Snake, Rattle and Roll

Local hiking trails are starting to see more activity as summer approaches, and not just from humans. Rattlesnakes are out and about.

As temperatures rise, rattlers leave their dens to spend more time sunning themselves and hunting, which can pose a challenge for unwary hikers and their pets, or even homeowners walking into their backyards. Experts say a person is as likely to hear a telltale rattle on their own property as they are on a hike.

Franny Bohner headed out for a walk recently in the wooded Oak Forest Estates neighborhood of Westlake Village and saw a 3-foot rattler on the street in front of her home.

“I yelled for my husband, who kept an eye on the snake while I called the fire department,” Bohner said. “We were scared for our dogs.”

Like many rattlesnake encounters, Bohner’s ended without incident.

Bonnie Lantz of North Ranch wasn’t so lucky.

Last August she had a meet-and-greet with a rattler in her backyard. She said she heard a yelp from her Siberian husky, who apparently had decided to “get nosy” with a snake near a fence in their yard.

“He ran down the hill crying and rolling his face in the grass, then hiding in the garage.”

The snake’s venom took effect quickly.

“His face immediately began to swell, and my friend helped me get him in the car,” Lantz said.

She said that once they got him to a local pet emergency room, she saw that “the side of his face was ripped open.”

The dog received antivenin treatment and stayed under veterinarian care for three days.

“It was frightening and I felt so helpless. He has a permanent scar, but he was saved,” Lantz said.

There are several factors determining the danger posed by a bite—the size of the dog, the location of the bite and the size of the snake. In any case, owners should seek treatment as soon as possible. The sooner the pet receives the antivenin, the greater their chance of survival.

An average of 8,000 people get snake bites around the country each year, but there are only five or six deaths. A person is more likely to be struck by lightning than bit by a snake, but residents should still be on alert.

The Southern Pacific rattlesnake is the most common type of venomous snake in the region and is considered quite dangerous if provoked.

Round ’em up

Calabasas resident Bo Slyapich, known as the rattlesnake wrangler, has made a living removing venomous snakes from people’s homes for nearly 60 years. He said 2021 has been one of his busiest seasons due to the heat, and it has only just begun.

“We’re getting longer and longer seasons. We’ve changed nature. I’ve been working into December some years,” Slyapich said.

“Female rattlesnakes can have over 20 babies in a season, and that’s what we’ve been in seeing in the last couple years. They’re having more kids than usual because it’s warmer; there’s more seeds, which means more rodents, which means more food.”

Slyapich said that, contrary to popular belief, more urban development doesn’t mean fewer encounters with snakes. Rats benefit from the presence of humans, and their chief predator, the rattlesnake, isn’t far behind.

He’s found the slithery neighbor under Frisbees and skateboards, pulled them from garages and from the inside of homes.

“If you leave your house door open, they’ll come in. It’s just a cave to them,” Slyapich said.

Words to the wise

Homeowners should keep plants from encroaching on walkways and trim them several inches off the ground so snakes have nowhere to hide. Secure trash in bins; eliminate food sources that might attract rodents, such as fruit fallen from trees and seeds from bird feeders; and look for leaking sprinklers and spigots that might provide water to thirsty wildlife.

Lantz had snake fencing attached to the wrought-iron fence in her backyard, but after the incident with her dog, she said, she’s taking more precautions.

“We are now using a couple of rattlesnake repellents in hopes it will keep them away,” she said.

There are varying reports about the effectiveness of commercial rattlesnake repellents, which can include powdered sulfur placed around the home or stakes that send ultrasonic vibrations into the ground to disrupt the snake’s senses.

For hikers worried about rattlesnakes, the wider the trail the better. A narrow path surrounded by dense vegetation can conceal a snake until it’s too late, but on wide trails reptiles are easier to spot and avoid.

“Always be aware for your safety and your pets’,” Lantz said.

Ana Beatriz Cholo, spokesperson for the National Park Service, said hikers should keep their dogs leashed and stay on the trail to avoid any chance encounters with a snake.

“Rattlesnakes are often encountered on trails, but they are easy to spot if you’re on a well-maintained trail or road,” Cholo said. “Avoid disturbing them. Walk slowly around them if they won’t move, or wait until they move. Do not throw anything or try to hit them with something. They are more delicate than they look.”

A rattlesnake’s distinctive rattle is a warning to people to stay away, but dogs, curious by nature, may not understand that it’s a sign of danger and will approach the snake.

What to do

There are many programs that train dogs to identify and avoid rattlesnakes. Owners can have their pets vaccinated against a bite just in case. The vaccine won’t make a pet immune, but will reduce the effects of a bite and buy the owner time to get their animal to a veterinarian.

If a person is bitten, it’s important to keep their heart rate low as exertion helps spread the venom faster. Call 911 immediately and remove any jewelry that might restrict swelling. Don’t apply a tourniquet, ice the wound or cut it with a knife or razor—and never try to suck out the venom.

Slyapich has a deep respect for rattlesnakes, and they seem to feel the same about him. In 57 years of trapping and removing snakes, he says, he’s never been bitten.

After he catches the snakes, he releases them on private land deep in the Santa Monica Mountains.

“I have clients with properties that are hundreds of acres in the mountains where I release the snakes (so that) a dog, a kid, a mountain biker won’t get bit,” Slyapich said.

“I release them because there’s no need to kill God’s creatures.”

In addition to catching snakes, he teaches other people how to approach the reptile. His clients include park rangers, animal control officers and members of Malibu Search and Rescue team.

He said he doesn’t plan to retire anytime soon.

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