Above: A black-tailed rattlesnake is on the move after relocation to suitable desert habitat outside Sedona.
The word “rattlesnake” sends fear through most people and for some, just the thought of a snake evokes sheer terror.
With that in mind, consider that reptile houses at zoos usually exhibit a good percentage of rattlesnakes because they are a reliable tourist draw. It seems most people don’t mind facing and even enjoy confronting their fears as long as it’s from a safe distance.
I have always been interested in animals of all kinds but I must confess, like most people, I was pretty intimidated by the thought of encounters with poisonous snakes. Growing up in suburban Philadelpha, Pennsylvania, the snakes I came across outdoors were mostly small and harmless garden varieties, such as garter snakes and De Kay’s brown snakes. I took a big step toward the fine art of snake handling however when I got a job with the education department at the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences as a presenter for their live animal shows. My job included handling large constrictor snakes such as their resident 10-foot anaconda, along with a variety of other snakes and reptiles, in a regularly scheduled show-and-tell presentation to an auditorium of screaming, squirminq school kids.
In the late nineties, I moved west to New Mexico where poisonous snakes, especially rattlesnakes, were commonly found, especially in rural areas at lower elevations.
I was eager to experience the complete range of animal species that populate the desert landscape. While visiting a pet shop in Santa Fe, I met a fellow reptile enthusiast, Rob, who was a full-time employee. After I expressed my interest in exploring some good, active reptile sites, I was invited to accompany him on his next snake hunting adventure.
About two weeks passed and I received a call from Rob. He had a request from an advertising agency that needed a picture of a five-foot rattlesnake for a client’s magazine ad. I agreed to join him for that afternoon’s rattlesnake hunt.
We drove thirty minutes to a wilderness area surrounding a large reservoir. After leaving the car, we hiked to a location where Rob assured me that large rattlesnakes like to bask in the late afternoon. He was going on about how they love to warm themselves in the sun to raise their body temperature. That way, they could be active during the evening, their preferred time for hunting small ground rodents.
I was excited to get started. Rob outlined the plan, which was to collect as many large rattlesnakes as possible in the time we had before the angle of the sun no longer illuminated their burrows. At that point, we would compare the snakes and keep the largest, most beautiful specimen for the photo shoot.
Rob led me to a spot where he said he had a large rattlesnake by the tail just several days earlier.
Left: A western diamondback rattlesnake in striking postion blends in with its surroundings. Note the distinctive black and white tail pattern near the rattles.
We walked to the edge of a cliff where a series of rocks descended, creating a natural step down to a twenty-inch-wide ledge which extended fifty to sixty feet across until the rock merged with the cliff face. Rob pointed to a series of holes: crevices that paralleled the rock ledge at shoulder height. He said that it’s an ideal location to find the biggest rattlesnakes and this was where he had a very large specimen by the tail just the other day.
My enthusiasm quickly waned as I sized up the situation.
First, I am not particularly fond of heights—especially cliffs or narrow ledges strewn with loose rock rubble—as this was. Second, there was no maneuvering room to wrangle a writhing, pissed-off, five foot rattlesnake into a cloth pillow case. Third, the holes, being at shoulder height, gave all the advantage to the snake. At every crevice opening I would potentially be facing a startled rattlesnake not more than twenty inches from my face. But wait—Rob did mention that the rattlesnake would warn us before it tried to strike by rattling its tail.
I was keeping my assessment to myself when Rob added, “Oh yeah—it’s best not to use your snake hook to catch them; just reach in and grab the snake by the tail if it tries to go deeper into the hole.”
“That’s what they usually do,” he assured. I was waiting for some kind of punch line to what seemed a bad joke but none was forthcoming.
At this point, I asked my intrepid companion, “What happed to the large rattlesnake you had by the tail the other day?”
“Oh, I only was able to grab him by the rattles but he was so strong the rattles broke off in my hand and he got away. And then he went back down the hole.”
Great—so there would be one, very large rattlesnake that had no rattles and wouldn’t be sounding any alarm before it struck.
Hey, call me crazy too because here I was, following Rob on my first western rattlesnake wrangling adventure. He was being generous as he did not ask me to lead the way.
We were about a third of the way along the cliff ledge when my macabre sense of humor prompted me to ask, “Hey Rob, we’re so far from the hospital, what happens if one of us gets bitten?”
Rob smirked and with a line that could have come right out of the movie Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid. He said, “Shoot—more than likely you’ll be so startled by the snake’s strike you’ll instinctively jump back off the cliff ledge and fall to your death before the venom has a chance to work.”
Fortunately, the weather was changing. The wind picked up and the temperature dropped. Snakes are not usually active under these conditions and stay hidden, deep in the rocks. This day we would not find any rattlesnakes.
