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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


How to ssstay sssafe around rattlesnakesss

Courtesy Animal Experts, Inc.
A Western Diamondback Rattlesnake. This species is the most common rattlesnake found in Tucson.

Blazing heat and the monsoon storms aren’t the only desert hazards to watch out for this summer. Rattlesnake activity increases with warm weather, and it’s important to be aware of how to react when confronted with this venomous critter.

The Daily Wildcat has put together a guide for staying safe when it comes to rattlesnakes, including how to spot them, steps to take when near one and what to do if someone gets bit.

Identifying a Rattlesnake

Although the quick, rattling sound of a threatened rattlesnake is a good indication of danger, there are a few other ways to tell a rattlesnake apart from non-venomous snakes in Arizona. 

According to Marc Hammond, a founder of Animal Experts, Inc., which was the first wildlife control company in Southern Arizona, the shape of a snake’s tail is one of the best indications as to whether a snake in the area is venomous.

“If you’re able to see the tail, if the tail tapers to a point like a pencil, it’s going to be non-venomous,” Hammond said.

The rattle itself, or lack thereof, is not a sure indication of whether a snake is a rattlesnake, as rattlesnakes may lose their rattle at some point in their lives, said John Zadrozny, a docent at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Even if a rattlesnake’s rattle has fallen off, the tail will still have a rounded end.

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The exception to this pointed versus rounded tail rule is the Sonoran Coralsnake, a venomous snake without a rattle, but according to co-founder of Animal Experts, Inc., Jeff Carver, they are uncommon and being bit by one is even rarer.

“We have a coral snake, a Sonoran Coral, but it’s so small I’ve literally picked them up in my hand and they’ll strike at you and they can’t open their mouth big enough,” Carver said. “They would actually have to bite you and hold on to be able to inject you.”

If a snake is coiled, the tail may not be visible. In that situation, the size and shape of a rattlesnake’s head can help distinguish it from other snakes, Zadrozny said; if the snake’s head is bigger than the neck in the shape of “a big ice cream spoon,” then it is likely a rattlesnake.

The most common rattlesnake seen in the Tucson area is the Western Diamondback Rattlesnake, Zadrozny said.

The Western Diamondback’s distinguishing features are the “dark diamond-shaped patterns along [its] back” and the few “black and white bands just above the rattles,” according to the Desert Museum’s website.

Reacting to a Rattlesnake

According to an informational paper on rattlesnake safety that is available at the Desert Museum, about one third of all snakebites occur from someone intentionally confronting or bothering the snake. In fact, Carver stated most bites occur on males from ages 16-25 and on their hands.

“So, that tells you they’re messing with them, they’re trying to pick them up,” Hammond said. “Especially if there’s alcohol involved, they’re going to say, ‘Hey, hold my beer, watch this.’”

If one does find themselves near a rattlesnake unintentionally, leaving the encounter unharmed isn’t difficult. Carver said when near a rattlesnake, the first thing one should do is freeze.

“Rattlesnakes are motivated by movement,” Carver said. “They basically will not strike something that is not moving.”

Getting out of striking range is as simple as stepping away from a rattlesnake, Carver said.

“One good step is going to put you out of their range,” Carver said. “They don’t fly. They don’t leap through the air to get you. They basically don’t want to bite you.”

Zadrozny also advised one simply take a step away from the rattlesnake. Although leaving a rattlesnake’s striking range can be achieved with a slow step back, both Carver and Hammond said one should not run from a rattlesnake.

“The average speed for a rattlesnake is about three miles per hour,” Carver said. “So you can literally outwalk a rattlesnake.”

A rattlesnake’s strike, however, is a different story. It can reach speeds of 175 miles per hour, according to Zadrozny.

“You could never outrun [a rattlesnake’s] strike,” Hammond said. “Their strike is lightning fast. So when you try to run away from them … they could strike you right away.”

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What to Do if Someone is Bitten by a Rattlesnake

A rattlesnake’s bite is not on the same level as a bee sting or spider bite by any means.

“What people don’t realize is it’s excruciating,” Carver said.

At safety seminars Hammond and Carver hold around Tucson, they describe what most people feel when they are bitten by a rattlesnake.

“We usually tell people what it normally feels like is like your hand on a hot skillet,” Hammond said. “You keep it there for a while until you’ve got a really bad burn … and then you get the pounding pain – it’s almost like … after you burn your hand, then … slam it down with a sledgehammer.”

Along with the pain may come extreme swelling. Hammond, who has been bitten by a rattlesnake twice before, said he hadn’t experienced the pain likely 90 percent of people do. 

Hammond, who was bit near his thumb, “swelled up all the way into his armpit before they could get that under control,” according to Carver.

Beyond the pain itself, snakebite treatment is extremely expensive, even if a long hospital stay isn’t necessary. Hammond said his last medical bill for a snakebite came to $313,000 even though he only spent a little over one day in the hospital.

The intense pain also would prevent someone from driving to the hospital on their own.

“With that type of pain, do you think you could drive yourself to a hospital?” Hammond said. “You would never be able to keep your eyes on the road.”

If someone does happen to be bit by a rattlesnake, “the first thing you should do is quickly just call 911,” Hammond said.

After calling for emergency medical help, the most important thing to do is remain calm, according to Hammond.

“If you’re not calm, that venom is going to travel even quicker,” Hammond said.

Hammond also advised against taking measures against the venom oneself, such as applying a tourniquet or trying to suck the venom out with one’s mouth.

“You can do more damage with your mouth or trying to use one of those snake extractors where you’re only going to get maybe 1 or 2 percent of venom out, if anything,” Hammond said.

Hammond instead said one should lay down and remove any watches or jewelry around the area of the bite because of the swelling and wait for the ambulance to arrive.

Rattlesnakes on Campus

Running into a rattlesnake is not a danger solely to those out in the desert, miles from the city. In fact, rattlesnakes have even been spotted on the University of Arizona campus.

“Marc [Hammond] actually picked up a rattlesnake on the [UA] campus last month,” Carver said.

Anywhere in Tucson, there’s a risk of running into a rattlesnake, so keep watch for these venomous animals.

For more information on rattlesnake removal by Animal Experts, Inc., visit their website.

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