Snakes on a plain: Leave ’em be and they’ll leave you be

Snake safety

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Sacramento DIstrict
Published April 25, 2019
Snake Safety

A Western Diamondback is seen in this undated file photo. People can usually prevent being bitten by a snake by simply leaving it alone. Most snakes just want to go their own way.

Photo of Deb Lewis

Since safety is one of our major ongoing goals at the Corps of Engineers, Deb Lewis, a program manager for mega projects and also a biologist, provided a few safety tips in case you happen to have a close encounter with any snakes this summer.

You happen to be walking along a trail and see a snake lying in your path ...                                                                                                                       

If you see a snake on the trail, what should you do?
A. Scream and run hysterically
B. Hit it with your walking stick
C. Calmly go around the sweet critter
D. Go home and stay home

Deb Lewis is a project manager with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Sacramento District. She’s also a biologist who feels snakes have gotten a bad rap. Therefore, of course, the answer is C.

Speaking at a recent Snake Awareness seminar at Sacramento District headquarters, Lewis said, “If people would just leave snakes alone, the great majority of the time, they wouldn’t have any problems with them. Most the time, if somebody gets bit, it’s because they try to mess with the snake.”

Lewis wants everyone to be able to recognize which snakes are dangerous and which are harmless; not so you know which ones you can mess with, but so you know what to do should you happen to wind up in the wrong place at the wrong time and somehow get bitten.

There is only one venomous snake in our area, and that is the Northern Pacific rattlesnake, but Lewis wants people to understand that it is extremely rare for a person to die from being bitten by a snake.

“Out of the seven to eight thousand venomous bites that occur annually, only 4 or 5 result in death,” said Lewis. “Statistics tell us that you are three times more likely to die by dog attack, nine times more likely to die by bee sting, and 6,265 times more likely to die in a motor vehicle accident.”

Still not feeling safe enough? “You have a one-in-54.5 million chance of dying by snake bite,” she said.

So, if you are still afraid you are going to be that one in 54.5 million, the first thing you’ll want to learn is how to prevent being bitten in the first place. Which leads us back to the start of this story and answer C: Leave snakes alone. But along with leaving them be, keep in mind the following: Stay out of tall grass; Remain on hiking and walking trails; wear thick leather boots; keep your hands and feet out of areas that you cannot see into (such as under the edges of rocks, or dark crevices), and be cautious when climbing on and around rocks.

Now, if you do happen to get bit for some reason, here are the things you’ll need to remember: Remain calm; immobilize the bitten extremity and stay as quiet as possible to keep the venom from spreading throughout the body; remove any jewelry before swelling begins; keep the bite at, or below, heart level; cleanse the wound and cover it with a clean, dry dressing; apply a splint to reduce movement, but not so tight that blood flow is restricted; call 9-1-1 or seek immediate medical attention.

A couple other things to remember are that the old Hollywood western scenes where the cowboy slices the bite and sucks out the venom is a no-go. Don’t do it. Also, do not use a tourniquet, and don’t drink caffeine or alcohol if bitten.

Oh and remember the tale about baby rattlesnakes being more deadly than adults? “That’s a myth,” said Lewis.

While many people may feel like fleeing when encountering a snake, Lewis said she is grateful for the opportunity to see them in the wild. And she really wants people to understand that snakes almost always just want to go their own way.

“Snakes aren’t looking for people, and they don’t chase you,” said Lewis. “They just want to be left alone.” She smiled as she presented a few more examples of California’s resident snakes. “Look at these things. I mean come on! They’re just so cool!”

For more information on the do's and dont's of rattlesnake safety: