Season of the snake

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The local rattlesnake population may be on the rise. Experts offer precautions you can take to avoid getting bitten such as-never tease a snake to see how far it can strike.

By Lisa DuMouchel/Special to The Malibu Times

Sometime after mudslide season and before the end of wildfire season, Malibu residents must brave the dangers of rattlesnake season-with a growing snake population, according to some experts.

“We need to recognize that the local natural ecosystem is out of balance,” said Kay Fransen of the Malibu Animal Clinic. “There are no natural predators of rattlesnakes left. As a result, the problem is only going to get worse.”

The potential to encounter California’s only native venomous snake is highest from February to November.

“We’ve treated at least 65 pets for rattlesnake bites so far this season,” said Kathy Sangster of the Pet Emergency Clinic in Thousand Oaks. “And that’s just at this location. This is higher than usual.”

Bo Slyapich, a private rattlesnake wrangler here in Malibu, agrees. He has been capturing rattlesnakes at private properties and relocating them to the wild for 16 years. He says rattlesnakes in Malibu and surrounding areas seem to be more prevalent.

“I’ve been catching as many as four snakes a week this season -more than usual,” he said. “The rains we’ve had and the heat are bringing them out.”

While rattlesnakes are not aggressive, the California Poison Control Center reports that more than 800 people a year are treated for rattlesnake bites in California.

“We respond about once a week to calls for help with rattlesnakes,” said Capt. David Reed of Malibu Fire Station 71. That’s about the standard amount of calls, he added, and doesn’t think the problem is increasing.

In Malibu, a rattlesnake encounter is just as likely to occur in a backyard as out on the trail. Homeowners are always advised to call for trained assistance to capture or dispose of a rattlesnake. Malibu residents can call the local Fire Department, Animal Control Services or a private rattlesnake wrangler.

There are also choices on how to deal with a rattlesnake.

“If we receive a call about a rattlesnake, the Fire Department’s policy requires us to destroy the animal,” Reed explained.

But private wranglers like Bo Slyapich can provide the more humane alternative of relocation.

Slyapich also offers this

advice on how to reduce the attractiveness of your home and property to rattlesnakes.

“Bird feeders can be dangerous because they attract rats and mice, which attract rattlesnakes,” he said. “It is important to keep rat and mice populations low. Fix leaky pipes, keep garage doors closed and maintain trimmed bushes.”

For homeowners who encounter more than the occasional rattlesnake, rattlesnake-proof fencing, with small mesh that goes below the ground, is available.

The key to preventing a potentially fatal rattlesnake bite is simple avoidance. “Most bites occur when people try to handle a snake,” Slyapich said. “A rattlesnake’s head can deliver a venomous bite up to three days after being severed from its body.”

Additionally, don’t step or place your hands where you cannot see them, such as in tall grass, dense bush or in a woodpile. Check swimming pools before getting in. When hiking, ankle-high boots and long pants are recommended.

In the unlikely event of being bitten by a rattlesnake, the best first aid is calling 911. Rattlesnake bite victims must go to a hospital for care because most urgent care centers, including the one here in Malibu, do not treat poisonous snakebites. While waiting for medical help, the American Red Cross recommends washing the bite with soap and water. It is important to keep the bite immobilized and lower than the heart.

Slyapich added, “Despite what you might have seen in the movies, sucking or cutting into the bite is a bad idea.”

The California Poison Control Center also lists the following tips on its Web site:

€ Always look for concealed snakes before picking up rocks, sticks or firewood.

€ Always check carefully around stumps or logs before sitting.

€ When climbing, always look before putting your hands in a new location. Snakes can climb walls, trees and rocks and are frequently found at high altitudes.

€ Never grab what appear to be sticks or branches while swimming. Rattlesnakes are excellent swimmers.

€ Baby rattlesnakes are poisonous and can and do bite. Leave them alone.

€ Never tease a snake to see how far it can strike. You can be several feet from the snake and still be within striking distance.

€ Don’t keep rattlesnakes as pets. The majority of rattlesnake bites occur when people (usually intoxicated young men in their 20s) tease or play with their “pet” rattlesnake.

€ Teach children to respect snakes and to leave them alone.