THE BLOG
08/07/2014 06:22 pm ET Updated Oct 07, 2014

How Do You Untangle an Angry Rattlesnake?

How do you untangle an angry rattlesnake? Very carefully, of course!

Rattlesnakes have a bad reputation, and certainly they can be very dangerous (as illustrated by the precautions taken by WildCare Medical Staff when treating this patient... watch in our video above), but in fact these snakes provide a real service to the environment by eating large numbers of rodents and other small mammals.
Rattlesnake at WildCare. Photo by Alison Hermance

They're also shy, and don't actually want to bite you. Very obligingly, rattlesnakes give you a good warning before they strike, offering you the opportunity to back away safely. A few simple measures can make it easy to live in harmony with rattlesnakes.

This is good news, because high summer is the prime time to see snakes basking on rocks along hiking trails. Of the many diverse species of native snakes in California, the venomous Northern Pacific Rattlesnake is the only one that is dangerous to people.

But humans are dangerous to these snakes too! When a San Rafael, California resident saw this large rattlesnake snarled in the garden netting in her yard, she knew he needed help.

rattlesnake tangled in garden netting. Photo by Alison HermanceRattlesnakes know their best interest lies in avoiding contact with humans, not biting them. But our gardens and yards provide excellent habitat for rats, mice, voles and other small mammals that rattlesnakes eat.

When this particular snake tried to sneak up on a meal, he's the one that got trapped. WildCare has treated 10 garden-netted snakes this year alone, our highest number ever.

The San Rafael resident knew to be cautious around these vipers, so she called WildCare's Living with Wildlife Hotline. We instructed her to contact the local Humane Society to send an officer to help.

The officer used a long-handled snake pole to lift the animal into a box and then brought him to WildCare.

Fortunately Nat Smith, WildCare RVT is experienced with handling snakes, so he took the lead in capturing the reptile for his exam and treatment. First Nat carefully inserted snake tongs into the box, which allowed him to hold the snake's head immobile until he could capture it. The triangular head of a rattlesnake actually makes holding it fairly straightforward, once the proper grip has been established. Nat then transferred the snake's head to his heavily-gloved hand, which gave him complete control over the animal, despite the snake's continued angry rattling.

this rattlesnake has garden netting even in his mouth. Photo by Alison HermanceAs Nat lifted the snake out of the box, it became clear that the netting was not just wrapped around the animal's body, it was also in his mouth! Fortunately some gentle pulling allowed Nat to remove the plastic from the snake's jaws. Then Director of Animal Care, Melanie Piazza carefully snipped the netting away from the snake's body.

Injuries caused by entanglement present in different ways on a snake than they do on mammals or birds. Because their scales are strong but also flexible, the netting doesn't always break through them, so there often aren't open wounds that need treatment the way there would be on another entangled animal. Instead most of the injuries on a snake are compression injuries, which are much harder to diagnose. Examining the snake, it was obvious where the material had compressed and squeezed the snake's body, but it wasn't clear how much damage to internal organs or deep tissue may have resulted.

Even though no significant open wounds were found on this rattlesnake, once all the netting had been removed, Medical Staff placed him in a warm antiseptic soak to prevent any possibility of infection. Then he was given a quick injection of anti-inflammatory medication and placed in a heavily locked reptile enclosure.

The only way to really ascertain the damage the snake had suffered is to wait until the snake sheds his skin. Once the top layer of skin is gone, wounds present and the snake's true injuries become clear. Keeping a rattlesnake in a rehabilitation setting can be a challenge, but fortunately a WildCare volunteer built us specially-designed caging for patients like this one. The cage is escape-proof and lockable. The snake was placed in this secure cage to rest and, in the next week or so, shed his skin.

Rattlesnake ID

A rattlesnake's rattle. Photo by Alison HermanceSo, how do we know it's a rattlesnake? Well, the rattles, of course, when the snake is in the Wildlife Hospital. However, out in the wild, the sound of rattling can be imitated by other snakes taking advantage of the rattlesnake's frightening reputation, so the rattling sounds aren't a definitive way to identify a snake in the field.

Rattlesnakes' rattles are made of keratin, just like their scales and our fingernails, and they are this pit viper's helpful way of warning us that he's dangerous. Rattlesnake babies are born with what is called a pre-button. The baby snake loses this piece when it sheds its skin for the first time. With the first shedding, the beginning of the snake's rattle (called a button) appears. With every shedding another button, or rattle, will be added. The rattles are actually empty; the noise comes from the segments knocking together, so until a rattlesnake has two buttons, it can't make a noise.

The shape of the snake's head is a better way to identify it. Look for a triangular head with vertical pupils in the eyes; all other snakes have a "thumb-shaped" head. Pit vipers are so-called because they have a heat-sensitive organ called a "pit" between each eye and nostril which together help it accurately aim its strike at its warm-blooded prey. The dark-colored pit shows up clearly on the rattlesnake's face, but you may not want to get close enough to see it. The vertical pupils and shape of the head (triangular = venomous) are the best ways to identify a venomous snake.

WildCare's chart for identifying venomous vs. non-venomous snakes.

Living With Rattlesnakes

Rattlesnakes share our environment, and they provide a real service to us by helping control rodent populations. A recent study of the Timber Rattlesnake demonstrated that these snakes indirectly help humankind by keeping Lyme disease (and other rodent-borne illnesses) in check. Rodents can carry Lyme-infected ticks, but those rodents eaten by rattlesnakes don't have the opportunity to spread those ticks to humans. Click to read the article.

How do you avoid being bitten? First of all, stay alert. Rattlesnakes live among us in sunny rocky areas, and they don't know the difference between your rock garden and open space. If you're hiking or disturbing any rocky habitat on a sunny slope in your garden, such as repairing a retaining wall, protect your lower leg area with boots or closed shoes and long pants.

When hiking, remember to always STEP UP onto logs, rocks or other obstacles, rather than stepping over them. A rattlesnake may be resting on the other side of the obstacle that you can't see. Stepping up gives the snake some warning that you're coming, and allows him to slither away.

Rattlesnake. WildCare photo by Dana TerryIf you see a rattlesnake, David Herlocker, Marin County Open Space Naturalist advises, "Most of the time, we can just walk around the snake. The snake is happy to continue whatever it is doing, and we can pass without even eliciting a reaction. The most likely reaction on the part of the snake is to simply sit and let you pass. The next most likely reaction is that the snake will slowly retreat to a safer hiding place... it is often the attempt to kill or chase off the snake that puts people at risk; the animal is cornered and then approached. It's a good formula for getting bitten."

Rattlesnakes are preyed upon by King Snakes, hawks and eagles. In turn, rattlesnakes feed on rodents, squirrels, rabbits and other small animals. Ground squirrels particularly dislike rattlesnakes, and have developed some interesting adaptations to drive them off, including harassment, dirt-kicking and biting, immunity to venom (in some cases), and a behavior called "tail-flagging," in which the squirrel's tail heats up to confuse the snake's heat-sensing pit organs, and makes the snake think it has encountered a much larger animal. The squirrel knows the difference between a rattlesnake and other snakes, and saves its most aggressive confrontations for rattlers.