Coast's 'healthy' snake population finally emerging; bites
by Clark Mason
A Northern Pacific
rattlesnake tests the air Friday during a lecture by Al Wolf
Sonoma County Reptile Rescue for a group of rangers at Lake
Wolf was teaching the rangers how to identify various snakes
they may encounter on the North Coast.
Rattlesnake sightings have increased this month.
Look out, it's snake season.
Thanks to plenty of rain and a good
food supply for the rodents that snakes feed on, snake
wranglers say Northern California is ripe with rattlers.
"With this hot spell coming up, snake calls will go way up.
I can count on it," said Al Wolf of Sebastopol. "As it
gets warm, I get five to 12 calls a day."
Wolf has been handling rattlesnakes for nearly two decades,
moving them from people's gardens and out from under porch
steps and relocating them to more remote areas.
Even with shrinking wildlife areas and growing numbers of
humans in Sonoma County, Wolf says the snake population is
"It's grown over the last 10 to 12 years, since winters are
so constantly mellow," said Wolf, a retired San Francisco
Mellow, yes. But this year, also wet. That long,
wet spring kept rattlers in their dens and delayed their
"This year, July has been a little heavier," he said of
snake encounters. "Everything is a month to a month
and a half late, because of the late winter and rains."
Greg Frost, a Clearlake man who retrieves snakes for Lake
County Wildlife Rescue, noticed the same phenomenon.
Usually, he starts to get calls to remove rattlers in late
April. But this year, it wasn't until late May, when
the weather finally started to warm up.
"My calls didn't start until three or four weeks after they
normally start," he said. "It was green and cooler
longer. We were having cooler nights."
State statistics appear to confirm Wolf's and Frost's
Reported rattlesnake bites in California were lower in early
spring this year, compared to last. But this May and June,
the total of 87 bites for the two months was up by more than
50 percent, compared to last year's 56 rattlesnake bites for
the same period.
And the four reported rattlesnake bites in Sonoma County
this year have already surpassed the three for all of 2005,
according to statistics kept by state poison control
The numbers provide a partial snapshot because they
represent only cases in which the poison center was
consulted. Some physicians are comfortable treating
snakebites without calling the poison center for advice.
Two of the rattlesnake bites in Sonoma County happened this
month. And as the summer heats up and people take to
the outdoors, the threat will continue, even beyond August,
when bite incidents typically peak.
"As long as the weather is hot and dry, we need to be
concerned and vigilant about rattlesnake appearances," said
Judith Alsop, director of the Sacramento division of the
state Poison Control System.
One of those keenly aware of the danger is Lisa Schaffner,
who was walking a dog in the Geyserville area June 21 when a
snake bit the dog.
Schaffner, a Healdsburg City Council member, was
housesitting for friends in a hilly area on the east side of
the Russian River, in a rural subdivision with a wooded
She had just walked her 7-year-old boy and 9-year-old girl
and their friend over to the Vineyard Club clubhouse.
"I was walking back with the dog and the snake was an inch
or two inches from the road. It jumped right up and
bit the dog," she said. "The snake was very
Schaffner never heard a telltale rattle, but said, "I saw
the snake retreating. He was long, close to 4 feet.
He was a big, fat one."
Winston, an older yellow Labrador, was taken to the
veterinarian for treatment and survived the snakebite, as
most dogs and humans do.
But what especially bothered Schaffner was that her children
were vulnerable, because they had just walked past the spot
where the snake struck.
"That was the scary part for me, once I got over the fact it
bit the dog," she said.
Snake experts say rattlers tend to strike only when
threatened or deliberately provoked. Given room, they
Most bites happen when a rattlesnake is handled or
accidentally touched by someone walking or climbing.
Nationwide, rattlesnakes account for more than 800 bites
annually, but only one or two deaths, poison control
The rattlesnake is California's only native venomous snake.
While there are six rattlesnake species in the Golden State,
the only one in the northern half is the Northern Pacific
rattlesnake, found from Fresno to Washington. It can
be seen anywhere from sea level to 10,000 feet elevation.
The cold-blooded reptiles usually come out to bask in the
warmth of late mornings and afternoons. They retreat
to their dens before coming out again at nightfall to hunt
From Petaluma to Windsor, most of Wolf's calls tend to be in
the hills east of Highway 101. That includes numerous
calls in Santa Rosa's relatively new hillside Fountaingrove
In the west county, he gets snake calls along both sides of
the Russian River toward Forestville and Guerneville.
The vast majority of snake bites, he said, occur when
"people are working in their yard, picking up stuff and
State officials said rattlers are also pretty good swimmers,
and sometimes people are bitten when they pick up a snake
they mistake for a floating stick.
"Rattlesnakes are appearing, showing up in rivers, creeks
and waterways, near reservoirs and lakes," said Alexia
Retallack, spokeswoman for the state Department of Fish and
Game. Because it was a high-water year, many snakes
were displaced, she said.
With the increasing urban inroads into wildlife areas,
officials say people will meet up with all kinds of animals,
whether bears, mountain lions or snakes.
"As we encroach on the territory of the rattlesnake and
build more and more houses in the countryside, there will be
less country for the snake and they will be in town and in
populated areas where there's a greater chance of
encounters," said Alsop.
KEEPING SAFE FROM SNAKES
First, know that rattlesnakes are not confined to rural
They have been found near urban areas, in river or lakeside
parks, and at golf courses.
Be aware that startled rattlesnakes may not rattle before
Here are several safety measures:
Never go barefoot or wear sandals when walking through wild
Wear hiking boots.
When hiking, stick to well-used trails and wear
over-the-ankle boots and loose-fitting long pants. Avoid
tall grass, weeds and heavy underbrush where snakes may hide
during the day.
Do not step or put your hands where you cannot see, and
avoid wandering around in the dark. Step on logs and rocks,
never over them,
and be especially careful when climbing rocks or gathering firewood.
Check out stumps or logs before sitting down, and shake out
sleeping bags before use.
Never grab "sticks" or "branches" while swimming in lakes
Rattlesnakes can swim.
Be careful when stepping over a doorstep.
Snakes like to crawl along the edge of buildings where they
are protected on one side.
Never hike alone.
Always have someone with you who can assist in an emergency.
Do not handle a freshly killed snake; it can still inject
Teach children early to respect snakes and to leave them
Children are naturally curious and will pick up snakes.
Source: Dept. of Fish and Game
*The Press Democrat,
Santa Rosa, California, Monday, July 17, 2006.
News Researcher Vonnie Matthews contributed to this story.
You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or