It was an ordinary morning. It was the height of spring migration, and I was eager to see if any new birds had arrived. My dogs were just eager. They loved their morning walks. So I grabbed my binoculars, cellphone and hat, and we began our walk around the farm’s trails. I should point out that our farm is one third pasture and two-thirds South Texas brush.
The first leg took us by the chicken pen where I needed to replenish the hens’ water. I set my phone down on a box next to the pen and filled their waterer. Meanwhile, I checked on my garden. The okra seeds were germinating! This was interesting to me, and I started to count the number of okra plants that were up….but the dogs were getting impatient.
At least the young dog was: she was cavorting in the pasture, running in figure eights. The old dog was looking at me from the two-track beyond the garden. I could tell she was deciding to give up on this walk thing and go back to the house if I didn’t get a move on. So I picked up my binoculars and started up the caliche hill into the brush.
This trail is usually occupied by a pair of roadrunners. But not today. However, I could hear Painted Buntings singing and Olive Sparrows calling from the top of the hill. I was sure to see some nice birds. The young dog ran in and out of the brush covering three times the distance that the old dog and I did.
The old basset hound and I stumbled over the caliche rocks, slowly gaining the hill. The young dog disappeared down a side trail. I could hear the Painted Bunting just ahead. I stopped to scan the tops of the shrubs. The basset hound stopped at my feet.
As I said, it was an ordinary morning. I didn’t see the bunting. I turned to go down the side trail, the old basset just behind me. I scanned the trees for orioles, briefly stopping again. The basset just kept going, not wanting to break her momentum so soon after the last stop.
Without warning, she yelped. I thought maybe I had stepped on her (it happens often). I looked down at her and by her side was a large snake. A rattlesnake. It was coiled up on the trail less than three feet from my foot. I knew enough to not move. (Actually, I don’t think I could have moved if I had wanted to.) It shook its rattles. Why hadn’t it rattled before? I stared at the snake as it slid off into the undergrowth.
After a deep breath, I realized I had not been struck. Still, it was close, too close. The snake was big enough to have struck me above my boot, especially if I had stepped on it.
The words “stepped on it” rang in my head. Oh my goodness, had my dog stepped on it? I examined her and to my dismay saw a drop of blood on the top of her head. And then another on the tip of her long ear. She’d been snakebit.
Immediately, I decided to call my husband to help us. My phone…oh no! I had left it at the garden. I had to walk my injured dog back down the hill, a quarter of a mile. The young dog reappeared, oblivious and wanting to play. Or chase something. I called to her to come with me to prevent her from going after the snake. The snake was probably just a few feet out of sight in the brush.
Somehow I managed to get my snakebit dog and my foolish younger dog down the hill and call for help. Together, my husband and I got the injured 50-pound dog into the back of the UTV and then into the truck. The young dog thought this was the best game ever, jumping over the old dog and into the front seat. I was horrified by her lack of understanding of the gravity of the situation, but how could she know? We had to put her in the kennel before we could race off to the vet.
Why have rattlesnakes ceased to warn of their presence? Obviously, a rattling sound would stop you, a horse or a big animal from stepping on a hidden snake. That would be good for the long-term survival of the snake. But since we, being “smart” big animals, know of their dangerous venom, we humans kill them as soon as we notice them. And we first notice them by their rattling. So by rattling they have, as a species, signed a death warrant. We think: if it rattles, kill it. If it doesn’t rattle, we may not even see it, and it will live to breed more of its kind, the kind that doesn’t warn big animals of its presence.
So, we now live in a world with rattlesnakes that may not instinctively rattle. To be fair, it is possible that feral hogs, intelligent as they are, may also be taking out rattling rattlesnakes. However, predators, such as roadrunners and indigo snakes, lower the numbers of all rattlesnakes, regardless of whether they are the silent kind or not. Thus, normal predation on rattlesnakes would not skew the population to rattle-less ones. Ideally, we should promote normal predation rather than hog and human mediated killing of the snake that warns us of its presence.
Still, we naturalists must be better prepared, but I don’t mean we should be ready to kill rattlers. We need to wear taller boots, snake-chaps and, above all, display vigilance when out in the field. Rattle-less rattlesnakes are out there.
I could have been bitten this morning. This time it was my dog that was snakebit. She is in veterinary Intensive Care. I hope that she will make it. I hope she and I can continue to enjoy the natural world together. But I have learned my lesson. Please be cautious! You can be snakebit without warning.