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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Snakes in the Grass

Thick Vegetation Prompts Sharp Increase in Number of Reptiles

May 18, 1999|MASSIE RITSCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ventura County is on its way to a record snake season, with 67 sightings--more than one-third of a typical year--being reported this month alone.

On Monday, an Oak Park woman was bitten by a rattlesnake, and the Ventura County Fire Department logged its four latest snake sightings.

Ventura County Fire Department spokeswoman Sandi Wells, who said she was shocked by the sharp rise in snake reports, attributed the increase to prime living conditions for the reptiles. Last year's El Nino rains thickened vegetation, and an ensuing season with fewer brush fires did little to burn that vegetation off.

"There's a lot of food in the grasses for the rodents," Wells said, making the rodent-eating snake populations especially healthy.

About 190 snake sightings--mostly rattlesnakes--are reported to the county Fire Department annually, Wells said. But this year, more than 100 calls have been logged since Jan. 12, when a rattlesnake was sighted in Wildwood Regional Park in Thousand Oaks.

Most of the calls since, Wells said, have been in the areas of Thousand Oaks, Oak Park, Westlake Village and Simi Valley--so-called "wildland-urban interface" areas of Ventura County, where homes are built near prime terrain for snakes and other wild animals. No snakes have been reported on the Oxnard plain, she said.

The season for snake sightings is from April or May to November, but warm weather can bring snakes out of hibernation earlier. After 1999's first call four months ago, unusually cold weather resulted in fewer reports to the Fire Department until recently, Wells said.

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"We started getting them with a vengeance again toward the end of April, then they kind of tapered off because we had a cool spell," she said. Ten calls were logged Sunday, the same day a Simi Valley dog was bitten by a rattlesnake.

On Monday, a 39-year-old woman was airlifted to Simi Valley Hospital after she was bitten by a rattler while gardening at her Oak Park home. When she called 911, Wells said, her finger was already swollen and turning blue.

"She said it was a small rattler," Wells said. "There are lots of babies out there."

Firefighters killed the snake, which a curious emergency-room doctor at the hospital took home with him.

Wells said that about 200 Southern Californians are bitten by snakes every year, accounting for about two-thirds of the state's total.

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And as snakes become more active during the warmer months, people spend more time outdoors, heightening the risk of encounters.

"Many times [snakes] are in the area and we're not aware of it, because we're not outside," Wells said.

Snakes often seek warmth in yards and driveways; swimming pools and garages can cool them off, Wells said.

In Ventura County, rattlesnakes are the most frequently sighted. Gopher snakes, a nonvenomous snake that resembles the rattler, and king snakes, another nonpoisonous variety, are also often reported.

If people see a snake and feel threatened by it, they should leave the reptile alone and call 911, Wells said. If the snake is not in a home, garage or near a house and is not threatening humans or pets, people should call Ventura County Animal Control at 388-4341. Thousand Oaks residents should call Los Angeles County Animal Control at (818) 991-0071.

Firefighters are trained to capture snakes and take them away from populated areas to more natural habitat. They try to avoid killing the snakes, Wells said.

"[Snakes] are a big part of the ecology where we live," she said. "If we didn't have those types of animals, we would have an awful lot of rodents."

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Snakebite Season

Healthy habitat for rodents and therefore snakes has led to a higher-than-usual number of snake sightings in the neighborhoods of Ventura County. Of particular concern are rattlers, California's only venomous snake.

Rattlesnakes begin a brief hibernation in late November and emerge as early as February. Up to 6 feet long, the coldblooded creatures are found mostly in deserts and foothills. They favor cool, shady spots during the days but at night seek rocks, concrete or asphalt that is still warm.

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