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Encore: Like sharks, rattlesnakes often inspire more fear than they deserve


Rattlesnakes in the West are a bit like sharks in the ocean. Fear has transformed them into deadly villains even though they rarely kill humans. So let's take a few minutes to learn more about them. Here's Madelyn Beck of the Mountain West News Bureau.

MADELYN BECK, BYLINE: Old Westerns often share one very similar bad guy.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) You're pretty good with that handgun, ain't you?

BECK: That's from the 1967 movie "The Last Challenge."

DAVID JENSEN: Second only to the Bible, Hollywood has done more to damage the reputation of the humble snake than any other single factor.

BECK: That's David Jensen, who owns Wasatch Snake Removal in Utah. His colleagues work around much of the state helping relocate snakes. He argues rattlesnakes aren't evil monsters.

JENSEN: Evil is not a force found in nature, OK? There are no evil animals or clouds or trees or plants or water or whatever. Evil's a human construct.

BECK: He notes that in Utah, it's generally illegal to kill any rattlesnake species there. Some species are even protected in other states, like Wyoming's midget faded rattlesnake and the New Mexico ridge-nosed rattlesnake. But not everyone follows the law. You even need a permit to move these venomous critters in many states, which is where organizations like Jensen's or wildlife officials come in to help.

JENSEN: We remove the snake and return it safely back to habitat under a license from the Division of Wildlife Resources.

BECK: However, you can kill rattlesnakes in Utah if you simply think they're a threat to your person or property. And that rule is the same across much of the Mountain West, from states like Montana and Nevada, that hardly have any rattlesnake protections, to states like Colorado, which has its own snake-hunting season. But how dangerous are these noisy snakes really?

JENSEN: The actual threat to humans is extraordinarily low.

BECK: The American Association of Poison Control Centers recorded about a thousand people who were bit by a rattlesnake last year. One of them died. That's a fairly typical year. Those numbers are nearly as low as U.S. shark fatalities. And the poison control centers say those who did die either didn't get the anti-venom in time or had an allergic reaction to the venom. However, you should still be wary. This summer, a 6-year-old boy in Colorado died from a rattlesnake bite, and around 10% of those bit still faced life-threatening effects, including nerve damage and amputation.


BECK: Out in the foothills of Boise, Idaho, Kristina Parker and I are poking around bushes looking for rattlesnakes with help from a metal snake-grabbing tool.

KRISTINA PARKER: Oh, wow, this is sneaky (laughter).

BECK: Parker is with the U.S. Geological Survey and has studied rattlesnakes. She says rattlesnakes are chronically misunderstood.

PARKER: The snakes are more afraid of you than you are of them.

BECK: These snakes are important to the ecosystem, eating vermin and cutting down on diseases they carry. Parker says you can discourage them from coming into your yard just by making sure it isn't inviting to prey like rodents or doesn't have shady hiding spaces like under a deck. However, in the unlikely event you do get bit...

PARKER: Don't tourniquet. Don't try sucking the venom out. Don't try any of those snakebite kits.

BECK: Instead, she says, make sure there isn't anything tight around the swelling bite area and call 911. Then call poison control centers.

PARKER: Poison control knows a lot better on care for venom injection than a lot of medical doctors because a lot of medical doctors don't have snakebites that often.

BECK: Beyond that, Parker says, just stay as calm as possible and get to the hospital. And one last thing - that old saying about baby rattlers being more deadly because they can't control the amount of venom they inject.

PARKER: That is 100% a myth.

BECK: A baby snakebite may be even less of a threat because those little bodies have less venom. For NPR News, I'm Madelyn Beck in Boise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Madelyn Beck
Madelyn Beck is Boise State Public Radio's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. She's from Montana but has reported everywhere from North Dakota to Alaska to Washington, D.C. Her last few positions included covering energy resources in Wyoming and reporting on agriculture/rural life issues in Illinois.