Living with Snakes Basics for New Arizona Residents

Photo by Brandon Harmon, Rattlesnake Solutions

Many people move to Arizona for our near-constant sunshine, and mild winters. These also make for perfect conditions for reptiles, which to the dismay of many homeowners, live in great numbers throughout the state. Where our neighborhoods meet the desert, an encounter with a snake every so often is just part of life.

The valley is home to 6 unique species of rattlesnake, all of which pack a harmful, venomous bite. A bite, which if logic prevails, is almost always optional. Rattlesnakes are on the menu for many desert predators. They’re nervous, shy, and like most animals, will try to prevent their own death when it is threatened. Rattlesnakes do not chase, jump at, or come after perceived predators, regardless of the numerous, fictional tales we as Arizonans are sure to hear. The fact is; rattlesnakes encounters are almost always harmless if in nature, and optional in our yards.

So what is the home owner to do, when a venomous visitor suddenly drops by one morning, coiled on the porch and going nowhere? The first thing to consider: nobody is in danger. The snake has been seen, and the only way anyone will be within range of a bite is if they put themselves there. Statistically, this is what many shovel-wielding husbands will do, becoming the single largest bite statistic, by far. A bite to the hand of a home hero can cost well over $100,000, cause incredible pain, and result in disfigurement and occasional death. Contacting a professional to remove the animal costs around $100, and is absolutely safe and humane.

Taking one step back – why is the snake there? Isn’t there some way to keep them from being there in the first place? Fortunately there is. Here are a few tips to keep your yard as rattlesnake-free as possible:

  • The desert is a hard place to live; make sure your yard isn’t an oasis. Rattlesnakes want food, water, and shelter. Deny those, and the yard is nothing interesting. Fix leaky hoses, keep the yard clean, and make sure all of the bushes are trimmed and free of dead plant material underneath.
  • If you have a view fence or wall surrounding the property, complete the barricade. Door sweeps and wire fencing can be installed to keep animals out. It’s a relatively inexpensive Saturday project for the handy, or contact a snake removal company to install it for you.
  • Forget the store-bought snake repellents and mothballs; they simply do not work. Many pest control companies will swear they do, but all research points to repellants being a smelly waste-of-money.

Dogs can be trained to avoid rattlesnakes by a number of businesses around the valley, and an inexpensive vaccine can be requested by most veterinarians. Keep dogs on a leash in desert areas, and have emergency information on-hand if you live near open, native desert.

Despite the very high number of snakes that are found here, bites still make the front page when they occur. It is a relatively rare event with an extremely low fatality rate, which somehow still occupies a place in our culture as a major threat to be feared by every desert home owner. As citizens in this amazing Sonoran habitat, it is the responsibility of all of us to be peaceful, well-informed co-inhabitants with the desert wildlife. Rattlesnakes may be the thing of nightmares to many, but that is an optional fear that, like most fears, fades to nothing with a willingness to learn and a touch of understanding.

In the valley, the most common places to run into a rattlesnake in your own yard are Cave Cree, Scottsdale, and other areas where there is a lot of development and contact with native areas.

Most Commonly Encountered Snakes in the Phoenix Area

Western Diamondback Rattlesnake

VENOMOUS – Grey to tan in color, between 1’ and 4’ long. Easily identified by the distinct white and black banded tail, and rattle. Defensive in nature but easily avoided if encountered. Do not attempt to capture, kill, or otherwise interact with this snake.


Sonoran Gophersnake

BENEFICIAL – Also commonly misidentified as a “bullsnake”. Tan, yellow, or orange in color, with dark brown blotches, between 1.5’ and 5’in length. Defensive if attacked, but non-venomous and will not bite unless attacked. A gophersnake is great free pest control.


Desert Nightsnake

BENEFICIAL – Grey or dark brown with double rows of spots on the back, between 8” and 14” in length. Often confused with a baby rattlesnake due to elliptical eyes and triangular head. Absolutely harmless, this snake feeds on spiders and scorpions in the yard.


Speckled Rattlesnake

VENOMOUS – Highly variable, this snake takes the coloration of rock where it is found; orange, brown, white, or light grey. It is small, between 1’ and 3’  in length. If seen, do not approach this snake for any reason.


Longnosed Snake

BENEFICIAL – Often confused with the kingsnake, this snake is between 8” and 3’ long. It eats lizards and their eggs. They are absolutely harmless, and can reduce rattlesnake-attracting prey in a yard.


Kingsnake

BENEFICIAL – Black and white banding from head to tail, and between 1’ and 4’ in length. Kingsnakes consider rattlesnakes a primary food source, and are great to have on a property. They may bite if picked up, but are otherwise completely harmless.


Coachwhip

BENEFICIAL – Fast, slender, and between 1’ and 5’ in length. May be black, olive, or red in color. This snake eats rattlesnakes and other prey items and should be kept as-is if seen. They will bite if picked up, but move away quickly if seen and are difficult to capture.

24/7 Removal Hotline: 480-237-9975

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Snake Identification & Information: email photos to info@phoenixsnakeremoval.com

Rattlesnakes and Pool Noodles. Do you need to freak out?

No. Use your pool noodles to noodle as much as you can noodle. Though some recent news may make it seem as if rattlesnakes and pool noodles have something to do with one another, it’s really a another mix of slow-news-day meets non-issue.

Here’s a link to the video of Bryan Hughes from Rattlesnake Solutions talking about the issue on the local news.

Here’s another report that was on ABC15, where Greyson Getty from Rattlesnake Solutions talks about what’s really happening and how to avoid it.

