Experts: Give snakes some space as they slither into summer

Snakes ‘control rodents better than any critter alive,’ local snake expert Tom Wyant said. Though the venom of some species like the diamondback rattlesnake, pictured, can be deadly to humans, fatal snakebites are rare. Courtesy Jeremy Lane

It’s the rattle that gets the attention.

As the warm, rainy season sets in, snakes — including seven species of rattlesnakes native to New Mexico — are coming out of brumation (their version of hibernation) to hunt, drink and get some sun.

There’s good reason to let most species slither freely.

Deadly snake bites are rare — only about five per year in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — and experts say snakes provide an important service for mankind and the ecosystem. As climate change raises concerns about increased cases of insect-borne illnesses, snakes help prevent the spread of such diseases by preying on rodents that carry ticks and fleas.

“Snakes are Mother Nature’s perfect mouser,” said Tom Wyant, a local snake expert who rescues and releases snakes to places where they can survive and thrive.

“They hunt underground, they hunt above ground, they work at night and they control rodents better than any critter alive,” Wyant said. “Rodents carry plague, hantavirus, and those things kill more people than snake bites.”

The CDC reports that more than a third of human hantavirus cases are deadly. Only one case of the illness has been reported in the state this year. The New Mexico Department of Health also recently reported two cases of tularemia — a rare but potentially deadly disease spread by rodents that carry insects. Both cases were in Santa Fe County.

Snakes patrolling a ranch or home are likely looking for rodents, said Jeremy Lane, a spokesman for the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish.

“As long as it’s not a rattlesnake, it’s gonna be beneficial to that property,” he said. “It will help keep those rodents in check.”

Out of 46 serpent species in the state, eight are poisonous — the seven rattlers and a coral snake variety found in the southwestern corner of the state.

There’s little reason to fear the reptiles, experts say: It’s easier than you might think to step away from what could become an unpleasant encounter.

“The main cause for people being bit is because they are agitating or harassing a snake,” Lane said. “Trying to pick a snake up, trying to whack it with a garden implement, throwing sticks or rocks at it — that’s when people get bit.”

The New Mexico Poison and Drug Information Center at the University of New Mexico said it has received five reports of rattlesnake bites in 2019; the center logged 72 calls in 2018.

Bob Myers, director of the International Rattlesnake Museum in Albuquerque, which features 31 species of rattlesnakes, said people sometimes think venomous snakes are on the prowl, aiming to attack.

“The truth of the matter is, I’ve talked to a lot of hikers and campers who have told me they have never seen a rattlesnake,” Myers said.

His response to such comments: “Yes, but there’s a very good chance that they have seen you.”

Snakes are masters of hiding in their environment.

They have poor eyesight and can’t hear, Lane and Myers said. But they can sense vibrations around them as humans and other potential predators approach. More often than not, they’re likely to slither away or stay hidden.

Myers said spotting a snake while hiking, running or doing chores around the yard is a good opportunity to take a photo of it.

A photo comes in handy if you are curious about what sort of snake inhabits your area or if you get bitten. Such identification can aid emergency staff treating a wound and help biologists working to capture and relocate a snake.

If you do get bitten, experts say, stay calm and get medical aid.

Lane offered several tips on what not to do: Don’t put a tourniquet on the wound. Don’t run. Don’t try to kill the snake. Don’t wait to see if it’s a “dry bite” — one lacking venom — before seeking medical attention. Take off any jewelry near the wound that could cut off blood circulation as the area swells.

Definitely do not try to suck out the venom, like you’ve seen actors do in old Western movies. “That’s just an urban myth, an old wives’ tale,” Lane said.

Pets — dogs, in particular — are more likely than humans to get bitten by a venomous snake.

Eldorado resident and snake lover Bill Snyder said rattlers can become aggressive in early fall, shortly before they go into brumation. This is when dogs are most at risk of getting struck.

“Almost 100 percent of snakebites in September are the dogs’ fault,” Snyder said. “They are curious and want to get up close and see what’s going on. That’s all the snake needs, and he’s not gonna run from you — he’s gonna come for you.”

People often mistake the nonvenomous bullsnake in New Mexico for a rattler. Like the rattlesnake, a bullsnake can making a hissing sound when threatened.

But, Snyder said, “Bullsnakes are our friends.” He cited their propensity for hunting rodents.

New Mexico’s geography also offers habitat for the milk snake, the garter snake, the rat snake and the “whip coach” — a variety that includes the colorful and fast-moving red racer, which can reach up to 7 mph in search of prey or a place to hide.

The jury is still out on how climate change will impact these animals. While cold-blooded species tend to struggle more than mammals to adapt to environmental changes, biologists say, warming temperatures appear to be expanding the habitat for many snake species.

“We might see a larger range of regions where snakes are located,” Lane said.

That wouldn’t be all bad, he added: “That means that rodents move out.”

General Assignment Reporter

Robert Nott has covered education and youth issues for the Santa Fe New Mexican. He is assigned to The New Mexican's city desk where he covers a general assignment beat.