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Visitors to Tucson sometimes ask me if I see rattlesnakes often. “Not as often as I’d like to” is my semi-facetious reply.
I love rattlesnakes. I think that they’re beautiful, fascinating creatures and I actively seek them out to observe and photograph. I may see as many as a dozen rattlers a year. That’s not very often, considering that I walk somewhere where there is wildlife virtually every day. On the other hand, rattlesnakes definitely are a fact of life in the Tucson area. Anyone living in the suburbs, particularly if that person’s home is near open desert, is probably going to see a rattler every now and then. Some species of rattlesnake — particularly Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnakes — urbanize quite well. They’ll live wherever there’s ground cover and a rodent population and if that happens to be in someone’s backyard, it’s no big deal for the snakes.
This rattlesnake, for example, showed up recently in the yard of a neighbor of a friend of mine. My friend relocated the snake a few dozen yards away, after the neighbor named it “April.”
April’s a typical Diamondback (although it does have a couple of unusual features including dark rattles and silver-blue eyes), about two and one-half feet long. It was happily enjoying the comforts of the yard in which it was found and it will, most likely, return there sooner or later.
But, this discussion shouldn’t discourage people from visiting or even living in southern Arizona. The chances of being bitten by a rattlesnake — even by the snake living in your back yard — are miniscule. Arizona has a year-round population of just under 7 million people and that is augmented each year by millions of seasonal residents and vacationers. And, yet, the total number of rattlesnake bites in this state annually is about 300. Of those 300, probably more than 200 bites occur because people deliberately and stupidly interact with rattlesnakes. Picking up a rattlesnake with bare hands in order to impress one’s girlfriend after having consumed a few beers probably accounts for more rattlesnake bites than any other cause.
No rattlesnake has ever gratuitously attacked a human. Every single rattlesnake bite is the consequence of the snake defending itself against a perceived threat. So, based on that, here are a few basic rules that practically guarantee safety even in the presence of snakes. First, never approach deliberately within striking distance! A rattlesnake can strike to about 2/3 of its body length. In April’s case, that means about 18 inches to two feet. I always stay at least four or five feet away from any snake that I see. Second, watch where you put your hands, feet, and backside. Most “accidental” snakebites in Arizona (defined as bites that occur even when someone is not deliberately interacting with a snake) occur when people inadvertently step on a rattler or reach towards it with their hand or hands, or sit on one. Look down as you walk and never put your feet and hands in a location that is obscured from plain view. Third, always carry a flashlight when out walking in the dark. As the weather warms in Arizona, rattlers become increasingly nocturnal and their peak hours of activity are after sunset. Finally, if you should happen to blunder across a snake, do not panic. Remain motionless and the snake will leave you alone.
I had my closest encounter with a rattlesnake last year. I was in Sabino Canyon concentrating on photographing an insect. I heard a faint rustling noise behind me and ignored it. The rustling persisted and finally, I turned around to see what was making that noise. I was startled to see a very large Diamondback, about four feet long, headed directly toward me. It’s head was only about 18 inches from my foot. I very slowly took a giant step backwards, and then a second one. The snake completely ignored me. It wasn’t interested in me at all, it was interested in passing through the area that I happened to be standing in. As I stepped back the snake kept right on going, never altering its course.
That’s a typical rattlesnake encounter. These creatures couldn’t care less about humans, they are as indifferent to us as they are to rocks and fallen tree branches. So long as we don’t molest them, they think of us as objects to be ignored.
In order to relocate April, my friend used a special snake handling tool and transported the snake in a plastic container. That must have been a bit traumatic for the snake. But, even with that, when April was released it did nothing more than to seek shelter under the nearest bush. It had no more interest in attacking my friend or me than in space travel. Would April have defended itself had we molested it? Probably. But, live and let live.
Image made with a Canon 5DS-R, 180 mm f3.5L Macro Lens assisted by Canon 600EX-RT Speedlite, M setting, ISO 160, f14 @ 1/160.