Rattlesnakes are often found in areas where people keep their pool equipment. It’s hot out there, getting up to 111F this week! Contrary to popular belief, rattlesnakes really don’t like excessive heat. In fact, too much will kill them. A body temperature of about 105F is potentially deadly to a rattlesnake, so during this hot and dry portion of the summer, they need to find a cool, dark place to wait until better conditions come back with the rain.  The places where people store pool equipment are often perfect for this kind of behavior, called estivation … which is kind of like hibernation, but for the heat, rather than Winter conditions.

Pool toys stacked in the corner, or in this case, against a block wall, can create a shaded, damp area that is much cooler than the surrounding exposed yard. This can be very attractive to rattlesnakes trying to escape the summer heat, especially when the pool toys are routinely stored in the same spot, and not often used. While a snake being actually inside of a pool noodle isn’t most likely a very common scenario, rattlesnakes using pool toys and being found under them is very common and one of our go-to spots whenever we do a property inspection, looking for the kinds of places that rattlesnakes are found in the yard.

What you can do to avoid rattlesnakes showing up near your noodles:

  • Keep your pool toys up off the ground, or in a box
  • Store them in a place that can get hot, and avoid areas alongside the home that receive more shade than other areas
  • If you don’t have a box or can’t keep them up off the ground, change the location of where you store them each time you use them.
  • Make sure to never store pool toys in an area where rodents are digging holes, or access to other cover exists
  • Have snake fencing installed to keep rattlesnakes out of the yard and away from the pool
  • Keep pool toys away from other pool equipment, like the pump area, and especially from decorative rock features and plants

Mostly, though, take the story with a grain of salt, and don’t let it stop you from enjoying the pool. There are some aspects of the story that seem a little bit fishy, like a “very large” rattlesnake being in a space only a little larger than an inch in diameter, and the report of other snakes being in there, too. If it were mid-July, I can see how a rattlesnake could possibly be giving birth to other rattlesnakes in something like a pool noodle, but this early in the year, it’s very unlikely. I have personally found a mother Western Diamondback Rattlesnake with her newborn babies in pool toys several times, but if you do as the items above suggest, it shouldn’t be something to worry about at your house. Store this one in your mental list of things to worry about somewhere between “wiggly wheel on a shopping cart” and “I asked for no mayo and this has mayo on it”.

Changing the Snake Kill Culture: Do More Than Educate

Research published in Science Magazine this month shows that the buy-in rate where a community adopts social change happens at a surprisingly-low tipping point: around 25%. This is where a shift towards change at a culture-level begins, and what was previously unmentionable becomes the new normal.

http://science.sciencemag.org/content/360/6393/1116.full

What does this have to do with rattlesnakes? Potentially a lot, actually. In much of the United States, Rattlesnakes are loathed at a community level. There are individuals and smaller groups of course who know better, and those of us who really enjoy them, but this is not socially popular in most places. In some areas, like much of Texas, killing rattlesnakes is a point of pride and so baked into the culture itself that is seems unlikely to ever change. Killing snakes is not just an aspect of ignorance; it is a point of pride in protecting property and pets. It is a part of identity, of a person and community; the brave protector, the outdoorsman, the lifestyle that city folks just can’t understand.

With some knowledge of what rattlesnakes actually do and why they do it, we can assume a few things. Rattlesnake encounters are not as dangerous as many snake-killers promote or believe (these may be different). Rattlesnake encounters in residential areas are largely preventable. Rattlesnakes are generally smaller, slower, and less super-being athletic than is widely believed. Basically, the reality of rattlesnake danger and how it can be avoided, when understood, is in quite a bit of conflict with the wider perspective.

This seems like good news. So why is sharing this information with devoted snake-killers so difficult? Why are sections of society unwilling to take in information that is of such obvious benefit? Even if a person truly hates of fears these animals, why choose to cling to it?

The prevalent attitude towards changing minds when it comes to snakes is to educate, and only educate. This can work very well for those of us that value education and knowledge. But for many individuals, and in fact many aspects of our culture, it’s not going to change a thing. At a community level, the road to change the social benefit a snake killer receives from upholding socially-praised values is a very long one that may never truly change the cultural feedback loop. There are many reasons that cause people to kill snakes that have nothing to do with lack of knowledge or personal safety.

I believe there is bias towards education-only communications by many educators, because education and knowledge is of value to us. We enjoy learning, and consider being proven wrong a way to refine and better understand the world. But not everyone thinks this way. Not everybody welcomes potentially world-view changing information, especially when it is tied to personal identity, or their value as a member of society. Ultimately, education makes the difference, but we can’t ignore the social pressures that also drive this behavior.

Reaching the Tipping Point

Treat the needless killing of snakes as you would any other animal. Make it socially unacceptable to do so. Remove the social benefit that the killer receives from their action, and deny them the expected praise. Give information and educate as much as possible, but be aware enough to understand when you are being trolled or otherwise potentially even damaging the effort by doing so. In short – make the action of needless snake killers socially unacceptable, where the social benefit of being knowledgeable and reasonable on the topic is more desirable.

Experiment in your local community group on Facebook (or similar) – smaller groups are easier to work with. Educate wherever possible, but don’t be afraid to voice your opinion. Don’t get in long or drawn out arguments, just state your piece and go. Most importantly, support and uphold others who share your point of view with information and, yes, social praise. Focus less on changing the mind of a single person, but the overall attitude of the group. Make it socially beneficial to be informed and reasonable. Chip at it and watch what happens over time, as the general voice changes from “kill em all” to a more reasonable tone, and even one of pride in the diversity of wildlife in the area.

This is obviously a much more complex problem than will be fully addressed here, but fortunately the way that activism can affect social change is well documented.