Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Rattlesnake Decision

What I Did
in response to finding this:
Align Center
What would you do if you found a rattlesnake stretched out in front of your open garage? In WWUD, I suggested 3 options: kill it, move it or ignore it, and readers commented on what they might do. Now I will tell you what I did.

For a few seconds, I testily considered backing the car over this rattlesnake to kill it. But sometimes, killing a rattlesnake can be just as risky or more risky than other options.

I'd been mowing thistles on a hot May day, and left the garage door open as a shady retreat. After refueling the brushcutter, I peeled off my helmet and gloves and nearly stepped on this rattler as I whipped into the garage for a cold drink. It's always a shock to see a rattlesnake in your pathway or beneath your reaching hand.

Anger Alarm Annoyance

What should I do?
I don't want to do this.
This is my territory.
There are too many of you.

I visualized running over the venomous threat. But as soon as the engine turned over, the snake was likely to startle and disappear into the garage. A snake in a net is safer than one in my toolbox.

(observation & logic)
Where are the kids and the pets?

Where are my snake tongs and net?
The snake is quiet, not moving.
Its rattle is cocked to the side.
The snake is using the shade of the garage to cool off, just like me.

I could ignore the snake, hope it goes away and get back to my brushcutting. But then the snake could show up anywhere, under my mower blade, next to my water bottle or nesting in the garage without the luxury of time and space for me to respond safely.

I could grab a nearby shovel and chop off its head, but then I would have to stand too close, and if my aim was not true, the shovel tip might hit the concrete instead of slicing the snake in one blow and then it might come after me. Not safe. Alternatively, my long-handled net and snake tongs could immobilize the snake if I moved slowly and positioned carefully.

(respect, decide)
Back off slowly.

Put your gloves on.
Put your helmet down.
I don't like to kill animals.
The snake is calm; not in an alert position.
This is an open area, easy to see and reach.
This snake has probably lived on the ranch longer than I have.

I decided - capture and move the rattlesnake. I gathered tools and took action. When I clumsily brushed the snake with the tongs, it made a dash for the garage. Fortunately, on a smooth concrete floor, it's easy to sweep up a sprinting snake with a net.

--- Waiting to be released ---

Later, I moved the snake approximately 2 miles away and marked its tail with green ink. I hope I never see it again.

Kill it, move it, or ignore it. I don't judge people for killing venomous snakes to protect their family, pets and livestock. And I hope they do not judge me for sometimes deciding to safely move a rattler to another location.

Most of our daily decisions are gradual choices among selfish options, and the longer term and larger scale consequences are not immediately evident, if ever, and can be reversed. The rattlesnake decision is unique. Each time I come face-to-face with a rattlesnake in the farmyard, I have to quickly work through the initial fear response, check my physical and moral position in the world, and develop a clear, stepwise response for the next few minutes.

How often are we in the position to make a decision when emotions, logic and beliefs are compressed into a few moments? I am taking steps to make the farmyard less of an attraction to the rattlers, however, it is likely I will be in this position again. This lowly reptile teaches me to make clear and balanced decisions and to quickly follow through. On snakeless days, I consider, "How can I make more rattlesnake decisions?"

Another snake lesson - reasonable watchfulness.
The signs are on the wall at the entrance to the bathrooms at the Herbert S. Miles Rest Area, Interstate 5, Red Bluff, California. The rest stop buildings are next to a blue oak woodland and grassland. The entryways to the bathrooms are sheltered by a brick L-shaped wall but have no closing door. The tile pieces on the floor of the bathroom are brown and tan colors.


  1. AWESOME post. I am definitely adding your blog to my list of those I check regularly. I haven't found many other naturalists writing about these sorts of things - it's so refreshing!

  2. Thanks. I welcome comments with your own experience facing these dilemmas and decisions. I am trying to find other blogs discussing natural sightings and how to work on natural land. Let me know if you find some - I would like to post links for readers.

  3. I don't know of any similar blogs (that's why I am enjoying yours so much), but will post if I find some.

    As for snakeys, I've had many terrifying close encounters, but it never occurred to me, nor have I had the means to, do anything other than get safely away.

    I am curious, do you know why some rattlers have what I think of as "kingsnake markings" on the hind end?



