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Good conditions for rattlesnakes, but run-ins with people should be rare

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PHOENIX – After two straight winters with enough rainfall to create good conditions for rattlesnakes, hikers, hunters and golfers have extra reason to be on alert as temperatures warm, experts say.

But that doesn’t mean they should be afraid to head outdoors. Rattlesnakes want to be around people as little as people want to be around them, and with a little care it’s relatively easy to avoid an encounter.

“The No. 1 thing is to always know where you’re putting your hands and your feet,” said Zen Mocarski, the Arizona Game and Fish Department’s information and education program manager for the Kingman region.

Randy Babb, information and education program manager for Game and Fish’s Mesa region, said rattlesnakes are defensive by nature.

“What most people don’t realize is if they spend a lot of time outdoors, they have walked literally within inches of these animals many times and never had a negative encounter,” he said. “People feel like these things are out to get them or that they’re waiting for an opportunity to pounce upon the unsuspecting hiker, when in reality these animals go through great lengths to avoid conflicts with human beings.”

Russ Johnson, president of the Phoenix Herpetological Society, said wet winters give snakes more to feed on in the spring, increasing the population.

“Two years in a row we’ve had sufficient rain which helps with the quality of the grass seed,” he said. “This helps the rodents and the birds feed, which become the food source of the snakes.”

According to Game and Fish and statistics from Banner Health, injuries and fatalities resulting from snake bites are rare.

“If you get bit you’re probably going to live, you’re just not going to want to,” Johnson said. “It’s very painful, but only a few people die. So it’s a lot less than dog bites.”

For those who do encounter a rattlesnake, backing away until the snake stops rattling its tail is a safe way to avoid conflict. Giving the creature a wide berth and staying out of its striking range is the best strategy.

Mocarski with Game and Fish said a large number of people bitten are males in their 20s.

“Partying in the desert can definitely lead to people doing stupid things like trying to pick up a rattlesnake,” he said. “And then they’re trying to impress the females and that also leads to some bad decisions.”

Ann Marie Krueger, education and community outreach coordinator for the Banner Good Samaritan Poison and Drug Information Center, said the demographics of people being bitten are starting to change, however.

“What we’re seeing now is the age of people coming in with a snake bite is starting to get older,” she said. “More elderly people seem to be recreating outdoors and are getting bit, like golfers who are looking for their ball and forget to be aware they’re still in the desert.”

Babb with Game and Fish said people should know what to do if they encounter snakes but shouldn’t be paranoid about finding them everywhere.

“When you look at statistics, you’re far more likely to die by slipping in the bathtub or getting struck by lightning than you are to die from a venomous snake bite,” he said. “In a 10-year period we had 1,912 bites and only four fatalities, so these animals are venomous to acquire their prey, not to kill you or your pets or your children.”

Even if a bite victim isn’t showing any symptoms, Mocarski said it’s important to contact poison control.

“Forget everything you ever saw in the old movies because you cannot suck out venom,” he said. “Contact the medical professionals and let them make the decision because everyone reacts to a bite or a sting differently.”