After accidentally squishing a Mojave rattlesnake under the tires of his dirt bike, Running Springs contractor Kevin Figueroa whacked off its head for a souvenir.
The decapitated serpent was not amused.
When Figueroa reached down to pluck up the head -- with 3 inches of body attached -- it wheeled around and chomped his left index finger.
“The stupid thing [was] still hanging on my finger; I flicked it off,” said Figueroa, 21, who was camping near Barstow when he was bitten.
As the poison crawled slowly up his arm with a cold, tingling sensation, Figueroa wound up at Loma Linda University Medical Center’s “Venom ER” under the care of Dr. Sean P. Bush, one of the nation’s busiest and most experienced snakebite specialists.
For Bush, springtime in Southern California means snake season.
As the six species of rattlesnake indigenous to the Southland slither into the sun with the warmer weather, dozens of curious kids, unsuspecting gardeners, nature lovers and macho dudes will end up at the Loma Linda hospital with potentially debilitating, and on rare occasions deadly, snake bites.
Bush, 39, an emergency room physician at Loma Linda, specializes in the body’s reaction to snake venom and knows his way around the familiar two-pronged puncture wound. The hospital has one of the busiest snakebite units in the nation, with as many as 50 patients a year.
And with the region’s development encroaching into the deserts, mountains and foothills, clashes between man and serpent show no sign of slowing.
Bush, who owns a couple dozen snakes himself, has seen it all.
Like the guy whose pet southern Pacific rattlesnake bit him -- and hung on for 15 seconds. The Yucaipa man was left twitching uncontrollably and bleeding from his nose and gastrointestinal tract, the venom breaking down the tissue in its path.
Or the Lucerne Valley Jehovah’s Witness who tried to toss a Mojave rattler out of a yard where kids were playing, and ended up turning blue, vomiting and unable to open his eyes after the snake nipped his index finger.
Because of his religious beliefs, the man refused to accept a transfusion, even when the snake’s venom made his blood dangerously thin. He recovered after a five-day hospital stay.
Not all patients’ symptoms are so dramatic. Sara McDaniel, 45, was clambering down rocks in Joshua Tree National Park on Wednesday when a rattlesnake struck her middle finger. McDaniel snapped a photo of her attacker before heading to a hospital in Twentynine Palms en route to Loma Linda.
“I felt a sting. I thought I touched a cactus,” said McDaniel, looking slightly worried in her emergency room bed. Bush examined her left hand, swollen and bluish, as he marked the toxin’s path up her arm with marking pen and administered a $912-per-vial snakebite antidote.
Bush has been fascinated by the creatures since he was 5, when his grandfather gave him a hognose snake as a pet.
“I just think they’re the coolest animal on the planet,” Bush said.
His coldblooded specialty even landed him a stint on Animal Planet, in a fast-paced reality series called “Venom ER.” Apparently White House physicians are fans of the show and contacted Bush, wanting to know if there was a rattlesnake vaccine for the president’s dogs running loose on the Crawford, Texas, ranch. He advised that there was one for dogs but not for humans.
Between 7,000 and 8,000 people are bitten by venomous snakes nationwide each year, said snakebite specialist Dr. Robert Norris, chief of emergency medicine at Stanford University Medical Center. Fewer than a dozen of those are fatal, Norris said.
The San Diego division of the California Poison Control System -- which includes Orange, San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino and Imperial counties -- has received 15 to 20 snakebite calls so far this season, director Lee Cantrell said. The office, which handles just a fraction of total snakebites in the area, reports at least 50 bites a year, Cantrell said.
In 2004, 23 people in Los Angeles County reported snakebites to state poison control, along with 17 people each in Orange and Riverside counties and 10 in San Bernardino County. There were 241 bites statewide logged at poison control last year, according to Stuart Heard, executive director of California Poison Control System at UC San Francisco’s School of Pharmacy.
The Inland Empire and desert beyond are the epicenter of bite activity.
