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Snake-Sighting Season Has Crept Up on Southern California : Rattlers: Warm temperatures draw reptiles into back yards, homes. From April to October, officials respond to thousands of reports.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

An uninvited guest slipped into the living room of William and Jan Brankin’s Simi Valley home one day: a baby Southern Pacific rattlesnake.

“At first my husband thought the dog had pooped on the carpet, because that’s what it looked like all curled up,” said Jan Brankin. “He was about to kick the dog when he realized it was a snake--a rattlesnake at that.”

Such encounters are occurring across Southern California as warmer summer temperatures draw snakes into the back yards--and sometimes the homes--of people living by the deserts and foothills of Southern California. On Friday, Donald Mathews of Leona Valley was bitten by a rattlesnake as he peeked through a trapdoor into his attic.

Between April and October, depending on the weather, animal control officers and firefighters respond to thousands of snake sightings.

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“We tell people to expect it because it’s going to happen,” said Bruce Richards of the Los Angeles County animal regulation office in Agoura Hills. “It may be only one rattlesnake, but that may be the one that gets you.”

Brankin, the mother of a 3-year-old boy and baby-sitter to two other toddlers, said the children had played in their back yard most of the afternoon before the reptile wound its way into their living room.

“It’s a little worrying, especially with small children around,” said Brankin.

“But we’re encroaching on his land as much as he’s encroaching on ours,” she said. “Just a few years ago, this whole area was barren. We’ll be keeping a closer eye on the yard from now on, though.”

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Using thick leather riding gloves, William Brankin herded the snake into a sealable bucket, and he and his wife then moved the wayward serpent to the hills above their Wood Ranch subdivision. Officials say the better course would have been to call in an expert.

California is home to four general varieties of snakes: rattler, gopher, garter and king snakes. The non-venomous garter, gopher and king snakes account for most of the 120 species that make up the state’s four general varieties.

Rattlesnakes--representing six different species--are the only venomous snakes in California. The most populous by far is the Southern Pacific rattler, which grows to about 6 feet.

Experts say that animals are more often the victims of snakebites than human beings because they are both curious and ignorant about the reptiles.

Last year, a riding horse died within 30 minutes of being bitten by a rattlesnake at O’Neill Regional Park in Orange County. The woman astride the animal told officials that the snake seemed to attack the horse.

“It was a very aggressive rattlesnake,” park ranger Ron Slimm said at the time.

One emergency-room physician said he hopes this season is nothing like a year ago, when heavy rains increased the rat and mice populations--favorites foods of many snakes--and brought him a host of rattlesnake victims.

“We had a real run last year,” said Dr. Philip Macniel, an attending physician at the UC Irvine emergency room. “At one point, we had four (bite victims) in the course of three weeks. One of them was particularly ill and had to be put on life support.”

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Snake sightings typically occur in the deserts and foothills--and in the housing developments that have sprung up next to them.

Southern Pacific rattlers, however, do not limit themselves to undeveloped open spaces.

Officials at the Burbank Animal Shelter routinely answer snake-sighting calls in the hills in back of the city. When they do, one officer said, they don’t bother trying to relocate the snake. Instead, they hack it to death with a hoe or shovel.

“We respond immediately to the call, and the snake is dispatched on the spot,” said Senior Animal Control Officer Harold Hagler.

“These mountains have all kinds of hikers,” Hagler said. “You can’t relocate a poisonous reptile to where a citizen could get bit.”

Some Ventura County fire officials feel the same way.

“If it’s determined to be a rattlesnake, we kill it on the spot,” said Capt. Ken Maffei. “We’re not going to jeopardize our people by playing with rattlesnakes.”

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There are major, easily discernible differences between venomous and non-venomous snakes, said Patrick Musone of the Ventura County Animal Regulation department.

Venomous snakes have triangular heads, thicker bodies, blunt tails, pushed-up noses and Loreal pits--small holes between the nostrils and eyes that are used to smell. Non-venomous snakes have none of those characteristics.

Musone tells children--and anyone else who will listen--that without the serpents rodent populations would swell to even larger numbers, and mudslides would become more frequent because of the holes dug by rats and mice.

“We’re trying to reach the youth now so the future generation will be a little less harsh on animals that are misunderstood,” he said.

Lisa Clark understands just one thing about rattlesnakes: They bite. While hiking in Matilija Canyon near Ojai last summer, she stepped on a slumbering, 6-foot rattler.

“I got very sick from it. I was in the hospital for 10 days,” said Clark, who owns the Busy Babes hair salon in Ojai.

“I’m still not over it completely, not really,” she said. “But as for the physical part of it, it was three months before I got better. They gave me anti-venin, but that didn’t work too well.”


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