Herpetologist-turned-adventure-writer Leslie Anthony writes in his new book Snakebit, “I had spent enough time around both rattlers and herpetologists to understand the nanosecond it took the latter to make a painful mistake, so there would be one rule.” On his latest trip to B.C.’s Okanagan Valley, Anthony decided: “Snake-chasing could precede wine tasting, but never vice versa.”
For the last few years, Okanagan doctors and biologists have noticed the same strange phenomenon: an increase in rattlesnake bites. “There’s alcohol and bravado involved, and what we tend to see are young males between the ages of 19 and 25 who are handling snakes,” said Dr. David Shaw at South Okanagan Hospital in Oliver. “Virtually all of the bites are on the hands. Now, most people don’t walk on their hands,” said Shaw, and most of the young bite victims tend not to explain what happened. “Usually, it’s something like, ‘I was reaching down to tie up my shoe,’ but when you add it up, it doesn’t make sense.”
“People are picking them up either because they don’t know what a rattlesnake is and they think ‘Oh cool, snake!’ or they think they’re Steve Irwin,” says Oliver wildlife biologist Mike Sarell. Bites are “up substantially,” he added.
Last summer, B.C.’s Interior Health Authority issued for the first time in its history a safety announcement, essentially urging more people to adopt Anthony’s no-drinking-and-snaking rule: “Do not drink alcohol or use drugs where you might encounter a snake. Do not pick up or handle snakes.”
Shaw double-checks the price of a vial of CroFab antivenom and calls back with the news that each vile costs $1,100. “The average bite we treat costs us around $20,000,” he said. “We have to keep giving them antivenom until there’s some resolution of symptoms. So that’s an issue for Interior Health when we’re looking at an avoidable scenario.”
Saving the threatened rattler population is another problem. Anthony sees the encroachment of housing, roads and agriculture on rattlesnake habitat as the chief reason for “increasing encounters between humans and rattlers.” He cites Kelowna as Canada’s fastest-expanding city and reports that the amount of acreage in vineyards has tripled in the decade between 1990 and 2000. “Vineyards are going into lands where there are still healthy snake populations,” explains Sarell. “Many of B.C.’s farm workers are originally from India, where venomous snakes are far more of a danger,” notes Anthony. “When they come here, they kill all the snakes,” said Sarell.
For the last three years, Sarell has been travelling from vineyard to vineyard armed with a Punjabi translator, a live rattler in a bucket, and a pair of tongs as part of his hands-on, snake-safety-awareness workshop. “We teach workers how to use tongs to put the snake in a garbage can and move it to a suitable habitat. A cultural fear of snakes is a tough one to work on but I think we’re making headway.”
Still, there is reason to be wary. The snake’s rattle means “this is a confrontation and you should know who I am,” says Sarell. Yet “most rattlers don’t rattle and they stop rattling,” he said. And not all serious bites are due to macho bravado. Steven Lattey of Vernon writes about quietly hiking a ridge near Cousins Bay in Kalamalka Lake Park and “freaking a rattler right out.” “It didn’t rattle at all,” he said in a recent phone interview. (Lattey’s “Snake Story” appears in Thistledown Press’s The Eye of the Thicket.)
“I didn’t step on it. I stepped in front of it,” he said. “I looked down and right on my ankle, two nice surgical holes.” The venom surged immediately. “It was like mainlining something. It was mind-boggling how quickly I went from one state to another.”
He found a stick and tried to tie a tourniquet with his T-shirt but couldn’t coordinate his hands. “By the time I got to the road, my legs and arms weren’t moving properly. I was having trouble breathing,” he said. Two local men saw him staggering and raced him to hospital. “By the time they were wheeling me into intensive care, I was coughing lung blood, frothy oxygenated lung blood,” says Lattey. “I figured I was dying. All the organs bleed. They just kind of ooze out. Their venom is a digestive juice,” he explains.
John Cullen, clinical nurse educator at Vernon’s Jubilee Hospital, confirms that “bleeding from the nose, bleeding rectally, bleeding orally, are all symptoms of full-blown invenomation. They’re tenderizing the meat,” he said.