The good news is that rattlesnakes are not out to get you. You don't need to worry about a snake hunting you down. In fact, the opposite is true … generally, snakes try to avoid people unless molested, cornered or otherwise threatened. However, there are occasional accidents where man and snake encounter each other with unfortunate results.
Rattlesnakes have a hard time with public relations. Their very appearance has a lot to do with this. A flickering forked tongue, intense yellow eyes with vertical slit pupils, a triangle-shaped head, pits on the face, fangs, raspy skin and rattles do nothing to endear these snakes to people … even those people who otherwise enjoy the company of animals. The whole package looks wicked, making rattlers fairly despised members of the wild kingdom.
Actually, rattlesnakes are fascinating. The flickering tongue is a tool used to locate and identify food in the dark. Particles of scent are caught by the tongue, which is then drawn into the mouth and stuck into holes in the roof of the mouth where scent glands are located. Another mechanism employed by the snake for locating prey (or a possible enemy) are the heat-sensing pockets on the face, which tell the snake about the size, distance and direction to a heat-producing source such as an animal or man. These pockets are what give the pit viper its name. If you encounter a rattlesnake and it flicks its tongue in and out of its mouth while swinging its head back and forth in your direction, it is using both scent and heat-sensing mechanisms in an effort to identify you and determine the distance between itself and you.
If you come across a rattlesnake, rule number one is to keep your distance and warn others in the group about the snake's presence. A rattlesnake does not have to coil before striking. It can strike from any position. The snake cannot "jump" or strike a greater distance than the length of its own body (unless it is striking downhill). But it is pure foolishness to underestimate the rattler's strike zone. The decision to strike or not to strike belongs to the snake, and one can never predict what that decision will be.
When a snake sheds its skin (one to several times per year, depending upon food supply and rate of growth), the eyes temporarily glaze over, reducing the snake's vision, which is none too sharp anyway. During this period, the snake is especially nervous and more likely to strike.
If the snake strikes, it determines how much (if any) venom to inject. Snakebite doesn't always involve injection of venom, for a couple of reasons.
- Perhaps the snake recently caught and killed some prey, and is low on venom.
- Perhaps the snake's venom glands don't produce very much.
- Perhaps the snake decides to reserve its venom supply for food and is striking only as a warning.
While death by snakebite in the U.S. is fairly rare, the injury caused by snake venom can be devastating. You rarely hear about victims of snakebite who don't die. But those who are bitten, injected with venom, and manage to survive frequently suffer loss of a limb. Rattlesnake venom attacks the circulatory system and digests the flesh surrounding the wound. The result may be a severely deformed limb, or amputation. Even a bite by a so-called “harmless” snake can lead to dangerous infection or allergic reaction.
According to the University of Florida, there are about 7,000 reported venomous snakebites in the United States each year. The University of Maryland Medical Center has the number pegged at roughly 8,000. Fatalities average 15 per year. The numbers indicate that people are not paying enough attention to what’s going on around them when they’re in snake country. Either that or they’re acting irresponsibly, a conclusion that's easy to reach, given that approximately 3,000 of the bites are classed as “illegitimate,” indicating that they occur when people are handling or harassing snakes, either trying to pick them up or kill them.
University of Florida statistics say that 85% of venomous snakebites are below the knee, indicating that stepping on a snake is probably a common cause. Other bites occur when the person steps over a log or beside a boulder where a snake is hiding. Deep grass and brushy country are also prime snake habitats that contribute to the snakebite statistics. Bites above the knee happen when the victim is trying to handle or kill a snake, or they are bitten when picking up logs or rocks or placing hands in dangerous spots while climbing or scrambling along a slope.
There are seasons when people are more likely to encounter venomous snakes — generally between late spring and early fall (March and October in most of the country). This varies with geography and local climate, so you should determine prime snake season for your own region. That doesn’t mean you can ignore the danger other than during that season, but it means that you should be especially vigilant when snakes are in season.
A snake safety plan should include the following:
- If you come across a snake, point it out to others in your group and then give it wide berth and leave it alone.
- If you know that you will be camping and hiking in snake country during snake season, wear high leather boots or snake gaiters and remain on clearly visible trails as much as possible.
- Stay out of tall grass and dense brush.
- Be careful where you place feet and hands, especially when climbing on rocks, around ledges or logs.
- Carry a long stick so you can probe the area ahead as you travel. But don’t use the stick to tease the snake or try to kill it.
The medical industry has developed antivenin to help counter the effects of the different types of venom, but knowing which type of snake inflicted the bite is critical to selecting the correct antivenin. Bring the dead remains of the snake to the hospital or give it to the medical response team that comes to your aid. But don’t get yourself bitten again or cause someone else to be injured trying to capture or kill the snake. After the snake is killed, remove the head and bury it or cremate it in a fire, because the fangs can still inflict a bite even if the snake is dead.
The current doctrine regarding field first aid treatment of snakebite is:
- Calm the victim and have him relax as much as possible, to slow the transport of venom through the body.
- Immediately call for medical assistance. Time is of the essence.
- While waiting for help to arrive, remove rings, watches or anything else that may restrict circulation when the affected limb swells.
- Wash the wound with soap and water. Don’t worry about becoming poisoned yourself while treating someone else, because the toxin doesn’t transfer that way.
- Use a splint to immobilize the limb, but keep it loose enough that it does not restrict blood flow. Periodically check fingers or toes (depending on which limb is affected) to make sure they are still pink and warm, indicating good circulation.
- Keep the affected limb lower than the heart.
- Monitor vital signs so you can tell the medical team what’s been happening.
- Apply a wide constricting band around the limb 2 to 4 inches above the bite to help slow the spread of venom. This is not a tourniquet, and it should not restrict the flow of arterial or venous blood. It operates at the capillary level of blood flow. Keep the band loose enough that you can easily slip a finger or two under it. Keep this in place until the victim reaches the hospital.
- Within 5 minutes of the bite, apply a suction device over the fang marks and leave it in place for 30 minutes, but do not slit the skin to open the wound before applying suction.