage of our hiking trails and public lands, but I want people to know that a snake encounter is an exciting opportunity that can easily remain safe for everyone,” Ramstead said. “When hiking, always stay on trails, and avoid putting your feet or hands where you can’t see. If you see a snake, give it plenty of space, and slowly walk away from or around it. Most importantly, never ever pick up or approach a snake, or any animal, that you can’t quickly identify!”
In the event of a rattlesnake bite, remain calm, and get to a hospital as quickly as possible. Rattlesnake bites can be deadly and very costly—all the more reason to avoid encounters with rattlesnakes.
Join the Palm Springs Reptile Appreciation group at www.facebook.com/groups/271643494230471; you can support Ramstead’s efforts via Venmo @PaisleyintheDesert.