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Wake-Up Call: Warm Weather Lures Rattlesnakes Out From Under

April 30, 1987|TERRY SPENCER | Times Staff Writer

With the return of summer-like weather comes a less pleasant feature of the rustic Palos Verdes Peninsula: rattlesnakes.

Douglas Buck of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which handles animal control for most of the Peninsula, said five or six snake sightings have been reported this year, which is the norm.

Highest Concentration

Buck said the South Bay's highest snake concentration is on the Peninsula, with occasional sightings in grasslands near the beaches.

"We probably pick up 10 to 12 rattlers a year," Buck said. "We receive most of the calls from someone who has noticed a snake in their backyard shrubbery." He said the rattlers his department captures are destroyed.

Buck said a lot of rattlesnake calls turn out to be nonpoisonous gopher snakes, which sometimes mimic the actions of a rattler, including tail-shaking when cornered. Those snakes are released elsewhere.

"Every spring, people in rural areas see a large amount of rattlers," said Jay Kilgore, the lead keeper of the reptile house at the Los Angeles Zoo. The snakes "are coming out from underground," he said. "They've been there all winter, and that's why we haven't seen them."

The South Bay is home to only one type of poisonous snake, the Southern Pacific rattlesnake, Kilgore said. During cool weather, the snakes hibernate and may go the entire winter without eating. Snakes, being cold-blooded reptiles, require warmth to heat their blood and make them active.

"Snakes need warmth to get up to operating temperature," Kilgore said. He noted, however, that snakes seek shady areas when the temperature gets too hot to cool themselves.

Mating Season

Springtime is also the rattler mating season, when the normally reclusive reptiles can occasionally be seen in pairs.

Kilgore said rattlesnakes are not aggressive by nature and attack a larger animal or human being only when threatened.

"Most of the bites to humans are because of the actions of the human," he said. "Most of the bites occur when someone tries to catch or handle a rattler."

That statement is borne out by statistics kept by County-USC Medical Center.

Dr. Willis Winegert, director of the center's venom laboratory, said 55% of all bites occur when somebody picks up a poisonous snake and that in one-third of those cases, the people involved are drunk. Half of all victims range from 18 to 28 years old and are 10 times more likely to be men than women.

"Put that all together and you find that the typical victim of a bite is a young male playing with a rattlesnake while drunk," Winegert said.

One group of Peninsula residents is especially likely to come into contact with snakes: horseback riders.

"You really have to keep your eyes open," said Ann Johnson, who works for a Rancho Palos Verdes stable.

She said it is more common to see gopher snakes than rattlers on trails, but rattlers can be a problem for horses grazing in tall grass.

"That's when they get bit on the head," Johnson said. "It's more dangerous because they don't have a rider looking out for them."

Calls to Zoo

Kilgore said the zoo gets a lot of calls from people seeking information on how to clear their property of snakes. He said the key is to eliminate places where rodents, the rattlers' primary food source, congregate.

"The best thing to do is to keep piles of wood and rubbish away from your house. Also ivy," Kilgore said. "Mice and other rodents go into those things and the snakes follow them in there."

Kilgore said people should avoid killing snakes except when necessary because they help control rodents.

He also said it is a myth that a person can tell a rattler's age by counting the number of rings in its rattle.

"They get a new ring every time they shed their skin, but they don't do it any specific amount of times per year," Kilgore said. He said snakes shed between two and four times a year.

Winegert said that when a human being is bitten, he is not in immediate danger but must seek medical help.

"You don't need to run red lights and speed to the hospital," Winegert said, "because you're not going to die in the first couple hours."

Remain Calm

He said that the victim should remain calm and put a splint on the extremity of the wound.

"But don't cut anything up, suck anything out or put a tourniquet on anything," he said, listing the things he said most people think must be done for a snakebite victim.

He said of the 867 snakebite victims who have come through the medical center in the last 15 years, two have died.

"One had a heart attack 15 minutes after he got here, so I don't know if you can say he died because of the snakebite or not," Winegert said. "The other was airlifted here from Arizona four days after he was bit. He was almost dead by the time he got here."

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