Random Thoughts About Snakes and Guns

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By Jon Y.

I am currently spending this week looking after my parents’ house in southern New Mexico. Yesterday afternoon, when I went out to get dinner, there was a very small, very young rattlesnake sunning itself on the walkway. It was only six to eight inches long and it probably only had one rattle on it’s tail since it made a sound almost like a loud bumblebee or a vibrating phone. Had it not started rattling, I very possibly could have stepped on it, which would have been very bad for business on both ends of the deal. My initial confusion (What’s that buzzing sound?) turned quickly to excitement (Oh wow, a snake!) and then almost immediately again to absolute terror (Wait… the snake is the one buzzing. Oh shhiii..) . . .

I quickly realized, however, that the snake was very much not looking for a fight. It tried valiantly to retreat and only took up a defensive posture once it became trapped between two rocks. At this point I was able to take a better look at it. I am quite fond of animals and snakes in particular, and I can say this rattlesnake was simply beautiful.

I only had my phone on me and did not want to get very close to it, but it had a pattern like gray marble with jagged black stripes every few inches (after doing some Google Fu I now am 90% sure it was a banded rock rattlesnake, and may have been older than I initially believed). Be that as it may, it was still a highly venomous reptile and it was only a few feet from the front door.

I was concerned about myself or my animals getting bitten so I found a long metal rod and attempted to lift the snake to relocate him. Unfortunately every time I tried, the snake quickly slid off and found a new crevice to hide in. I considered calling for reinforcements but I doubt animal control would have showed up at 5:00 PM on a Saturday and the one local reptile shop in town closed down a few months back. Eventually I walked away for a few minutes to look for a better snake-handling implement and it was gone when I returned.

The whole incident made me realize something: even though rattlesnakes are common throughout most of the Americas, I doubt even 90% of Americans could identify one visually. In fact I would go so far as to say that, to most Americans, all snakes look more or less the same. Almost everyone on earth knows what a rattlesnake sounds like, though, and they all know that when you hear it, it’s time to take heed and back up.

Of all the snakes on earth, the vast majority are completely harmless to humans. A small percentage, however, are very dangerous. As vilified as rattlesnakes are, this one did everything in its power to avoid harming me. It warned me when I approached, attempted to flee, and never once tried to strike at me or the stick I was using to move it. A rattlesnake doesn’t rattle when it’s hunting. It doesn’t use its rattle to find mates or to attract food. It only rattles to warn other animals to stay back. In other words, the rattle is there for you, not for it. Many non-lethal snakes are far more aggressive than the rattler I encountered (anyone who has ever dealt with a bullsnake knows what I mean).

What does this have to do with guns? When you carry a gun, either openly or (especially) concealed, you may look just like everyone else, but you have the potential to be far more lethal, just like a rattlesnake. And, just like the rattlesnake I met yesterday, your behavior determines your fate.

Had the rattlesnake failed to warn me, not attempted to move out of harm’s way, and/or been overly aggressive, I would not have hesitated to blow it to pieces, and it’s possible I could have been seriously injured as well. The lesson is that, as gun owners, we must understand that our guns are seen as threatening to many people, and in order to avoid needlessly escalating dangerous situations we must follow a set of guidelines, including avoiding or evading danger whenever possible, using non lethal warnings (brandishing, verbal warnings, etc.), and only firing against imminent serious threats.

Of course, most of the people reading this already know what I am saying, but I find it nothing short of fascinating that there is already a template for civilized, justified self defense in the natural world. Hopefully something to think about next time you run across a snake.

comments

  1. avatar Frank says:

    I have a bad habit of picking up snakes or playing with them. If you are like me, it’s best to know the difference between venomous and non-venomous.
    Some snakes like Eastern Blue racers and Rat snakes act so bad-ass you would think they are venomous.
    Peterson’s Field Guides has a book on Reptile identification that is very useful.
    If they aren’t a threat to you, just leave them be.

