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Unusual weather brings out the rattlers

by Linda Hiller, Tribune News service

MINDEN – Maybe it’s El Nino, maybe it’s not. The aberrant weather cycle this summer – a long, cool spring quickly changing into an unusually hot summer – has affected Carson Valley rattlesnakes as much as anyone.

Snakes are cold-blooded reptiles, and thus dependent on ambient outdoor temperatures, making weather a very important factor in their lives.

“This year I’m not betting on anything as far as the snakes go,” said area herpetologist Dave Doty. “Weather has everything to do with what these snakes do, and with all our hot weather lately, coupled with the cold spring, these snakes are out now and they’re hungry. A good indication of how much they’re being affected by the bad weather is the fact that our rattlesnakes are normally nocturnal, but we’re seeing them out and about in the day now.”

The office of Douglas County Animal Control receives calls about snakes each summer, but this summer the calls have increased, according to officers.

“We have definitely had more calls about snakes this year,” said Douglas County Animal Control Officer Janet Risko. “We don’t keep a formal record of the calls, and over the phone we can’t tell if the snakes people call us about are actually rattlers, but there are certainly more snake calls coming in. One woman called to say that 20 baby snakes had hatched and were running around inside her house.”

Animal control is responsible for handling calls about domestic animals and livestock, but they are not required to attend to calls about snakes or other wild animals.

In the past, snake calls have been referred to Doty, who owns a retail snake business, HISS. But he is currently awaiting knee surgery in September and has taken a “snake break” until after the operations.

“I am walking with two canes, now,” the 75-year-old Doty said. “I can’t very well chase snakes with two canes.”

Doty said it was most likely baby garter snakes that hatched from eggs in or near the caller’s home, and added that the rattlesnake species indigenous to the Carson Valley is the Great Basin Rattlesnake, Crotalis viridis.

A member of the Pit Viper family, this species would ordinarily be thinking about denning up to give birth from now to September. They give birth shortly before the time for winter denning and hibernation so the babies will stay around the den and ultimately den up with one or more of the parents, he explained. But this year, the snakes are still very active.

“It’s not that there are more of them this year, it’s just that they’re out and they’re hungry,” Doty said. “People need to know that a snake can go in a hole the size of its head, so it doesn’t take a very big space for it to go through.”

An 11-year-old Topaz Ranch Estates resident, Cody McChesney, stepped out of bed and was bitten by a snake which struck from under the boy’s bed.

“I just put my foot down to get up, and I heard a hiss and then it hit and bounced back,” Cody said. “I hardly felt the bite, but I looked at my foot and could see the bite marks.”

Showing symptoms nothing more serious than a bit of pain at the bite site and some swelling, Cody was not taken for immediate medical help. His father, Bob, said they “tore the room apart” looking for the snake but never found it.

The next day, Cody threw up and at that time paramedics were called. After being transported to an emergency room in Gardnerville, it was determined that Cody had most likely been bitten by a rattlesnake, and since his symptoms were minimal, antihistamine and anti-inflammatory drugs were prescribed.

“They were so lucky that Cody didn’t have a worse reaction to the bite,” Risko said. Her brother Kevin spent several days in intensive care in Corona, Calif. after receiving a rattlesnake bite -not his first, she said.

“My brother used to keep rattlesnakes at our ranch and milk them for the venom, so I grew up around snakes,” she said. “We had plenty of them there and our dogs got bit from time to time. Fortunately, they all lived through it.”

Risko said one of the family dogs got into a tussle with a rattler once and was bitten five times in the face, causing the dog’s face to “swell beyond recognition.” Risko also said she learned that rattlesnakes do not go out of their way to attack people.

“They have to be really threatened or surprised to strike,” she said. “I’ve never got bitten.”

Risko said that although animal control personnel are not required, or even permitted in some cases, to go out on snake calls, they will offer verbal assistance over the phone. She added that most Douglas County Animal Control officers have knowledge of dealing with the legless reptiles.

Doty said the Great Basin Rattlesnake can grow to more than 4 feet long, but that 3 feet would be a good average for an adult snake in the valley.

At birth, the seven to 10 snakes hatched are approximately 10 inches long and don’t yet have their rattles. As the young snakes grow, with as many as three molts per year the first few years, each molt gives them one rattle. For this reason, counting the number of rattles on a snake’s tail is not a good age indicator. Also, rattles are delicate and can break or wear off over time.

Great Basin Rattlesnake venom is classified as a hemorrhagin – causing a loss of blood from the tissue spaces, reducing the circulatory system’s efficiency, possible clumping red blood cells and extensive necrosis (tissue death) at the site of injection. For the snake’s prey, this may be a blessing of sorts, because a small rodent will usually succumb to the bite immediately, causing a quick death.

In the United States, an average of 8,000 people get venomous snake bites each year, with rattlesnakes responsible for most of these bites. Human deaths range from nine to 50 each year, the bulk of them from rattlesnakes. Twenty-five percent of rattlesnake bites are “dry,” with no venom injected.

Tahoe Daily Tribune E-mail: tribune@tahoe.com

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