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Snake savvy

When Julie Toste’s missing 8-month-old cat Brewster returned to her Penn Valley home May 20, she was shocked.

“His face looked like it had been run over by a truck, it was totally swollen,” she said, and the once-stout cat died shortly thereafter, miserable and emaciated. “He was the best friend I ever had,” Toste said Wednesday.

What she didn’t know until Brewster’s autopsy was that it died from rattlesnake venom poisoning. She quickly figured that a missing kitten, Trooper, was also a victim, probably bitten by a rattlesnake, as well, and then consumed.



Toste had seen rattlesnakes on her property near Highway 20 through the years “but it wasn’t until this happened that I realized what a problem it was.”

Fearful to go outside to even tend her garden after the mishap, Toste called Heather Ramirez of Ramirez Rattlesnake Removal in Auburn. Ramirez found no more snakes but warned Toste that her brush piles and the winter wood stored under her home were perfect places for rattlesnakes to lurk.




According to Ramirez, rattlesnakes are lurking in large numbers all over the Northern California foothills these days.

“There’s an incredible amount of snakes out there now because the rodents have done well the past two years” with weather that let them flourish, particularly this spring’s mild temperatures and lack of rain.

That caused the rattlesnakes to come out of hibernation a little early, as well, and, “It’s pretty much Thanksgiving for (rattlesnakes) every day,” Ramirez said in a phone interview between removal jobs.

“I just caught a couple from an apartment complex in Roseville,” Ramirez said. She and her husband, Len, are as busy as they’ve ever been in the 20 years they have trapped and relocated rattlesnakes in the northern Sierra.

“We’re capturing more snakes per call and getting more calls,” Ramirez said. “We keep developing and encroaching more into rattlesnake habitat, and they are creatures of habit.

“That rock outcropping where they used to hibernate is now a garage, and people wonder why they find them there,” Ramirez said. “If you’re near a river, lake or stream, you have a big potential for rattlesnakes. A lot of people don’t think rattlesnakes are a big deal, but when you lose a pet, it is.”

Ramirez said any kind of construction will make rattlesnakes move. That could be why Toste had her problems because she lives about 400 yards from the Highway 20 widening project.

According to the California Department of Fish and Game, the northern Pacific rattlesnake is the predominant species in Northern California and grows up to 6 feet long. They have triangular heads, vary in color from olive to black and have oval or hexagonal splotches on them with defined light borders.

Merrily Hutchinson lives off Melody Road near Toste’s house and saw small rattlesnakes sporadically throughout her 28 years on the property.

On the same day that Toste discovered her cat, May 20, Hutchinson walked around the corner of her house and saw a rattler about 3 feet long underneath a shed.

A neighbor killed it for her, which is legal, and another large rattlesnake was killed in her housing area soon after. Last week, she saw another large rattler on her property “and I just let it go. Everyone I talked to around here has seen rattlesnakes, and they were all big.”

A woman who lives off McCourtney Road came into The Union office on Wednesday. She had to have Ramirez’ firm remove a 4-foot rattler from her property Tuesday night and she said she’s seen two others in the past two weeks.

She cautioned about keeping kids away from blackberry bushes because snakes like to hide there.

According to fish and game official Kyle Orr, there are no statistics about rattlesnake increases because the department does not respond to calls about them like it does to calls about mountain lions and bears. However, people can kill rattlesnakes on their property if they deem them a threat, Orr said.

“It’s also OK to remove them from property and relocate them, but it needs to be in pretty close proximity” to where they were found, Orr said.

Both Ramirez and Rick Wiley of Sierra Snake Removal of Grass Valley take the rattlesnakes they’ve captured to friends’ places that they consider to be good habitat. Both know the snakes are being captured on encroached habitat and they don’t have it in them to kill them.

Service turns into business

Wiley grew up with rattlesnakes in Texas and learned their ways. He started removing them as a public service three years ago but got so many referrals from Nevada County Animal Control that it turned into a business.

“It’s pretty consistent; I get one or two a day,” Wiley said. “You can hurt a snake; they’re more delicate than people realize and all they want to do is get away.”

Some people bury wire mesh a few inches in the ground and attach it to existing fences to keep snakes away from their animals and plants, but Wiley hates to see that because they can get tangled in the mesh and die.

Wiley, Orr and Ramirez suggest getting rid of brush piles, stacks of wood and especially sheet metal to discourage rattlesnakes from making homes on people’s property.

“Anything that retains heat is a magnet for them,” Ramirez said. “They love that 90-degree angle when a wall hits the ground, too. It makes them feel protected.” Ramirez said homeowners should also be wary of outdoor flower pots, which snakes love to curl around, particularly if they are in a corner.

“Generally, rattlesnakes are not aggressive, but they will strike if threatened or provoked,” Orr said. “Given room, they will retreat.”

Rattlesnakes generally bite when threatened or surprised, according to the University of California’s Poison Control System. About 800 bites to humans occur in California every year, but only one or two deaths occur.

Most bites occur between April and October when the snakes are active and about 25 percent of them are dry – without venom. However, state fish and game officials and other rattlesnake experts urge people to get medical attention right away because infection is possible. People also need to stay calm because the venom will move faster through the body if the heart is pounding.

According to the UC-Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital, about 150,000 dogs and cats are bitten by rattlesnakes every year, usually on the face or limbs.

“We can treat the animal aggressively with fluid therapy, pain control, antivenin and monitoring of the animal’s condition overnight,” said Dr. Karl Jandrey, who treats small animals at the hospital.

There is a rattlesnake vaccine available for dogs, but Jandrey and the teaching hospital do not offer it. The product is so new, there are not enough clinical trials to prove it is effective, Jandrey said.

Dr. Melanie Curtis, a veterinarian in Grass Valley, has administered the vaccine to dogs and has not received any feedback about bad reactions. Curtis said she has also not heard about any dogs she has vaccinated being bitten by rattlesnakes so she has no personal data on its abilities.

“It’s not supposed to completely prevent reactions to rattlesnake bites,” Curtis said. “It’s supposed to reduce the reactions.”

She recommends it for larger dogs in rural areas who may run into rattlesnakes. But a small dog in town someone keeps close by probably does not need one, Curtis said.

Red Rock Biologics of Woodland makes the vaccine, which is not recommended for cats. According to staff veterinarian Paula Ibsen, contacts with veterinarians who have used the product on dogs show a 90 percent effectiveness rate in decreasing the impact of rattlesnake bites.

“We’re currently working on an equine variety that should be due out in the next three to four months,” Ibsen said.

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To contact Senior Staff Writer Dave Moller, e-mail davem@theunion.com or call 477-4237.

In case of a rattlesnake bite

Do

• Calm the victim, whether human or animal, and get to the nearest medical facility.

• Gently wash the wound area with soap and water.

• Put a cold, wet cloth over the bite.

• Remove watches or rings which may constrict swelling.

Don’t

• Apply a tourniquet; the victim could lose the limb.

• Cut the wound to let venom out, you could make it worse.

• Suck venom out by the mouth, you could introduce bacteria into it.

• Pack the wound with ice or ice water, and don’t give the victim alcohol.

– Information compiled from the California Poison Action Line


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