Summer weather is here. And the foothills, mountains and mesas are filling up with New Mexicans eager to get outside. The warmer (and dryer than normal) weather also brings out snakes — something most hikers would rather avoid.
Home to seven different kinds of rattlers, New Mexico has the unenviable rank of second in the nation for per capita bites. Topping that list of rattlesnakes are the Mojave and Diamondback, two particularly poisonous and foul-tempered examples of the species, according to Doug Hotle who runs the herpetology program at the ABQ Biopark.
“Rattlers aren’t aggressive,” he says, “but they defend themselves aggressively.”
It’s that qualifier that makes all the difference. Despite their image in popular culture, rattlers only bite about 8,000 to 9,000 people a year across the country. Eighty percent of those strikes, Hotle says, are because people mess with the snakes by harassing, teasing or trying to catch or kill them.
“In fact,” says Dr. Steven Seifert, medical director of the New Mexico Poison Center, “half the bites we treat are on the index finger of the dominant hand.”
In addition to not poking a rattlesnake, there are a few other ways to diminish the chance that you’ll be one of the unlucky 20 percent who will suffer a bite.
■ Be aware of where you are walking, and particularly of where you choose to sit down, according to the Poison Center. Snakes, like humans, prefer resting in the shade.
■ Wear long pants and hiking boots to give you a little additional protection.
■ Don’t reach into rocks, or places you cannot see.
■ If you do find yourself face to face with an irritated rattlesnake, quickly back away, Seifert says.
“A rattlesnake can project itself about half the length of its body,” he says. “You want a few multiples of that distance between you and it. They’re unlikely to chase you down. You’re not food. They just want you to go away.”
What do you do if a rattler bites you?
“The most important thing is not to panic,” Seifert says. “Less than a dozen people die a year from rattlesnake bites across the entire country. Then get to a medical facility.”
“Don’t do any preliminary treatment. Don’t do ice. Don’t do tourniquets, and definitely don’t do any cutting,” says Hotle.
Instead, remove rings, watches, and anything else constrictive, immobilize the bite area, and keep the bite level or below the heart.
“If you must have a souvenir,” say Seifert, “take out a cellphone, and take a picture as you’re backing up.”
Despite what you may have heard, there’s no need to bring in the snake or even know what kind of rattler it was. There’s a single antivenin that works for all.
And what about the dog?
“Venom affects different animals differently,” Seifert says. “But the local effects of the bite are going to be similar.”
There will be a puncture wound with a lot of swelling. As with humans, the less activity the better, and it wouldn’t be a bad idea to remove anything constricting, such as a collar.
“Take the dog to a veterinarian as soon as possible,” Seifert says. “There is a specific veterinary antivenin for rattler bites, and the sooner the better.”
A final bit of advice from the Poison Center — add its number to your cell phone: 800-222-1222.