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CITYSCAPES / MATTHEW HELLER

Getting Rattled Over Close Encounters of the Slithery Kind

August 23, 1993|MATTHEW HELLER

The rattle was unmistakable, the raw sound a contrast with the delicate features of its owner.

The 18-inch rattlesnake with a perfect camouflage of black diamonds on a dirt-colored background was getting a little testy. It had been captured that morning in a Topanga back yard, then unceremoniously dumped into a rectangular wooden box.

As it was being released into the wilds of Agoura Hills, the snake slithered under a nearby rock and let go with a last rattle at its captors.

"He's saying: 'I've had enough of all this,' " said the snake's liberator, Officer Lori Weston of the County Animal Regulation Department.

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This Southern Pacific rattlesnake was one of many the agency has trapped this summer in the area patrolled by its Agoura Hills shelter. Rattlesnakes, like humans, spend more time in the open during hot weather. So, with people encroaching on land formerly left to snakes, animal control officials see more frequent collisions between the two species.

There are no countywide figures, but in the city of Los Angeles, 99 rattlesnakes were captured in the fiscal year that ended in June, according to the Department of Animal Control.

At the Agoura Hills shelter, animal control officers trapped an average of 137 rattlesnakes yearly between 1988 and 1990 in the district stretching from Woodland Hills to Westlake Village. Most were caught between May and August. Although numbers have not been monitored since then, Lt. Gail Miley is certain the figure is up.

"We're definitely encroaching on areas that are wildlife habitat," she said. "Pretty much every year the problem has increased."

Los Angeles County is home to several serpentine species--including the gopher, the racer and the kingsnake. The gopher, or bullsnake, is particularly common. It is a hunter with an appetite so insatiable that it frequently turns up in homes, and even hot tubs, as it searches for frogs, rats or just about anything else that moves.

It also does impersonations.

"A lot of times, people mistake gophers for rattlesnakes," Miley said, because they can hiss loudly and thrash about while vibrating their tails.

But no local snake has the fearsome reputation--or the poisonous venom--of the rattler. The Southern Pacific rattlesnake, a.k.a Crotalus viridus helleri , is the most common species in Los Angeles County, with adults averaging about 3 1/2 feet in length.

The Southern Pacific is generally not as large, aggressive or dangerous as its desert cousins, the diamondback and the Mojave green, said Cynthia Webber, collections manager for herpetology at the county Museum of Natural History.

But, "any rattlesnake bite would be serious," she said.

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No argument there. Man-eating crocodiles could hardly cause more fear than the appearance of a rattlesnake in a back yard, say animal control workers.

"People get really upset, really hysterical," Weston said. "They think the snake will chase them down and kill them."

Miley recalled one family that was almost driven from their dream home in Westlake Village by rattlesnakes. After brush was cleared from a hillside, about a dozen snakes that were nesting in the brush migrated down the hill into the family's garage.

"(They) were seriously thinking of moving," Miley said, until she gave them a class on how to avoid dangerous situations with snakes.

During the winter, rattlers pose little threat because they spend the colder months hibernating in rockslides or crevices. Even on summer days, they would much rather be curled under some shade than sporting themselves out in the open sun. Only as the sun goes down, and as their rodent prey becomes more active, do they tend to emerge.

Experts warn that a rattlesnake encounter could happen just about anytime during the summer. As habitats collide in the suburbs, common human summer activities such as re-stacking the woodpile, clearing brush or even cleaning out the pool could mean a close encounter of the slithery kind.

"We've found them in pool skimmers," Miley said. "There's a hole in most skimmers you can put your finger in. A lot of times, a snake will drop into the hole."

According to animal control officials, some people respond to a snake find by grabbing the nearest shovel or other heavy garden tool and battering the intruder to death. Officials recommend calling the local animal shelter instead.

The county trappers pick up the snake with specially designed tongs and deposit it in a snake box through the smaller of two latched doors in the contraption. The snake is usually a willing victim.

"By nature, rattlesnakes are fairly shy, so they go right for the dark hole," Miley said.

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Shelter officials in more urban parts of Los Angeles County say they have little choice but to kill the reptiles. Out in Miley's territory, which fringes the relatively undeveloped foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains, it is easy to move the snakes to the wild.

In the case of the displaced Topanga rattler, it was deposited within a mile of the Agoura Hills shelter, where it nestled under a rock beside a seldom-used footpath. As she freed the snake, Weston's sympathies were firmly with the animal.

"The public needs to be educated toward living with wildlife rather than removing it," she said. "People don't want rattlesnakes around. . . . But they have a place, too."

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