    1. avatar Toby in KS says:

      While bow hunting two Octobers ago, I was seated at the base of a tree, waiting for a stupid deer to wander into range. On the ground next to me, less than six inches from my foot, a large, two-tone-tan banded snake emerged from a hollow log. I watched it slowly and casually wind away into the brush. It was about 3.5 feet long and in no hurry at all, moving at a clip of about 5 feet per minute. I didn’t recognize it, but I just sat and watched. It posed no threat to me, and I wasn’t hunting snakes so I posed no threat to it. An hour later, I shot my stupid doe and went home. Honestly, a doe that walks within 15 yards of a ground hunter on a hot day is not a bright animal. Tasty, though.

      When I got home, I googled the snake. Copperhead. First one I had ever seen. Somehow I thought they had rattles (they don’t) which is why I was never alarmed. Stupid hunter!

      The point of this short story: if you leave the snake alone, it will likely return the favor. Thankfully.

  2. avatar Joe I says:

    Very cool. Thanks for sharing your experience.
    Another way to identify poisonous snakes – in United States only – is the venomous snakes have a heart shaped head for the poison sacks on either side of the jaw. If the body runs uninterrupted to the head, not poisonous. If the head ‘flares’ out, as can be seen in this photo, most likely poisonous. Use caution with the identifying technique because younger snakes are not always obvious.

    1. avatar Bear The Grizzly says:

      This is true only to pit vipers. The coral snake looks like any other snake, but can potentially be the most deadly. Also, if you’re in Florida you may encounter boas or pythons which have the triangle heads, yet are not venomous.

      1. avatar Joe I says:

        Good point. I forgot to add that, but did mention that it was only North America that type of ID was useful.

        Thanks for the clarification.

        1. avatar Naught Forya says:

          I walked into my Florida house several years ago to a coral snake on the floor. Thought it was a scarlet king snake, until I verified “red next to yellow.”

        2. avatar Bear The Grizzly says:

          No problem sir, it’s always nice to meet people with understanding of snakes since most are so bias towards them.

        3. avatar Jonathan - Houston says:

          “Red and yellow, kill a fellow.” That’s how we learned it growing up in Texas. Just always assume the gun is loaded, the snake is venomous and conduct yourself accordingly, and you should be OK.

        4. avatar Markarov says:

          First time I visited relatives in New Orleans, before they unlocked the car door and let me out, they pointed to the windows beside their front door and admonished me to always check out the window before stepping foot outside because of water moccasins. (I was also told not to cross the small (2′) fence in their backyard because of ‘gators, as their property backed up to the Pearl River!) Once when I was rock climbing in WV, I was about 75 feet up preparing to clean the route (remove the rope and rappel down), when the hold I was reaching for moved… Yes, I screamed, quite loudly, I might add! Have no idea what kind it was but I scooted as far away as possible and let it slither onto a tree branch and disappear from sight. My friends all wanted to know how big it was, I said that, hanging that far up, I didn’t know, maybe, 8 to 12…feet (sucker was HUGE)! It couldn’t have been more than 2’ in length, but a friend of the family who worked with reptiles (the slithering kind-NOT politicians) later told me the juvenile snakes are somewhat more dangerous because if they strike, they will dump all venom they may have in their venom sacks!

      2. avatar Nick D says:

        True, but those types of snakes are easily recognized, coral snakes being brightly colored and striped, and boas and most pythons being relatively enormous. Of course, boas can get big enough that even being non venomous they can still be a threat, they just need to crush the life out of you like they would anything else.

        1. avatar Geoff PR says:

          “True, but those types of snakes are easily recognized, coral snakes being brightly colored and striped, and boas and most pythons being relatively enormous.”

          Really?

          Here are two snakes brightly colored and striped, one is lethal, one is not…

          http://www.petmd.com/sites/default/files/coral_snake_0.gif

          “Give a Snake A Brake” – bumper sticker.