  4. Cindy R. Tough call....why kill if he isn't going to hurt you. I'd be scared, and probably have nightmares. I think I'd move to a place where snakes don't exist, but where I can still do outdoor volunteer work. San Francisco? Donner Pass? Mt Everest?

    David from St Joe's

  5. I realize this is WAY after the date of your post, but I just read it. While working for the NPS and being the designated get-the-rattlesnake-away-from-the-visitors person, I was concerned about/interested in the effects of moving snakes far from their home ranges (2 mi counts as far in my book). I found a recent study (master's thesis) and got to correspond with the researcher and she said about 75-90% of relocated snakes die. They are taken out of an area they know (where cover is, food, etc.) and where they have a territorial claim to these resources, into a place where they have neither. Consequently I'd agree to relocate snakes but only by a hundred yards or some small multiple of that. The Superintendent agreed to this and if we frequently saw rattlesnakes in an area we'd just post a sign and encourage people not to loiter there.

    By the way, nice catch of a speeding rattlesnake!

  6. Biobabbler: thanks for you insight about relocating rattlesnakes. I believe you are referring to the research done by Erika Nowak in Arizona. I read her research with interest and implemented some of her suggestions regarding changing items that might be attracting rattlers: junk piles, or conditions that might lead to higher rodent production and occupation. I realize that a critter that lives on and in the ground with no limbs is highly dependent on knowing its home environment intimately for survival re finding food and shelter, and adjusting body temperature. A relocated animal would need to relearn all those things, expend energy while doing so and may be subject to predation while still learning its new territory. It may also be dumped in a territory already occupied by another snake and there may not be enough resources for both. I still came to the conclusion that I needed to move rattlers away from the house and farm buildings that are frequented by people, pets and livestock. The first time a rattler surprised 5 visitors, I was not prepared to move the snake and someone killed it. I still feel bad about that. When I relocate rattlers now, I seek a similar environment (presence of gophers, sun/shade, rocky outcrops for hiding) in a part of the ranch that is rarely visited by humans and away from roads. I also mark the rattlers by dipping their rattle in ink. So far, I and my fellow park staff have never seen any of the marked rattlers. I never move or otherwise bother any rattlers I see on the other 899 acres of the ranch away from the farm buildings. Living with and occasionally relocating rattlers has taught me a lot of respect for them. I now frequently talk to our volunteers about the amazing adaptations of rattlers and how to respond if they see or hear one while we are working in the preserves (stop. locate, calmly tell anyone nearby, slowly back away). I think I will try moving the rattlers a shorter distance in the hopes that they will still be within their known range but hopefully will not come back to the people-centric buildings. This also has reminded be to snag a few of the old wooden rattlesnake signs that were being replaced elsewhere to put on the Dipper barn. They will warn people and maybe reduce the pressure to kill any rattlers which surprise visitor and the signs will certainly add to the charm of the place. For those interested, here is a link to NoWak's research:

  7. I think Bruce Means here in Florida found that they were not merely territorial (having a territory) but actually had specific favored places they reliably hung out. If I'm remembering that correctly then that raises the question of how his or her hang out route coincides with yours. I'm not sure what the solution looks like.

    One option in areas that might have less predators than I assume yours does would be to keep turkeys, game hens (possibly guinea hens?) that would not tolerate the presence of snakes around the home.

  8. I am a new follower so just now am able to go back and see some of your "best ofs". I find snakes fascinating, rattlesnakes included. All my encounters have been in the wild so there was never any dilema in what to do. I am a visitor in their home. My only requirement is I want to see them before they see me, especially when within striking distance. Only one time that requirement was not meant. Walking my dog along a trail in the desert, wearing short hiking pants and Bingo! He waited till we drew even with him, two feet away, he's standing up singing away with his tail rattling. Scared the bejesus out of me and I think Alee's neck got lengthened by a couple of inches when the leash yanked him clear as I leaped away. In your case I would have done just what you did. Let him live and relocate.


Comments let me know to keep on sharing what's happening at the Dipper Ranch. You can either use an existing account or choose "Anonymous" by clicking the arrow after the "Comment As" box. Your comment will appear after a delay to allow screening of spam.