SALT LAKE CITY — As summer blazes through the West and hikers swarm the trails, Wild Aware Utah is warning travelers to stay away from snakes on the trails, keep hands away from burrows and narrow, shaded spaces, and wear appropriate sneakers to avoid being bitten on the foot.
All of those tips work fine for people. But dogs aren't quite so forward-thinking, and typically approach strange noises for further investigation. So how can dog owners prevent their canines from investigating that strange rattling sound in the bushes?
Snake aversion training for dogs is one way to keep dogs away from slithering reptiles. The classes, which typically take about three to four hours, introduce a class of dogs to a defanged rattlesnake, allowing them to observe the sight, smell and sound of a rattlesnake. This helps train the snout of a dog to recognize the smell of a rattlesnake.
Once that's established, the dog will learn to stay as far from it as it can get, while still keeping its eyes trained on the snake in case of sudden movements. This also alerts the owner to a potential danger, so both can get out of the way.
"They're very nose-driven," said Mike Parmley, rattlesnake aversion trainer with Rattlesnake Alert. "So, basically, we teach them to recognize that smell, because they can smell them from a pretty good distance away. And we teach them that, if they recognize that smell, stay a pretty good distance away."
Parmley has held trainings in Salt Lake City throughout the summer, and will soon open up dates in August for dog owners to enroll their canines for training. Other private companies, like WOOF!Center and Scales and Tails, also sponsor dog trainings in different parts of Utah.
These classes are especially relevant as the Utah drought progresses, drawing more snakes from their homes in mountainous areas and toward suburban developments with more food and water, says Wild Aware Utah, an informational website partnering with the USU Extension, Utah's Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City and the Utah Department of Natural Resources.
"When we get into a drought, animals tend to behave differently," said Terry Messmer, extension wildlife specialist in the Department of Wildland Resources at Utah State University. "They go for the green groceries. They search high areas that are better watered, because those areas attract suitable prey. Last year in Logan, we had a situation where people encountered rattlesnakes in the local park."
A primary concern of Wild Aware Utah is that people and pups who have never encountered snakes will now be seeing them in unfamiliar areas. This problem is arising nationwide, especially in the panic following a sighting of a zebra cobra slithering through a suburban neighborhood in North Carolina. This can lead to panic at the sound of a rattle, which should never be the response. Instead, Utahns are encouraged to locate the rattlesnake before moving, so as not to accidentally move closer and risk a bite.
Wild Aware Utah offers these tips to stay safe:
- If you encounter a snake, leave it alone. Every year, hundreds of want-to-be herpetologists and snake charmers are bitten when they try to capture or kill a snake. Even dead snakes have been known to bite by reflex action. More than half of the reported snake bites were a result of someone trying to handle or kill a snake. It is always best to slowly leave the area.
- When rattlesnakes are encountered or disturbed, the rapid vibration of their tails will make a characteristic rattling sound as a warning. However, not all rattlesnakes will "rattle" when disturbed. For this reason, when you are in rattlesnake country, pay close attention to where you walk, sit and place your hands. Rattlesnakes can be found throughout Utah in sagebrush, pinyon-juniper woodlands, sand dunes, rocky hillsides, grasslands, mountain forests, and even parks and yards.
- If you are bitten by a venomous snake, there are several things NOT to do. Do not walk or run. Do not apply a tourniquet to the area above the wound, and do not apply a cold compress to the bite area. Do not cut into the bite. Do not take anything by mouth such as stimulants or pain medications unless instructed by a physician. Do not raise the bite area above the level of the heart, and do not try to suction the venom, as doing so may cause more harm.
- All venomous snakebites should be considered life-threatening. When someone has been bitten, time is of the essence. If possible, call ahead to the emergency room so anti-venom can be ready when the victim arrives. Until then, keep the victim calm, restrict movement and keep the affected area below heart level to reduce the flow of venom. Wash the bite area with soap and water. Remove any rings or constricting items, as the affected area will swell. Cover the bite with clean, moist dressing to reduce swelling and discomfort. Monitor the victim's vital signs (pulse, temperature, breathing, blood pressure). If there are signs of shock, lay the victim flat and cover with a warm blanket. Get medical help immediately. If it can be done without risk of injury, bring in the dead snake for identification.
- Bites from venomous snakes will almost instantly show signs of swelling and discoloration of the surrounding tissue. Other symptoms include a tingling sensation, nausea, rapid pulse, loss of muscle coordination and weakness. Also, bites from rattlesnakes will show two characteristic fang marks (punctures) as well as other teeth marks.
- Nonvenomous snakebites are harmless, but there is a risk of infection. If bitten, clean and sterilize the wound much like you would a cut or abrasion.
If you spot an aggressive snake in your backyard or local park, alert the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources office near you. If the encounter occurs outside of business hours, call your local police department or county sheriff's office.