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Running across a rattler in the desert can be alarming—use this advice from Look Big, the guide to animal encounters

Rachel Levin  – May 24, 2019 | Updated February 28, 2020

Rattlesnakes, also known as rattlers, are found in the Southwest; there are thirteen species in Arizona alone.

When outstretched, they’re as long as an NBA player is tall. Their telltale sounds are hisssssss, rattle-­rattle. Rattlers have a 10- to 25-year life span, and eat one mouse every two weeks.

Stuff of nightmares: A four-­year-­old in Texas recently found a rattlesnake in his toilet. Smart boy called for his mom. She killed it. Then Big Country Snake Removal came over—­and found twenty-­three more.

Illustrations copyright © 2018 by Jeff Östberg

Luckily, most people see rattlesnakes outside, on the trail, under a rock. And most people scream. A fascinating website called Fearof.net ranks fear of snakes, ophiodiophobia, second of all phobias, just behind spiders and above . . . everything else: Heights, public speaking, belly buttons (omphalophobia; it’s a thing). Kids, though, love snakes. And 1,300 kids get bitten every year, about half by rattlers, with copperhead bites on the rise. 

Beyond the usual dizziness, fever, and fang marks that are symptoms of a snake bite, Dr. Steve Curry of Banner Poison Control Center in Phoenix, Arizona, has occasionally witnessed people collapsing within minutes after their throat swelled and cut off breathing.

But the good news: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, of the 7,000 people in the United States bitten by venomous snakes each year, only about 0.2 percent of bites end in death. Still.

What to Do

Leave a snake alone. The bad stuff happens when people don’t. Let it pass. Give it a good fifteen feet. Coiled, rattling, and head raised? Give it even more. If you accidentally step on one and get bitten: keep cool. (Uh, OK?) But seriously, don’t run; getting your heart rate up makes the venom seep faster. Skip the snakebite kits and tourniquets; that’s outdated advice. Just call Poison Control at 800-222-1222 ASAP. In Arizona or California—where most bites occur—plug this number into your phone.

And do your best to avoid them in the first place. A sunny, 90°F day is snake weather. No flip-flops, wear boots. Jeans, even. (A study actually proved denim’s effectiveness against venom injection.) Don’t use earbuds (you want to hear the rattle). On a mountain bike, be extra cautious. Rattlesnakes are designed to hear the pounding of bison hooves, not the quiet roll of a tire tread. Peek under a log before sitting on it. Shake out your sleeping bag. And if you’ve got to peel off the trail to pee, toss a few pebbles first.

Reprinted from LOOK BIG: And Other Tips for Surviving Animal Encounters of All Kinds Copyright © 2018 by Rachel Levin. Illustrations copyright © 2018 by Jeff Östberg. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.