  3. avatar Chadwick P says:

    I like that story. Similar indeed. Watch out for the little ones that are barely louder than a slight breeze. Haha good times.

  4. avatar v v ind says:

    Another way to identify a poisonous reptile is whether or not you get critically sick after being bit.
    On a more serious note, good write up.

    1. avatar Another Robert says:

      Actually, even non-poisonous snakes can/will bite, and some of them have very dirty mouths. Sort of like the Komodo Dragon, its teeth are so pathogen-laden from eating carrion that it almost might as well be venomous…

      1. avatar Gurney Halleck says:

        It was just recently discovered that Komodo Dragons are venomous. I’d like to see the caliber war on which is best for carry while in the Komodo Islands.

        1. avatar Nick D says:

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GAU-8_Avenger
          Just point and shoot.
          At the Komodo Islands.
          If that’s not enough, try this:
          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Davy_Crockett_(nuclear_device)
          It’s the only way to be sure.

  5. avatar ahil925 says:

    If it really was a Banded Rock Rattlesnake (C. l. klauberi) getting bitten by one could just make you have a bad day OR could kill you fast enough that you’d never survive the ride to the hospital. My friend was doing research on them in NM and AZ looking at the morphological variations of different populations (which can be very different depending on what mountain range they live in) and also looked at their venom. Some populations’ have more hemotoxic venom while others had more neurotoxic, and the potency was very variable as well.

    Sorry for the tangent, but if you messed with what you think you messed with you kinda lucked out by messing with one of the least aggressive rattlesnakes in the USA

  6. avatar Frank says:

    In addition to visual cues, a snake’s behavior is often a clue to it’s danger. Water snakes will usually take off and try to escape while Water moccasins often stand their ground as do copperheads. This can be a bad thing if you have a dog because they don’t know the difference, obviously, and may try to attack. Ask me how I know.
    Non-venomous snakes in the US have round eye pupils while venomous have cat-like pupils.

    1. avatar Another Robert says:

      Truthfully I try not to get close enough to look at the pupils.

    2. avatar Nick D says:

      Encountered a water moccasin once. It had taken a liking to the shade my truck provided. Unfortunately, the sun was on the passenger side of the truck, so the snake was napping right by the door. It didn’t seem inclined to move either. A round of 12g birdshot cleared the problem up nicely. Didn’t even hit the truck either.

  7. avatar LCB says:

    When I was growing up during the 60’s and 70’s I learned that ANY snake is a good snake as long as it’s dead. My folks grew up in mid-southern KY, and most farmers didn’t care to have any snake around. The most aggressive was the black snake. I had the misfortune of opening a tack room door when I was 4 or 5, only to come face to face with a black snake. It was coiled and hissed at me; i screamed all the way back to the house.

    The territory of rattlesnakes, specifically the timber rattler, has shrunk considerably over the decades. They were once common over the southern half of Ohio. There may still be some in the Portsmith area, but they’ve been killed off in most areas.

  8. avatar MamaLiberty says:

    Another good reason for serious situational awareness.

    My son was visiting me once when I lived in the Mojave Desert in So. Calif. He let his daughter (14) go outside listening to her “tunes” with those little muff things in both ears. The dog, thankfully, went with her and alerted us to the presence of a mature Mojave Green rattlesnake. The dog was smart enough to keep his distance, but he put himself between the snake and the girl so he might have been bitten, since the girl paid no attention whatsoever to either the snake or the dog until we got out there.

    We all had a good talk about such things after the hysteria and crying was over with.

  9. avatar Ed Rogers says:

    Great story, awesome analogy. Thanks for sharing!!!

  10. avatar tdiinva says:

    Rock climbers learn early on never to put your hand where you cannot see. That is just asking to get bitten when you place your hand on top of rattelsnake sunning itself on rock ledge.

