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‘You don’t hear them’: Silent baby rattlers pose risks for the unsuspecting

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PHOENIX – In the shade of a fountain gracing the front yard of an Ahwatukee home, Jeffrey Hill faces two coils: one a garden hose, the other a Western diamondback rattlesnake measuring barely a foot long.

Still a baby, the snake hasn’t developed the rattle needed to signal its alarm, something that can result in unpleasant surprises.

“You get them in places you wouldn’t expect to find a rattlesnake: in swimming pools, up on porches,” said Hill, field agent for Rattlesnake Solutions. “People reaching down to empty out their leaf skimmer or pool filter, they’ll take off the plastic cap and there will be a baby rattlesnake in there. You don’t hear them.”

That’s exactly the message that experts are trying to spread with rattlesnakes being born around Arizona during monsoon season.

Not only are baby rattlesnakes silent, they can be more likely than adults to bite.

“To a 3 ½-foot adult rattlesnake on the ground, a human being looks like a giant,” said Nate Deason, serpent curator at the Phoenix Herpetological Society. “Now imagine how a human looks to a snake that is only 8 or 9 inches long – it’s absolutely terrified. So a lot of times, they will strike repeatedly.”

In the first year of life, most rattlers lack the enzyme in their venom that causes swelling in victims. But they have just as much enzyme as adults to interfere with the blood’s ability to clot, a condition known as coagulopathy that leads to excessive bleeding.

This can leave victims unaware that they’ve been poisoned, according to Dr. Keith Boesen, director of the Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center, part of the University of Arizona’s College of Pharmacy.

“If your arm swells up because you were bitten on the hand, you’d go seek help,” Boesen said. “But if you didn’t have any swelling, you may not know that you have bleeding problems until it becomes very advanced – like when you have blood in your urine or stool. Now you are already bleeding somewhere, and we need to treat that aggressively.”

Dr. Frank LoVecchio, toxicologist at Banner Good Samaritan Medical Center, said doctors must draw blood to learn whether a snakebite injected venom.

“Baby rattlesnakes are infamous for causing bites that look like a dry bite,” LoVecchio said. “We’ve seen patients come in with no swelling, but their blood work was so bad that we concluded, ‘Yes, that was probably a baby rattlesnake.’”

All rattlesnakes – babies and adults – are very active in late summer as they prepare for hibernation in October.

“Last Saturday in the Tucson area alone, we had eight bites in 36 hours. That’s a lot of bites,” Boesen said.

He added that baby snakes are on their own from the moment they are born and will seek out a meal wherever they think they can find it, not only in the desert but inside homes.

“We had it happen here. A guy was at home in bed, then came in to the hospital and said, ‘I don’t know what is going on. My hand is swelling up,’” Boesen said. “We identified it as a snakebite. We recognized it as a potential rattlesnake bite. Someone went home and found a rattlesnake under his bed.”

But Deason, with the Phoenix Herpetological Society, is careful to point out that any suggestion of baby rattlesnakes being more dangerous or venomous than adults is flat wrong.

“The venom is not worse; they cannot deliver more venom than an adult,” he said. “It would always be worse to be bitten by an adult.”

As for the danger rattlesnakes pose to people, Deason suggested thinking about it from the snakes’ point of view: Coming into contact with humans is the last thing they want to do.

“Nothing good is going to come out of it,” Deason said. “They can’t eat us. If they attack us, they are only wasting venom and energy that is going to make it harder for them to survive in the wild. It’s a losing proposition.”