The following is from Santa Barbara Day Hikes by Ray Ford
“What do you do when you’ve been bitten by a poisonous snake and you’re hours from the nearest medical clinic?” the article starts off. I can picture the news anchor person reading the story cheerfully off the teleprompter. “We’ll tell you at eleven,” she says, a smile on her face.
”Don’t get bitten in the first place,” I want to scream out, as if I yell loud enough everyone who is watching Channel 3 will hear me.
I’ve got to admit it—I’m deathly afraid of rattlesnakes. They are the only thing that caused me to have nightmares when I was a little kid. When we came to California in the 1950s all my relatives seemed to be hung up on earthquakes. Not me. I could see snakes in my dreams. Everywhere. Big ones too. Ugly ones, with big fangs and about a thousand rattles. I get chills every time I go to the Museum of Natural History and push the button that makes the rattlesnake buzz (I still push it anyway).
Rattlesnakes are known as pit vipers because they have small holes, or pits, on either side of their triangular-shaped heads, just under their eyes, in which infra red receptors are lodged, enabling them to track their warm-blooded prey. A thin heat-sensitive membrane covers the back of these pit organs. The angle at which heat passes through the small holes and strikes the membrane provides a sort of solar radar tracking system. Rattlesnakes actually don’t see very well.
There are 31 species of rattlesnakes in the Western Hemisphere (a comforting thought), 6 of them found in California. Fortunately, only one of them reside in Santa Barbara County—the Western Pacific Rattlesnake—known under its Latin name as Crotalus viridis, a name that is more benign than its bite.
The Western Pacific Rattlesnake inhabits a variety of habitats ranging in elevation from sea level to 6,000’, which means you can find them anywhere in the County (another comforting thought). Personally I’ve sat near the top of San Rafael Peak and watched one of them warm up in the morning sun, so I know they’re everywhere. The peak is 6200’ in elevation.
Because they are cold-blooded, rattlesnakes are dependent on the environment for heat rather than relying on their metabolism to provide it. In the Santa Barbara area, where winters aren’t severe, they hibernate singly or in small numbers from late November through early March (this is good news, folks!). This means that you only have to worry about them from mid-March through the start of October.
Soon after awakening in the spring, rattlesnakes mate, giving birth a litter of from 6-to-12 live little ones, which are active almost immediately. Because they are inexperienced, they are the ones most often seen in the daytime.
Where will you find the Western Pacific Rattlesnake? Usually on rocky outcrops, rocky ledges, brush-covered slopes, rocky streams, and wherever you find piles of brush or debris. I’m always wary when passing the cone-shaped nest built by the pack rat. I figure there’s a rattlesnake lurking somewhere, waiting patiently for a tasty meal.
In the Santa Barbara area, rattlesnake coloring varies. Blotches that range from light brown to a dark black run the length of the snake, making it look like it has a diamond-covered topside. While the lighter colored ones are extremely beautiful, those that are almost black are menacing looking and seem to have an evil aura about them.
It has taken me a long time to accept the fact that these creatures play an important role in nature and deserve to be left alone.
Though the rattlesnake would prefer to rattle out a warning than strike, people do get bitten by them. Their range is about half the length of their body, usually a circular area about 1-2’ in diameter, though every time I see what I’m sure it will be able to leap out and get me, even if I’m a safe 15 feet away.
Each year about 20 people in the U.S. die from poisonous snake bites, mostly children and the elderly. Rattlesnakes account for about 60% of the bites and nearly all the fatalities. In the 30 years I’ve lived here, I only know of one person who died from a rattlesnake bite, but it can happen.
What should you do? While a number of remedies have been suggested over the years, ranging from use of snake bite and antivenom kits to cryotherapy (cold therapy), the most cautious—and probably best—treatment is to immobilize the affected part of the body using a splint and to keep the patient as calm and inactive as possible while heading to the nearest emergency room as quickly as possible.
So, what do you do when you’ve been bitten by a poisonous snake and you’re hours from the nearest medical clinic? Don’t get bitten in the first place! I can’t say that enough. Watch where you walk. Watch where you put your hands and your feet. Look first before stepping over a log or putting your hand up on a rock or a ledge.
And if you should see a rattlesnake, appreciate it for what it is—a necessary part of nature’s web of life—and stay clear. From afar, I’ve found that they are very beautiful creatures.