Environment

Scared of rattlesnakes? They’re not as dangerous as some people think.

Learn the truths, myths about rattlesnakes

Wildlife biologist Mike Cardwell discusses the truths and myths about rattlesnakes Sunday at Effie Yeaw Nature Center in Carmichael.
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Wildlife biologist Mike Cardwell discusses the truths and myths about rattlesnakes Sunday at Effie Yeaw Nature Center in Carmichael.

If you don’t want to get bitten by a rattlesnake, just keep your distance. Usually it’s as simple as that.

On Sunday, wildlife biologist and rattlesnake expert Mike Cardwell and naturalist Christina Kautz led an informational session at Effie Yeaw Nature Center in Carmichael, answering questions and challenging myths about rattlesnakes.

While many fear the venomous creatures, Kautz said that attacks are rare.

“Everyone thinks they’re aggressive,” she said. “They’re not aggressive. You have to go out of your way to be attacked.”

Cardwell said that most emergency room doctors report that patients with rattlesnake bites are usually young males who intentionally moved toward the snakes. Often, he added, alcohol is a factor.

Of the approximately 8,000 people who seek treatment for rattlesnake bites each year in the United States, most initiated the encounters, he said. And deaths from bites are rare.

In any given year, only about five or six people are killed by rattlesnake venom. And in most of those cases, the people who were bitten avoided or delayed treatment, Cardwell said.

In Northern California, people only encounter one breed of rattlesnake: the Northern Pacific variety, according to Cardwell. These snakes play an important role in the ecosystem, preying on rodents like ground squirrels that can burrow through levees.

As cold-blooded reptiles, rattlesnakes are generally subdued during the hot Sacramento days. As the ground temperature rises above 100 degrees, rattlesnakes often seek shelter in rodent-dug holes or in fallen trees. They can survive for only two or three minutes sitting directly in the hot sun, Cardwell said.

Sometimes people will mistake a rattlesnake trying to get out of the sun with a potential attack. If they’re hot, “they’ll get more and more frantic,” Cardwell said. “It’s not like they’re attacking people. They’re getting out of the sun.”

Rattlesnakes generally approach other animals with just three things in mind, said Cardwell: “Can I eat it? Can it eat me? Can I reproduce with it?”

Humans, likely fitting into the second category, are not a species rattlesnakes consider easy prey. So they avoid people, if possible.

Though the Effie Yeaw Nature Center has around 100 rattlesnakes, staff don’t often encounter them.

“I’ve worked here since January,” Kautz said, “and it’s taken me until this Wednesday to see one.”

UC Davis snake expert Brian Todd explains what's going on as two rattlesnakes tangle in front of Bee cartoonist Jack Ohman and reporter Ryan Sabalow. Photos by Eric Ohman.

It’s rattlesnake season in the Sacramento region and there is a higher than normal chance you’ll encounter one near a trail this summer. Here’s how to keep your dog safe.

Jacob Sweet: 916-321-1052, @_jacobsweet

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