NATURE NOTES:
Respect the Rattler: In Rural West Texas, Rattlesnake Awareness is a Must

By Andrew Stuart

The human response to potential risk is a complex thing. We can go to extremes – either of panic or denial. Resisting those extremes – being mindful of a hazard, while not being paralyzed by it – is challenging.  

Rattlesnakes are far from the greatest West Texas hazard – we’re at much greater risk behind the wheel of a vehicle. Even in the desert outback, dehydration and inclement weather are far greater dangers. But rattlers are real, and being snake-bit can be a harrowing, and, in rare cases, life-threatening experience. Educating ourselves is just good sense.  

“I got to admit I got no use for rattlers,” Edward Abbey writes in a comic essay. “Like my daddy always said, if them other snakes can get along without poison why can’t a rattlesnake?”

Ponder that profundity at your leisure. But for the moment, consider the facts.  

David Elkowitz has been a Big Bend National Park ranger for 20 years. He’s answered countless questions about rattlesnakes.

“The ways to avoid them are fairly simple,” Elkowitz said. “Look where you’re walking, especially if you’re going off-trail or in brushy or grassy areas. Two, carrying a light at night is really, really key. Leaving them alone and avoiding them, your chances of being harmed are extremely small – and that’s just statistically borne out.”

Rattlers are seen throughout the year. But they’re most active in summer. They can be on the move at any hour – but hunt at night, and are often out in the evenings and early mornings.

Rattlers aren’t swift-moving. Messing with one is trouble. But if you keep your distance, you’re safe. A 6-foot rattler would be a giant here. But even its range would be limited.

“It’s a law of physics,” Elkowitz said. “At least a third of the animal has to stay rooted to the ground for the rest of it to push off and strike. So its total reach is 4 feet if it’s a giant rattlesnake. What am I trying to say is, if you’re 5, 6, 7 feet away from the animal, it can’t harm you.”

A rattler isn’t looking to bite you. Unlike, say, a grizzly bear, there’s no chance you’re on the menu. Striking is generally a last resort – when the snake perceives imminent danger.

It’s when someone doesn’t see a snake, and steps on or near it, that bites can happen.

Misty Sumner is a ranch manager and wildlife biologist, retired now from Texas Parks & Wildlife. In August 2011, Sumner was on the grassy lawn outside the Culberson County ranch house where she lived when she was struck by a western diamondback. She was training a puppy, and looking at the first rays of sunrise as she walked along.

“You know how you step on a stick and it pops up and hits you, and you think it’s a snake?” Sumner said. “It doesn’t feel anything like that. You can quit panicking on that – there is absolutely no mistaking it. I jumped up. I feel like I levitated. He was up to strike again, and I saw him from above.”

Sumner said she’d missed warnings – she’d killed a rattler near the house just a week earlier. The lawn was an oasis in a drought-stricken land. And she’d overlooked advice she’d long given others – she was barefoot in the predawn gloom, without a flashlight.

Sumner was struck just above her right ankle. The impact was intense – “like being hit by a baseball bat covered in knives,” she said. Rattlers don’t always inject venom. But as the burning sensation moved up to her hip, Sumner knew hers was no “dry bite.”

Sumner’s husband, Lane, swung into action. They met a DPS trooper at the highway, who raced Sumner to the Van Horn hospital. She was administered four vials of CroFab antivenin – before being transported to El Paso.

There, she would spend two days in the ICU, and receive another 20 vials of antivenin. Doctors monitored the swelling, which spread halfway up Sumner’s torso.

The pain became intense. 

“My leg was bigger than you can imagine a leg could get,” Sumner said. “If you touched my leg at any point from that point forward, it was as if the biggest guy you know took a paddle board with sharpened nails and slammed my leg – everywhere you touched, no matter how light the touch was. I’m a biologist – we look at snakebite pictures. Never once had I heard about any of this.”

Next, there were 10 days in a trauma ward – where even a nurse’s name-tag brushing her leg brought “off-the-charts pain,” Sumner said. Finally, she spent a month at Highlands rehab hospital.

It was a long, arduous recovery. Sumner said she’s indebted to physical therapists, her ICU toxicologist and a friend who does lymphatic massage for regaining full use of her leg.

Sumner spent nine months in a wheelchair, before switching to a walker, and then a cane. Her right leg still swells on occasion, but she said she can now “walk, run and dance.”

Sumner is well-known, and loved, across our region and beyond, and hers was “the snakebite heard around the world.” There was community support. But Sumner’s experience also became a cautionary tale.

“I will say this, it doesn’t matter what you’ve done in your life – it might be all the good,” Sumner said. “You might have saved the world. If you get snake-bit, the one thing that people are going to know about you, that they’re going to ask you about, is, ‘So you’re the girl that got snake-bit, aren’t you?’ And they want to know all about it.”

Sumner doesn’t mind the notoriety – if it causes others to take the risk more seriously. 

“It changed the way a lot of folks did things,” she said, “which was good. I don’t want to make people afraid of snakes, because there’s no reason to be. They really want to move away from you – they don’t want to attack you. But a major suggestion: don’t go out in the dark barefoot in August in West Texas, or any time the snakes are out and moving.”

There are other positive outcomes: her blood is being used in new antivenin research.

Sumner recommends all West Texans download a free app called SnakeBite911, which has instructions in the event of a bite and locations of hospitals with antivenin. A bitten limb should be raised to the level of the heart. Tourniquets and devices to extract venom should not be used. Contrary to lore, Benadryl is useless for a snakebite. “Time is tissue,” the experts say, and the most important thing is to get to a hospital with antivenin as quickly as possible.

“The best thing you can do,” Sumner said, “is don’t stop, don’t pass go – just go straight to the closest hospital that has antivenin. Call ahead, and get there. No matter how far out you are, just get there.”

And remember the basics: be attentive – hiking with earbuds, for example, is a bad idea. Use a light at night. Don’t go crashing through areas of brush or high grass.

Despite the ordeal, Sumner doesn’t hate rattlers. They’re vital to the ecosystem. They fascinate, even as they frighten. Dread is uncalled for – but, especially this time of year, they should be on our minds.