Adventures with Sedona Rattlesnakes
By 2000, I had moved to Sedona, Arizona. Sedona exceeded my expectations with a full spectrum of wildlife encounters. In what is known as Red Rock Country, there are javelinas, mountain lions, bobcats, mule deer, black bears, snakes, lizards, turtles, toads, frogs and enough birds to entice the most serious of birdwatchers.
There are rattlesnakes too. Arizona has 13 rattlesnake species, more than any other state in the US. Of these, less than half are found in Sedona. They are: the black-tailed rattlesnake (Crotalus molossus), the prairie rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis), the Hopi rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis nuntius), the Arizona black rattlesnake (Crotalus oreganus cerberus), the Mohave rattlesnake (Crotalus scutulatus) and the western diamondback rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox).
The Arizona black rattlesnake (left) and the Mojave rattlesnake (right), are both found in and around Sedona.
I volunteered with the Humane Society and the Sedona Police Department to help relocate any snake a homeowner wanted removed from their property.
Left: The Hopi Rattlesnake is boldly marked, yet easily camouflaged among desert brush.
Not long after, the requests for help began to come in, from residents wanting rattlesnakes removed from their patios, rock retaining walls, and under-house crawl spaces. Often, these were brand new houses built on wild desert land and I suspected a rattlesnake had already been living on the property long before the building construction.
Despite the fact there are more, I typically came across four kinds of rattlesnakes: the black-tailed rattlesnake, prairie rattlesnake, Hopi rattlesnake, and the Arizona black rattlesnake.
On several occasions, my wife and I would see the black-tailed rattlesnake during our evening walks in West Sedona. They would be crossing the road or warming themselves on the pavement. It was my practice to find a long stick (at least 4 feet long) and push the snake off to the side. Rattlesnakes like many desert animals are often killed trying to cross the road.
After receiving one particular call to remove a rattlesnake, it took thirty minutes to get to the property. The snake was still in the same spot where it was first sighted. Every rescue followed a similar pattern. The snakes appeared to be resting in a shaded area, waiting out the heat of the day for the cooler temperatures of dusk, the time when they would typically go hunting for dinner.
I was called to the same location more than once to remove another rattlesnake. One particular property was located on the edge of State Forest land and had been newly built the previous year. The multimillion dollar home was situated on sloping terrain with stunning red rock views in every direction. A rear patio off the main dining room was set down from the sloping ground level with a retaining wall to hold back the desert rocks and soil. The problem with the design: the top of the wall was the same height as the down sloping ground level. That meant that every crawling desert critter that came slithering down that hill would fall off the edge and right onto the walled-in patio floor, creating the perfect man made trap.
I had a feeling I would be called to this location repeatedly. And I was!
Above: The black-tailed rattlesnake is difficult to see when coiled on the ground. A rattlesnake may remain in the same spot all day.
The rattlesnakes I relocated always surprised me, not by their unpredictable movement but by their calm behavior. In every situation when I approached them, there was no aggressive response. If I came to within four to five feet of the snake, it would usually begin to rattle its tail, an act that motivates most creatures to make a quick retreat. In all my rattlesnake captures, I don’t recall any snake trying to strike at me. I would gently clasp the snake at the neck with my snake hook and place it in a transporting bucket with a locking, screw-on lid.
Once I had driven to suitable rattlesnake habitat, I would safely release the snake to its new home.
Most Sedona homeowners, even those who have lived in Sedona for years, have never seen a rattlesnake. In fact, the most common snake in Sedona is the bull snake, also known as the Sonoran gopher snake, a large but harmless snake that actually eats rattlesnakes!
If you should find a rattlesnake on your property, contact Sedona Animal Control or the Sedona Police. Most of the time, rattlesnakes will leave on their own, never to be seen again.
A Few Tips to Help Keep You Safe from Snake Bites
- When in the Southwest during the warmer months always use a flashlight while on an evening stroll. Rattlesnakes typically hunt at dusk.
- Use heavy gloves and a rake to remove brush and debris while gardening on your property and avoid reaching into dark areas to retrieve an object. Be careful reaching under a workbench in your garage or moving a pile of rocks or firewood from the stack.
- When hiking or climbing in the forest, avoid placing any body parts too close to crevices that could conceal a resting snake.
- If you should come across a snake, keep a safe distance—at least six feet. This will ensure that you are outside the striking range.
- Listen to the sound of a rattlesnake on the Internet. This will greatly help you recognize the warning: http://vimeo.com/651634
Article by Chuck Oldham, co-publisher, Gateway To Sedona. Photos of the black-tailed rattlesnake by Chuck Oldham.