Thirty years of a wilderness search and rescue team’s experience proves that respect for snakes, the right clothing and sobriety appear to be 100% effective in preventing rattlesnake bites, a doctor says.
The physician, Kenneth Iserson of the University of Arizona College of Medicine, is an emergency medicine specialist and a six-year member of the Southern Arizona Rescue Assn. in Tucson.
In a recent letter to the Journal of the American Medical Assn., Iserson wrote that the squad sends an average of 17 volunteers on more than one call per week into the wilderness--including desert, mountain, cave and river areas of southeastern Arizona where disastrous meetings between humans and rattlers frequently occur.
He estimated that over the last 30 years, squad members have spent more than 115,000 hours bushwhacking, climbing and walking through the country where there are 11 species of rattlesnakes.
In spite of the close proximity to pit vipers, Iserson said: “No member of the organization while on a mission has ever been bitten by any species of snake.”
By contrast, eight individuals who were not members of the team died of snakebites in the area between 1969 and 1984, and many times this number sustained non-lethal bites. Sarah Corkill, a pharmacist for the Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center in Tucson, said in 1987 alone there were 237 venomous snakebites recorded in Arizona, 122 of these rattlesnake bites.
Iserson attributes the squad’s snakebite-free years to three factors:
“First, no individual goes into the field in a mentally incapacitated condition. Members are at least 16 years old and the average age is 31 years.
“Second, members are required to dress appropriately for the mission. In nearly all cases, this included the use of hiking boots and long pants. In some cases, rattlesnakes have struck at individuals but have been deflected by the clothing.
“Finally, members have a healthy respect for the environment, including the snakes,” Iserson wrote.
In a telephone interview, Iserson said he believes most people bitten by rattlers are children or adults engaged in recreational activities who are not wearing protective clothing and who deliberately or unknowingly provoke snakes.
Children and climbers often reach into crevices or holes without checking first for snakes. Others will intentionally pick up rattlers they believe are dead, or while engaged in “rattlesnake roundups.” Iserson said alcohol and drugs were also often contributing factors.
“If you see a snake, don’t pick it up,” Iserson urged. “It sounds stupid, but that would prevent an awful lot of the snakebites that we see.”
Iserson said squad members do not kill rattlesnakes because they believe the snakes are important rodent predators in the animal community.
In one recent rescue, he said, rescuers and an immobilized patient had to spend an entire night within 20 feet of four large timber rattlers. “We kept eye on them and they probably kept an eye on us,” Iserson said. But the snakes and humans left one another alone. “We evacuated the patient safely in morning,” he recalled.
The physician said the snake advice has also worked well for researchers at La Selva Biological Station in Costa Rica, where the very dangerous fer-de-lance pit viper is found. Ecologists following the three rules have put in 350,000 hours in the field with no pit viper bites.