Residential developments make snake-bites common

By Clarence Plank: PNT Staff Writer

As New Mexico’s population continues to grow, encounters with displaced wildlife are becoming common place in rural and suburban communities.

For wildlife biologists Zach Jones and Tony Gennaro at Eastern New Mexico University, running into snakes in the field is common.

Gennaro said he gets phone calls about snakes being in a home and how to get rid of them.

“I would ask where do you live? I would tell them your house is in the way. That animal has been living there,” Gennaro said.

Jones said new construction — homes or subdivisions less than three years old — are prime territory for finding snakes.

“Which means snakes go underground to hibernate,” Jones said. “During that winter, we put houses up, then in the spring they come out into what was once their open habitat and they find houses.”

Jones said give the snakes time and they will leave. Snakes don’t like being around people.

Jones has a gopher snake at his house and he does not want to get rid of it because it controls gophers — animals immune to rattlesnake venom. Jones said gopher snakes also eat rattlers, as do king snakes.

There are seven types of rattlesnakes in New Mexico. They include the rock rattlesnake (southern isolated mountains), western diamondback, western (prairie) rattlesnake (all over N.M.), Mojave (extreme southern of N.M.), black-tailed (southwestern, and central part of the state), Massasauga (south, central and eastern parts of the state) and ridge-nose (southwestern boot heel of the state), according to New Mexico State University College of Agriculture and Home Economics and the Cooperative Extension Service.

The ridge-nose is currently on the threatened species list in New Mexico.

There is only one published record of a diamondback in Roosevelt County. Gennaro said they are not common because diamondbacks prefer rocky, ledge-type habitats, sides of hills and banks or valleys with rocks.

“They are very strong along the Pecos River, Rio Grande and any tributaries,” Gennaro said. “Out here on the High Plains, they are really not that common.”

Jones said a rattlesnake doesn’t bite its prey and hang on, it bites and follows the prey until it dies.

“They hit them with some venom and let them go,” He said. “It’s something interesting about the rattle being an alarm system. A snake has invested some serious energy in producing that venom and they prefer to use it for prey.”

Jones said in places where snakes are heavily hunted, rattlesnakes have developed a unique defense mechanism.

“Those places rattlesnakes have been known not to rattle,” Jones said. “Because the alarm system results in them being killed and the ones that don’t rattle, are the ones that live.”

This is usually the time of the year people are out cleaning up around their house, removing leaves and wood piles. And it is one of the most likely times to surprise a snake.

“Any alert snake will rattle,” Gennaro said. “The danger is a surprised snake won’t.”

When someone goes out to the rural areas they know to be on the look out for snakes. But in the suburbs, who would think about them being around, Gennaro said.

“People’s guard is down because they say ‘I’m safe here’” Gennaro said. “They’re not…(snakes hide in) wood piles, rock piles, shrubs around a home.”

Roosevelt General Hospital Emergency Dr. Matt Foster said it is important for someone bitten by a snake to seek immediate medical attention.

Foster guesses he might treat three or four snake bite victims a year.

Foster said rattlesnakes are the most common bites they treat.

“People are cutting tall weeds or something, hear a rattle and feel a bite,” Foster said. “Then they see fang puncture marks, sometimes they do see the snake and we certainly don’t encourage people to bring the snake in.”

Foster said to keep a snake bite victim calm and inactive while seeking medical attention.

“We no longer recommend putting ice or cutting the wound,” Foster said. “We just mainly want to decrease the amount of bodily circulation of the venom locally or throughout the body.”

Keeping a yard free of debris is one way of driving snakes away. Another way is to eliminate rodents, their main source of food.