Rattlesnakes: Reputation vs. Reality

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Misinformation abounds when it comes to rattlesnakes, chief among them, that they are aggressive blood-thirsty animals that will chase people around and bite unprovoked. While it is true they are venomous and that a bite from a rattlesnake is potentially life threatening, they aren’t out there looking for people to chase. Most rattlesnakes are actually quite docile animals and, when given a chance, go to great lengths to avoid confrontations with humans.

On rare occasions, a person might unknowingly step on, or place their hand next to, a rattlesnake, resulting in a defensive bite, but most rattlesnake bites are the result of someone messing with the snake, meaning the snake was defending itself, not attacking. No matter what the circumstances, a bite from a venomous snake is serious, and when those bites result in permanent injury or death, very tragic. I do not mean to gloss over this truth, but the vast majority of rattlesnake bites are avoidable with no need to harm the snake. So, if rattlesnakes aren’t out to get us, so why do so many people tell stories about being chased by rattlesnakes? 

Timber Rattlesnakes hunt by waiting next to logs that rodents scamper along. When hiking off trail in rattlesnake habitat, it is important not to step over logs without peering over them first, to avoid stepping on and surprising the snakes. Wearing snake boots or chaps is also recommended.

Do rattlesnakes chase humans? Simply put, no, but when a snake of any kind is moving toward a human, their movements can be misinterpreted as an attack. Usually a snake chase story is the result of a misunderstanding of the snake’s behavior, and often the stories are exaggerated to some extent (sometimes not on purpose – our minds tend to increase the size and speed of things that instill fear). In the rare instances where a rattlesnake approaches a human on purpose, they aren’t trying to kill or chase the person away. Likewise, when a squirrel approaches me, I know it isn’t trying to kill me, but when it comes to snakes, the same behaviors are interpreted very differently.

When living in Texas, Kiley filmed every encounter he had with Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnakes to document their reactions. Instead of attacking as snake lore would have you believe, every single one fled in the opposite direction.

When snakes do approach they are probably just curious or simply unaware of or ambivalent to any humans present and are trying to get from point A to point B. In cases where they try to climb onto a boat, they are just trying to get out of the water. When approached or surprised by a human, if there isn’t cover nearby for a rattlesnake to flee to, they might hold their ground, or even inch toward a human or predator while rattling in hopes of scaring it away. While you might not want a rattlesnake approaching you for any reason, their top crawling speed is only about 5 miles per hour, so they aren’t going to outrun you by any means. Whatever the reason for a snake to approach, just walk away, and it will go in the opposite direction. North American snakes approaching aren’t close calls or attacks – they are just interesting encounters.

When well-hidden, rattlesnakes sit still and won’t rattle unless they know their cover is blown. Using radio telemetry, it took me several minutes to locate this snake’s tail (rattle in center of the pic), and I didn’t notice the snake was watching me the whole time until viewing the photo at home and seeing its face (top right). During our encounter, the snake never moved or rattled.

By far, the most common victim in conflicts between snakes and humans are the snakes. When a rattlesnake rattles, an indication that it is scared, people take that as a call to arms and attempt to dispatch the snake. Contrary to popular belief, rattling it isn’t actually a threat. Rattling is a courtesy from the snake to let you know it’s there and to leave it alone. In many cases, they only rattle when they are found out in the open or if they know their cover is blown. A rattlesnake’s first line of defense is camouflage, and the best way for them to ruin their camouflage is to move or to rattle. A good example of this is an encounter I had over 10 years ago with a Timber Rattlesnake that was sprawled out on the forest floor. 

This Timber Rattlesnake (bottom left) remained perfectly still in hopes I would not see it and walk by, but the moment I made eye contact with the snake it rattled as a courtesy to let me know it was a rattlesnake and to leave it alone.

Blending in with the leaflitter, the snake remained perfectly still, and I would have overlooked it had it not been carrying a radio transmitter. While scanning the forest floor for the snake, it remained motionless, but the moment I made eye contact with the snake it coiled into a defensive position and began to rattle. The snake waited until it knew for certain I had found it, and only then issued a courtesy rattle in hopes I would leave it alone. Were it not for the radio transmitter, I might not have even noticed it and just walked right by, which is what the snake probably hoped would happen.

This Timber Rattlesnake had nowhere to hide when he was found in the woods, so he took a defensive posture and rattled his tail to warn approaching humans not to mess with it. This was not a snake attack, or even a close call, but just an encounter in which both parties walked away unharmed.

I can understand why most people do not appreciate having rattlesnakes around their homes, especially when children or dogs are involved, but if you live in an area where rattlesnakes are common, killing the ones you encounter doesn’t mean there won’t be others. A game warden or wildlife removal service can relocate the snake, but everybody should practice some basic venomous snake hygiene when it comes to living and recreating within the rattlesnake habitat:

  1. Keep lawns clean and free of clutter. Tall grass and piles of clutter are great places for snakes to hide. Without a place to hide, the snakes won’t stay long, and while they are passing through, they are easier to spot. If you garden, inspect the ground underneath your plants before reaching in blindly. 
  2. Use a flashlight when walking at night, especially through brush, and don’t walk around barefoot if you can’t see what’s in the vegetation near your feet.
  3. Be mindful of where you place your hands and feet. Moving firewood without gloves and stepping over logs in natural areas without peering over the edge first are great ways to surprise snakes, including rattlers.
  4. If you are walking off-trail, wear protective chaps or snake boots that protect you from the knee down. 
  5. Don’t mess with rattlesnakes. This should go without saying. Most people who are bitten were messing with the snakes by attempting to pick them up or kill them. A freshly killed snake can still bite, as can recently decapitated heads.
  6. Leash pets when recreating in natural areas and, if possible, fence their play area at your home. Some dog trainers also offer affordable rattlesnake aversion workshops.
  7. If rattlesnakes are particularly common in your area, consider investing in professionally installed fencing to keep snakes out of the yard.
  8. Teach children to respect snakes and leave them alone until they are old enough to learn how to ID non-venomous species.

    For more information on coexisting with snakes, check out: https://savethesnakes.org/coexist/

By following the above practices, an encounter with a rattlesnake can be just that, an encounter, and one that ends with both parties going their separate ways after all is said and done. An encounter with any snake can be a very rewarding experience if you try to look at the snake with respect rather than fear. As Dr. Chris Jenkins, Orianne’s CEO and the host of the Snake Talk podcast, likes to say, you may find that what you perceive as fear may actually be rooted in a deep fascination.