Misinformation alert: The hottest summer months are not the most dangerous time of year for you or your pet to encounter a rattlesnake. Snakes don’t come out to “sun themselves” on the rocks, “emerge from hibernation,” or prey on you or your pet.
“When it gets to be a 100 degrees, they shift to night time,” said Cale Morris, venom manager at the Phoenix Herpetological Sanctuary in northern Scottsdale.
“The heat burns them just like it burns you,” Morris said. When it’s like 82-degrees at midnight, they are moving, but they’re moving to find a place to get out of the coming sun.”
The truth is that the most likely times for a rattlesnake encounter are at night during the hottest summer months and during April and August, he added.
There are 13 species of rattlesnake in Arizona, the largest variety of rattlers in the United States.
While a bite is painful and dangerous, the good news is that medical treatment is available and its administration straightforward.
“People will try to capture them or kill them and it delays medical attention,” Morris said. “You get bit. You go to the emergency room. All the emergency rooms have anti-venom and they have plenty of it.”
There is only one anti-venom that is an antidote for every venomous snake in America, a relatively new phenomenon.
“The beauty of that,” said Morris, “is that you don’t have to know what you have been bitten by.”
But the same can’t be said for dogs.
“It’s a life and death situation for dogs,” said Morris. “If a dog gets bitten by a rattlesnake … when they run right up to it and bark and get bit in the nose, in the muzzle, it swells up and makes it hard for them to breathe, they definitely need anti-venom. They can die from it.”
Veterinarian Dr. David Haworth that while “humans are more often bitten on their hands, arms and ankles,” the location of the dog’s snakebite makes it so much more dangerous.
“Due to the extraordinary swelling associated with snake venoms, the closer to things like airways and GI tracts, the more urgent the need for intervention,” he said.
For some reason, cats are not nearly as susceptible to snakebites. First, Haworth says, because they are much less likely to be bitten due to their size and quick reflexes. And for whatever evolutionary reason, cats are better able to weather a snakebite.
“The impact of the venom on them seems to be less than for dogs,” Haworth said. “Same thing for horses and even more so for cattle.”
“There are also approaches to demotivate dogs who are really into snakes,” Haworth says. “Usually it involves getting the dog to run away when they hear a rattle or see something that looks like a snake.”
The population of Arizona has grown dramatically over the past two decades, but somehow, the number of reported snakebites has not increased along with it.
“Our averages really haven’t changed,” said Dr. Bryan Kuhn, a pharmacist and clinical toxicologist with the Banner Poison Control Center. “
“If you think of where people move, Maricopa County has been expanding outwards for quite a while. We don’t really grow up, we grow out,” he said. “That’s putting residents closer to the boundary of where the natural habitats of snakes are. So, intuitively you would expect more bites.”
So why hasn’t the number of reported snakebites increased? The Herpetological Sanctuary’s Cale Morris credits a focused and extended informational campaign.
“We have been doing education outreach programs for the past 21 years here in the valley,” he said. “We taught a total of 250,000 people last year through tours and outreach programs. This year will be even more.”
He also credits an increase in social media activity and the Sanctuary’s one million TikTok followers. “It definitely is making a difference,” Morris said.
Dan and Debbie Marchand started the sanctuary in 2003 when someone illegally had two American alligators in their Phoenix swimming pool, which were rescued by wildlife officials.
With nowhere to take them, the wildlife officials called Dan Marchand, a known wildlife enthusiast.
The alligators – named “Charlie” and “Lucy” after the Peanuts comic strip characters – were rehomed in a shallow wading pool on Marchands’ land, two and half acres of wild Sonoran Desert at North Scottsdale and Dynamite roads and the sanctuary was born.
The most improbable of Sanctuary residents was the result of a prank one friend played on another.
Chuck Simmon was a homesteader in northern Arizona, near a place called Pakoon Springs. A friend somewhere across the country thought it would be funny to mail Simmons a baby alligator, which he kept and fed on his land until 2017.
Having disappeared from view for a while, Simmons left the alligator for dead when he vacated his place, now part of the Parashant National Monument in the Grand Canyon.
When the Bureau of Land Management went in to clear the overgrown reeds, they discovered Clem, severely malnourished, underweight, and in need of a home.
The BLM called Marchand, and the sanctuary bolstered its reputation as the go-to place for rescued reptiles of all sorts. It’s currently home to more than 200 venomous snakes, bearded dragons, crocodiles, gila monsters, tortoises and a host of other creatures over its 2.5 acres.
“It’s like a no-kill animal shelter,” Morris said. We don’t euthanize the stuff,” Morris said. “We educate people.”