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Dancing with Rattlesnakes

Column by Hal Walter

Wildlife – September 1998 – Colorado Central Magazin

THE BIG SNAKE coiled and commenced to shake its tail when I was still about 10 yards away. It had apparently been sunning in the barrow ditch. When I approached on my morning jog, it did what all good rattlesnakes do, and warned me of its presence.

I made sure of where my dog was, then slowly walked up and looked at the buzzworm, coiled and menacing, its body as thick as my wrist, its head up and alert. These serpents aren’t supposed to be here at nearly 9,000 feet. But they are. I’ve seen horned toads around here too.

My neighbor, I could see, was preparing for a horseback ride. I knew that her route would take her past the snake. Figuring I could help prevent a spooked horse and a possible wreck, I jogged home and called to warn her of the snake in the ditch.

“Hal, that snake needs to be killed,” was the immediate answer.

Would I take care of it? After all, we all have animals — horses, dogs, burros — and that snake is a threat to them. If I wouldn’t kill the snake, she’d have to call another neighbor and get him to do it.

The pressure was on.

I hoped the snake would be long gone as I put a shotgun in my truck and drove up to check it out. To my surprise and dismay, the snake had uncoiled and was stretched out magnificently in the ditch. I looked it over, all several feet of it, and decided right then that there was no way I could kill this snake. I tossed some rocks in its direction, hoping to scare it off. But it didn’t even coil.

I got back in the truck and drove up to the neighbor’s house. “I can not in good conscience kill that snake,” I told the neighbor. By now her riding partner had arrived and was saddling his horse. I got a silent nod from him that said without a word: “Right on.”

“Oh, Hal, that snake needs to go,” the neighbor shrieked. “It’s going to bite one of our animals.”

I told her that if it was in my corral or against my house that it would be a different story. But it was just out along the road minding its own business. Besides, the snake had warned me off at a good distance. I told her that if that snake doesn’t bite one of her animals, the next one will. You can’t eradicate them.

I drove off, and when I went past the place in the ditch where the snake had been I noticed that it was now apparently gone. I was glad. After all, I’m a famous unknown author, essayist and, in general, a busy man.

Ne’er-do-wells like me have places to go, people to see, and messing around with snakes and neighbors is never entered in my mental Daytimer.

But, as good as I am about managing my time, it seems as though I’ve been dealing with snakes ever since I’ve lived around here. I’ve had my share of adventures with them, and none of them was a good time.

Once, while running downhill on an old road, I saw a snake already coiled in the middle of the two-track. I could see its head bobbing and barely had time to slow my momentum and turn off to the side, about three paces from the snake. The snake’s head bobbed exactly three times before he launched into the air and struck right where I would have been. I quickly ascertained that this evil snake had been counting my steps through vibrations in the ground, and struck without any warning whatsoever. I killed that viper with rocks.

Another time, I was running down a trail and saw the snake only as my foot came down on its tail. I felt the buzz underfoot. Since I was running, that foot was right back in the air by the time the snake rolled over to strike, and I received two perfect puncture wounds in the forefoot of my Brooks. I turned around and watched as the snake took another shot, this time at my dog, and missed. By the time I had figured out that only my shoe had been poisoned and started looking for a big stick, the rattler was slithering off through the bushes.

On another occasion, a horse named Mayo, who had been grazing the open range around our place, showed up at our gate with its muzzle swollen the size of a 10-gallon bucket, and sacks of fluid hanging from its underside. The horse actually lived, but for a few days it wasn’t a pretty sight.

Then there was the time when I was running on a trail near here and caught some sort of activity out of the corner of my eye. I turned just in time to see my dog launch himself about five feet in the air, and a snake arcing off the ground like a missile in an attempt to intercept him.

Luckily the dog had better vertical clearance.

So I’ve had plenty of adventures with a critter that’s not supposed to live at elevations much over 8,200 feet, according to A Sierra Club Naturalist’s Guide. But that’s not the first thing Sahara Clubbers have gotten wrong.

An older fellow showed up at my door once and announced that as a boy he had lived in the tiny cabin that sits a few hundred yards below my house. Among other stories, the most captivating was the one he told about the rattlesnake den he and his father found one autumn in the rockpile behind my place. They stuck a pitchfork inside and the snakes coiled around the tines, forming a ball of buzzworms. It took the strength of both of them to lift it out. They shot many of the snakes with a .22 as they slithered away, but there were still more down the hole. They ended up dowsing the den with gasoline and setting it on fire.

It doesn’t seem to me that this mass-eradication effort had any long-lasting effect. There’s still plenty of snakes around here. But it does bring up an interesting point. Settlers moving here in the earlier days were able to successfully eradicate some species that made this a less-than-comfortable place to live — most notably grizzly bears and wolves. But rattlesnakes — equally hated — have managed to survive, probably due to their mostly nocturnal and elusive nature, and the average yearly production of up to 12 snakelets per mama rattler.

It’s a strange policy we have here in the West, to kill rattlesnakes on sight, when fewer people dies of snakebites than of hantavirus, a pestilence spread largely by deer mice, a chief food of rattlesnakes.

When I finally set out on my busy day, I drove past the place where the snake had buzzed at me that morning. On the opposite side of the road the snake lay dead. Someone had come along and did what I was not able or willing to do. There was a rock on the snake’s head. It seemed a shame the snake had died for no good reason. But if experience serves me, there’s more rattlers where that one came from.

Hal Walter, who writes from his rattlesnake-infested burro farm in the Wet Mountains, rarely rattles before striking. He and Spike are the world-champion pack-burro racing team.