How should you handle a rattlesnake?

Erik and I witnessed a completely avoidable human-rattlesnake encounter when visiting Southern California in April, and fortunately neither species suffered an injury or fatality.

The Southern Pacific rattlesnake (Crotalus oreganus helleri) is a highly venomous member of the pit viper family, and among the largest of California’s eight species of rattlers.

These snakes are omnivorous, and range from two and one half to nearly four feet long. They have relatively stubby tails, but most people, ourselves included, would  want to approach them more closely to look for that identifying characteristic.

About 250 people are bitten by rattlesnakes in the Golden State annually, with about 50 snakebites occurring in Southern California. People generally get bitten only when these reptiles are threatened or cornered, which is usually the case wherever snakes reside.

While walking along a majestic oak-shaded creekside trail in a California state park this past spring, Erik and I came to a more open grassland environment, where we saw a man crouching low, camera in hand, about five feet away from a Southern Pacific rattler.

My first thought was “Oh shit! I hope this person doesn’t get bit, or worse.”

My second thought echoed one of Forrest Gump’s observations: “Stupid is as stupid does.”

Erik and I approached about ten feet closer, still a good ten yards away from the snake.

We casually asked the man how he came across the creature he was photographing. Pointing to a long pole with a metal hook he had set on the ground, he shared how he had moved the snake from its shaded resting place to a sunnier spot so he could get better pictures.

Forrest Gump was dead right.

Erik and I maintained a healthy distance out of striking range as the man continued corralling the snake with the crook to get a better angle for his pictures. Thinking we might end up responding to a life-threatening emergency, we hung out a few minutes longer, just in case.

After a while, the man seemed to lose interest, and put away his camera gear and crook. He mentioned that next on his bucket list to catch and photograph was the Mojave rattler, the most venomous of California’s rattlers. Meanwhile, the involuntary subject of his photo shoot high tailed it away, likely toward the shaded refuge it had been occupying in the first place.

As we left the park, we told some rangers about what we had observed, and they asked whether we had taken any photos of the man or of his car license plate. We were so focused on the human-wildlife encounter that the only pictures we took were of the snake itself, from a very wary distance.

Whether I’m in California, Yellowstone or anywhere else, I’ve observed that everyone acts differently when encountering wild and potentially dangerous situations, especially where man may not necessarily be the dominant species.

Some people appear to be temporarily hypnotized and spell-bound, unable to resist inching closer towards rattlesnakes, bison, bears, or thermal features, all of them capable of injuring or killing you in a heartbeat with the slightest misstep.

Our behavior and actions have a profound impact on ecosystems, their biotic inhabitants, and the planet at large. Worldwide, wildlife management is largely people management, informing how to tread lightly, respect wildlife and their needs, and weigh the impacts of our actions on landscapes and the experiences of other visitors.

I suspect the riled up rattler could have bitten a child, another vulnerable person or perhaps another snake whisperer later that week. Like any species subjected to people approaching too closely, it probably spent considerable time wavering in flight or fight mode, expending energy crucial to survive and thrive through the spring and beyond.

Erik and I skimmed the Los Angeles Times for the next few days, checking to see if anyone had been bitten or worse by a rattlesnake in the region. Thankfully there were no news stories to that effect.

I thought further about motivations people might have when appoaching and photographing wildlife in protected and other places. I wondered whether they consider their individual photographs to be more important than the animal’s life, livelihood and well being, or their long-term survival as a species.

As Homo sapiens, wise humans, we are innately equipped to live and come from a deeper place beyond where our egos, immediate needs and desires reside.

We’re hardwired to envision, create, and care for something greater than ourselves and for future generations, especially when we remember to slow down, step back, and consider the bigger picture. And that picture includes not only humankind, but all beings with whom we share this planet, including Southern Pacific rattlesnakes.