March was once considered a relatively safe month for snake-averse hikers. Not anymore.
Mid-month, photos of wild snakes — particularly rattlesnakes — were popping up on the social media pages of hikers and non-hikers in the Bay Area. Not all photos were taken in remote wilderness; some were in suburban neighborhoods and at least one was near downtown Walnut Creek.
It’s California. We live with and around wild animals. But the snakes usually wait until April or May to start appearing regularly. Climate change and California’s historic drought — which some experts say will be more common for the state — are changing the way plants and animals do their business.
And as it gets warmer this year, more and more snakes will come out, warming their reptile cool in the sun.
Clayton resident Janet Keane and her husband Michael regularly hike the northern slopes of Mount Diablo. She spotted her first rattlesnake of the season on March 19.
“Mike and I were on the mountain; just as he told me to take the lead, I spotted a baby in the trail all curled up,” Keane said. “We thought we could just jump over it, then I remembered where there was a baby, there’s probably a mom and siblings around. So we turned around and got out of there.”
“We’ve seen them before, but never so soon.”
Peter J. Flowers, the wildlife hospital and rehabilitation manager for Lindsay Wildlife Experience in Walnut Creek, confirmed that it was early for the snakes to be so active.
“Historically for our region, it’s usually closer to the last half of April and May before they become more active, but in our changing climate here, they can become active during warmer weather cycles, like what we’ve been this week,” Flowers said. “This is generally true for all species of snakes that inhabit our area.”
Dave Ricketts is associate pastor at Moraga Valley Presbyterian Church. He is also a snake lover since childhood. He started dating as an amateur snake wrestler a few years ago when he saw on social media that people were killing gopher snakes thinking they were rattlesnakes.
Ricketts doesn’t want people killing snakes. So he bought a snake hook, snake tongs and a 5 gallon bucket dark inside to calm the snakes down (he also got some training from his son, who works at the East Bay Vivarium reptile store in Berkeley ). He said he was already getting calls this year.
“I started seeing sakes early this year because the warm weather will be a trigger for the eggs to hatch,” Ricketts said. “I can tell they are coming out earlier.”
Ricketts said his church is all about helping the community, so he doesn’t mind preparing for the occasional sales rescue (there’s no charge, though people are welcome to donate). It releases them in outlying unincorporated areas where there are no trails to minimize contact with humans – usually down hills, as the snakes are unlikely to come up the hill and be hit by a vehicle.
“They live all over the area; this is their territory, they were here first,” Ricketts said. “So it’s really on us.”
Flowers had some tips for those who come into contact with rattlesnakes.
“Rattlesnakes are generally not aggressive unless provoked and contrary to popular belief, they don’t always make noise before striking,” he said. “When walking in a natural area, avoid walking – or walking your dog – in tall grass or in places where you cannot see the ground. They can also hide under brush, rocks and branches, it is therefore best not to disturb them. Dogs must be kept on a leash.”
“If you see one on a path, take a walk and leave alone and warn others around you. Don’t try to move the snake,” Flowers said. “If you have one in your yard, you can contact a snake removal service who will find a new home for it. If you or a pet is bitten, don’t try things like a tourniquet or try not to remove the venom by any method. Seek medical or veterinary attention as soon as possible.”