wildlife tyl

A rattlesnake was spotted at Wind Wolves Preserve. 

With winter long gone and spring waving goodbye, people are increasingly heading outside to work in their yards, hike on backcountry trails and just lounge around in the shade.

Another kind of California resident is out in force, too, after having spent the winter sheltering from the cold.

Rattlesnakes have come out of hibernation, and they’ve already bitten at least two people in Kern County.

Adventist Health Tehachapi Valley reports that two people have been treated for rattlesnake bites already this season.

The bites were reported in April and May, a few weeks apart.

The Tehachapi facility usually treats between one and two snakebites per year, said spokesman Harold Pierce of Adventist Health.

There's already been an uptick in reports of snakebites to the California Poison Control System, a voluntary phone line that provides advice to individuals and medical professionals dealing with snakebites.

Rais Vohra, medical director for the Poison Control Center’s Fresno-Madera division, said the center received more calls than usual in April and May.

In April alone, he said, the center received one snakebite call per day.

“We’re still pretty early in the snakebite season so we’re pretty concerned with that trend,” he said.

Most snakebites occur in Southern and Central California, he said, noting that they usually occur in the foothills.

“The urban areas don’t tend to report a lot of bites, but that’s where the hospitals are,” he said.

The best advice for avoiding snakebites: Be aware of your surroundings, and don't put your hands and feet in places you can’t see. Wear boots and protective clothing when you're hiking as well.

Across the country, between 7,000 and 8,000 venomous snakebites occur each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with an annual average of 800 in California.

Nationally, only about five people per year die from venomous snakebites because nearly everyone seeks medical care.

With summer kicking into high gear, more snakebite opportunities will present themselves as human-snake interactions increase.

“It’s that time of year,” said Peter Tira of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife's information office. “It’s late spring with warmer weather conditions. Snakes are just like people. They’re out and about, they’re on trails, they’re outside sunning themselves. And people are more active as well.”

Snakebites usually happen in accidental encounters, with both humans and snakes ending up surprised.

“Most individuals who are bitten by a snake get bit in the ankle or legs,” Pierce said. “Oftentimes, those who are bit are hiking or trail running, and don’t even see the snake before they are bitten. In other cases, they step on the snake and it perceives the human as a threat.”

Most of the time, a snake will slither into the underbrush without the human even knowing it was ever there.

“Given the opportunity, snakes will almost always get out of the way,” Tira said.

Humans aren’t the only creatures that end up on the bad side of rattlesnakes. Dogs get bit too, and sometimes it’s their fault.

“Many dogs don’t know what a rattlesnake is and they are very curious,” said Gina Gables, of Ma & Paw Kennel Canine Training Services.

Gables has taught a rattlesnake avoidance training course for dogs throughout Southern and Central California for the last 27 years.

After hearing countless stories of rattlesnake interactions with dogs, Gables said she has come to understand the reptiles' typical behavior when they come face-to-face with dogs.

“If they feel threatened, they’re going to coil up and try to stay facing their enemy,” Gable said. “And try to strike at it if the warning doesn’t make it go away.”

When dogs are off the leash, exploring around the edges of a hiking trail or even playing in a backyard, they typically exhibit one of three behaviors when confronted with a snake, Gables said.

Some dogs will see a snake and go directly up to it for a closer look; others will become cautious and try to sneak up on the snake; and some dogs will put their tail between their legs and run in the opposite direction.

In Gables’ classes, she shows dogs live, muzzled, rattlesnakes and then exposes them to negative stimulus when confronted with the sight, scent and sound of a rattlesnake.

Dogs should know to stay away from snakes after being conditioned to do so, Gables said.

In the unfortunate event of a bite, medical help should be sought immediately.

“The longer a bite goes untreated, (the more) chances increase venom will spread throughout the body and cause complications,” Pierce, of Adventist Health, said.

The cure for a venomous bite is best left to the experts.

“There’s a lot of misinformation and folklore about how to treat snakebites,” Vohra, of the Poison Control Center, said. “Don’t do tourniquets. Don’t try to suck on the wound. Don’t try to do any fancy first aid. Just get on the phone and call the hospital.”

Sam Morgen can be reached at smorgen@bakersfield.com or 661-395-7415

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