Anyone who spends time in
the outdoors should know how to identify poisonous snakes and
how to stay away from them. In the United States, four
poisonous snakes can be found -- rattlesnakes, water moccasins
or cottonmouths, copperheads and coral snakes. The first three
have fangs and are referred to as pit vipers. The coral snake
has no fangs -- it injects poison with a chewing motion as it
Rattlesnakes range in size from the 18-
to 24- midgets to the diamondback -- the largest of the
rattlers. The diamondback often grows to more than 7 feet in
length and weighs 20 to 30 pounds. It derives its name from
the diamond-shaped blotches edged in yellow along its back.
Along with its cousin the timber
rattler, diamondbacks make their home in the western United
States. The diamondback in the dry desert regions and the
timber rattler in the upper elevations. The diamondback can be
found in the Bay Area home while the timber rattler can be
found up in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
The other three poisonous snakes --
water moccasins, copperheads and corals -- are basically found
in eastern and southern states. Although a few corals have
been found in California, it is thought they were brought in
as 'pets' and then set loose.
Rattlers can be recognized by their
coloration, arrow-shaped head and rattles on the end of the
tail. Rattles are composed of horny pieces loosely jointed
together. By shaking the tail, a buzzing sound is emitted.
Fortunately, most rattlers will sound a 'keep-away' buzz
before striking but not always.
Even some harmless snakes such as bull
or gopher will imitate a rattler by shaking their tails in dry
leaves or dead grass. It may sound like a buzz but only a
rattler will lift its tail into clear view when buzzing.
Staying away from snakes is relatively
simple -- watch where you're going! And be careful when
walking, dismounting and around camp!! Snakes don't like
people anymore than people like snakes. Most snakes will avoid
humans and strike only when cornered or molested. A snake will
not slither along a trail edge to follow a horse and rider! A
snake will not see a person sitting on a rock and then crawl
over there to strike! A snake laying in the middle of a trail
isn't coiled to waylay the horseman -- the reptile was
probably just crossing the trail and felt the ground
vibrations of an approaching horse. It's nature's way of
self-preservation, the snake coiled to defend itself.
In Mission Peak Regional Preserve a few
years back on the Ohlone Trail, a huge diamondback was in the
middle of the trail. He was coiled and buzzing and striking at
midair. He was shedding his skin. A combination of Sig's hoof
vibrations and bulldozer churning on new home constructions
along with his poor vision from shedding skin was making him
mad!! He couldn't see us that well but he knew there was a lot
of 'action' in his air so he was just plain MAD and striking.
He'd strike. Recoil. Strike. Recoil.
After each strike, he was moving closer to the uphill edge of
the trail. Finally he made it into the dry grass and slithered
away. Sig and I proceeded along the trail -- but we gave the
bank area a WIDE swing, just in case!
To keep from getting bitten, prevention
is the key in 90% of all snake bite cases. So watch where you
walk or sit. If walking in rocks, wear shoes that protect the
feet, ankles and legs. High top, lace up packers or cowboy
boots are worn by many riders for a reason -- not to be
fashionable. When sitting down, avoid rock overhangs and rocky
flats unless you can really see what's under those rocks
you're going to sit on. Snakes have been known to fall off
overhead rocks and even out of trees. As a friend once told
me, "There's nothing more terrifying than to be relaxing
in the shade and feel something hit your shoulder and slide on
down to land with a plop at your feet. When I looked at that
snake crawling over my boot, I came out from under that little
oak tree like a bullet. My feet never touched the ground. It
didn't matter to me that it was an old bull snake who had been
crawling along a rock and slide off by the tree. It was a
snake and all I knew was I had to put some distance between me
and that snake!"
If riding in rocks and one wants to
dismount, ride a little circle around and through the rocks.
The horse doesn't have to scramble to get over and around the
rocks but enough noise should be make to let a snake know
somebody's knocking at his front door! If he can, the snake
will crawl off and get out of the way. But if he's in a rock
crevise and can't get out, he'll buzz or if he's crawling off
and you see it -- move on to another rock. Personally, I've
never wanted to eat a lunch while sitting on a rock with a
snake on the other side!
Remember snakes are not looking for you.