Subdivisions built on undeveloped tracts of land cause snakes to encounter people and pets living and playing in what had been snake habitats, especially in fast-growing communities such as Chino Hills, Temecula and Victorville.
“You can’t have this kind of urban sprawl in a region without impacting the [native] species, and rattlesnakes are a key part of that,” said herpetologist Rob Lovich, state coordinator for Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation.
The nature of snakebites has also changed.
Twenty years ago, two-thirds of bites were to the lower extremities, as walkers or golfers encountered the creatures underfoot, Stanford University’s Norris said.
Now, as neighborhoods are built on or near snake habitatand more Californians camp, bike and ride off-road vehicles in rural areas, 60% of bites are to the hands and arms from people handling snakes, Norris said.
“We could cut out a lot of our snakebites if people would just leave ‘em alone,” he said.
His formula for the classic bite victim: testosterone plus tequila, T-shirts and tattoos.
While Figueroa waited in a Loma Linda examination room for Bush to check on his purplish finger, Bush said he fit the typical snakebite victim profile -- a younger man whose curiosity gets the better of him.
“Young males ... for whatever reason, feel the need to pick up a snake [and] get bitten on the hand,” Bush said. “Bravado is something in our makeup.”
“I just wanted to kill it and keep it; no intention of getting hurt,” Figueroa said as he left the hospital with a partly numb index finger and his attacker’s body in a plastic tub of formaldehyde for him to carry home, at his request.
This time of year, male rattlers travel farther afield, seeking females to mate with.
The season also draws Bush, who likes to make periodic trips to the desert to observe rattlesnakes in the wild.
Last month Bush was miles from the ER, picking through high-desert scrub north of Victorville with researcher Mike Cardwell. The two nearly stumbled over a 2-foot female Mojave rattler coiled in defense. She did not want company.
After a few scoops with his long-handled snake hook, Cardwell put the snake -- body flopping and tail buzzing in protest -- gently into a cloth sack to measure her growth later. He then put the sack in his fanny pack and carried it for the next few hours.
Cardwell has been tracking the dangerous Mojave rattlers since 2001, gathering data on their movements, breeding and feeding habits.
The more snake movement Cardwell sees in the desert, the more action Bush can anticipate in the ER.
With heavy rains contributing to an exploding rodent population for snakes to feed on, Bush anticipates a busy year. He says the snakebite season plateaus in the summer, then spikes again with the arrival of baby rattlers in the fall. Bush has seen more than a dozen bites already this season and is prepared for the worst -- and the weirdest.
“The truth,” he said, “is stranger than fiction in this realm.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Six of the 33 species of snakes in the state are venomous to humans-- all are rattlers. Mojave and sidewinder rattlesnakes are most common in desert areas, while the southern Pacific rattler--responsible for delivering the most bites--lives throughout Southern California.
Inland Empire snakebite victims
Average length: 2 to 5 feet. Can strike out up to half their body length.
Habitat: In every area of the state: mountains, foothills, valleys and deserts.
Hibernation: Late November to February
Habits: Like to bask in sun; won’t bite unless threatened.
If bitten: Don’t panic. Seek medical help immediately. Do not elevate the bitten extremity. Do not cut or suck the wound or use a tourniquet--it can make the injury worse. About one-fourth of all bites are “dry bites” in which no venom has been injected.
Venomous snake (rattlesnake)
Triangular, broad head
Blunt tail, ending in rattle
Thin, narrow body
Thin tail usually tapers to a point
When they bite
A rattlesnake’s two hollow fangs lay folded against the roof of its mouth until it bites--then they rotate forward, releasing venom.
Fangs are shed, replaced every 6 to 10 weeks
Sources: Dr. Sean P. Bush, Michael Cardwell and Robin Clark of Loma Linda University Medical Center; USGS Western Ecological Research Center; American International Rattlesnake Museum; UC Davis; Southwestern Herpetologists Society
Los Angeles Times