Or your horse. With all the camping and trail riding I do --
snakes are not my biggest concerns. In fact, over the 40 years
of trail riding I've only ridden across and seen three snakes.
The first on Mission Peak, the other two over in Sunol
In Sunol, both snakes were coiled up in
the trail just napping. One raised its head and then crawled
off the trail. The other crawled a couple feet and recoiled in
the shade. Neither buzzed or struck -- they were just trying
to cool off. But again, Sig and I left 'em alone, avoided 'em
and gave them lots of trail room when going around.
As when sitting down, always remember
before setting up a camp to check the ground. Carefully look
for holes under trees, rocks, tables, etc. Poke a stick around
a stack of scrub oak and especially in old log piles that may
have been there for sometime. They are ready sources of
campfire wood but home to snakes who hunt mice and small
rodents in the stack.
When moving anything from a rock to a
log to a picnic table, always do a little stomping first and
then lift the object towards you. If a snake is under a rock
or a log or even under a feedsack that was left out all night,
the snake underneath may strike and (hopefully) hit the rock
or log or feedsack instead of you. Better yet, once a camp has
been pitched always put gear on a picnic table or back in the
trailer. NEVER stack saddles, pads, blankets and sleeping bags
on the ground -- put 'em up on something so not only snakes
but other insects cannot crawl inside.
If boots are left outside, check them
out by turning upside down and shaking vigorously -- while
holding them away from you. Snakes on cold nights will crawl
into anything left lying around on the ground and that
includes boots and shoes.
The old tale of a horsehair rope
stretched around a campsite or bedroll keeping snakes away is
just that, an old tale. Snakes will crawl over cactus needles
and objects a lot sharper than the hairs in a horsehair rope.
And the old movie action of a horse rearing to pound a rattle
snake into the ground is just that -- movie action. About the
only way horses protect people from snakes is by the amount of
ground vibrations they make when milling and moving around at
night when highlined, tied to a trailer or in a portable
A horse will often stand and never see a
snake crawl by. Or never bat an eyelash if he does see a
snake. A horse will not go hunting for a rattle snake to
protect his owner but horses can get bitten by rattle snakes.
Some horses become curious at 'that moving rope' through a
paddock or corral or pasture and will reach down to sniff it
and get bitten on the nose or head by the disturbed reptile.
Or horses grazing in a pasture with rocks will be eating grass
around rocks and get bitten on the face, neck or ears. Usually
the horse will suffer only reaction to the venom and will not
die unless the horse is very old or very young. But it can
take weeks and months of care and nursing on the part of the
owner to bring the horse back to riding health.
My old horse, Sam, was bitten on the
muzzle with what from the size of the fang marks was a baby
rattler. His head swelled to about twice its normal size. Eyes
swelled shut and to keep his nose and air passage open, soft
rubber tubing was inserted and taped in place. When one ran a
finger along the side of his head, it sounded like the beans
in a bean bag chair being displaced.
For about two weeks, Sam's head and neck
were hot/cold packed every three hours and he was on
antibiotics to keep infection down. After two weeks, the
packing went to every 8 hours and after four weeks his eyes
and nose swelling went down and he could see and breathing
tubes were removed.
It was a long six months but Sam
completely recovered except his right eye and nostril tended
to weep and drip plus he had sort of a silly smile when he'd
roll his lip up. According to vets, it was nerve damage. Sam
went on to live a long life but never again investigated
'moving ropes' on the ground.
A snake bite kit is handy but TALK to
your family doctor about buying one, how to use it, if one
should be used -- there is new medical advise on snake bite
kit uses -- and if bitten, what should one do! All doctors
will agree that if bitten, don't panic. Running around
screaming "I've been bitten!!", "I've been
bitten!!" with people chasing you does no good except
spread venom through one's system faster. So talk to your
doctor and get his advise.
By being aware of what's around you,
where one walks, sits, camps plus knowing what is and isn't a
poisonous snake can help to avoid the reptiles and keep one
from getting bitten. (And remembering that in hot, dry weather
snakes and reptiles seek cool, moist places such as under
water tubs, along barn aisle walls, under feed tubs and even
under parked horse trailers will also help to KEEP you from
getting snake bite). Plus the odds of getting snake bite are
about as good as winning the California Lottery!