  11. avatar Garrison Hall says:

    Oh, good grief. Cosmopolites have invaded People Of The Gun culture. I guess it didn’t occur to you while you were trying to shoo the little snake away, that it will grow into a very big, very dangerous, snake. Moreover, the little snake came from a den of little rattlesnakes that is in close proximity to your parent’s house. Those snakes too will grow into big snakes and those snakes will imperil your parent’s, their pets. their neighbors and their pets. Good thinkin’.

    1. avatar Vhyrus says:

      Actually, banded rock rattlesnakes rarely grow over 2 feet, and are both highly uncommon and non aggressive. Rattlesnakes, as well as all snakes, are very important for maintaining rodent populations, and should not be killed unless an immediate threat.

      But I’m sure that won’t stop you from blowing away everything that moves within an acre of your house.

      1. avatar The mayor of Candor says:

        ” I’d rather kill a man than a snake.” – Edward Abbey

      2. avatar Garrison Hall says:

        Sorry, but a rattlesnake under my house is a threat. That’s a red-neck rule, of course, but sometimes practicality has to win over probity.

        1. avatar Indiana Tom says:

          Usually snakes are not very interested in humans, dogs, or cats. I grew up on a farm and the snakes really hated the cats The cats would be dragging large snakes around by the head in the barn yard.. We bought a property in South East Indiana which was full of snakes. We put a shed up for my Wife and Daughters semi-feral cats. The cats took care of the problem in one way or another.

  12. avatar TexanHawk says:

    I have horses… but no barn. Horse feed stored in my garage attracted mice. Mice attracted snakes. Snakes ate mice at a good rate, but rattling noises in the garage (or barn) are not good for human’s stress levels. I brought home some neutered and fully clawed semi-feral felines who now reside in and around the garage on my dime. All problems solved. Even my wife who loves Bambi and hates hunting likes it when the cats killed and devoured a snake or mouse before each were eradicated.

    But a further point, North American snakes do not wish you harm. They want to go about their business of eradicating mice and other rodents. But, they are well armed to make you wish you had paid better attention to your surroundings.

    There are many allegorical statements to be made here about gun ownership. You might look at rattlesnakes as street criminals while my barn cats are the gun toting heroes of the day whose teeth and claws when you try to round them up for their shots are seen in a much different light when their mere presence is enough to reduce the number of vermin. On the other hand, you might look at the rattlesnake in the same light (out of doors of course). He only wishes for peace and a good meal, until you put him in a corner and attack him. Then he un-holsters his weapon, issues a warning and only attacks when forced.

  13. avatar Gregolas says:

    Thanks for the analogy. And as a lawyer, thanks for not killing one of us.

    1. avatar Vhyrus says:

      No more calls please…. We have a winner.

    2. In the future … well, one future anyway … lawyers will evolve:
      http://www.schlockmercenary.com/2000-10-01

      It’s a good story.

      ===|==============/ Keith DeHavelle

  14. avatar JPD says:

    The ignorance and stupidity is boundless.

    “getting bitten by one could just make you have a bad day OR could kill you fast enough that you’d never survive the ride to the hospital.”
    FACT: Death to snake venom (domestic varieties) is 5 to 8 people PER YEAR. Normally the lowest category of cause for death. Those recordables are also normally ignorant or drunk people that attempted to handle a venomous snake (without proper training).

    “I learned that ANY snake is a good snake as long as it’s dead” SERIOUSLY? Read a book. Most varieties of snakes in general are crucial to the environment and the friend of the farmer and rancher. Primary predator for rats and mice.

    Lastly, venom in snakes, native to North America is mild. Easily treated. A bite may make you very sick, but rarely results in death. Compare the venom to a brown recluse spider. Now that sucker can do some serious damage.

    1. avatar Vhyrus says:

      I would never classify the venom of any rattlesnake as mild. It is true that death is rare, but that is more due to advanced medical care and an extremely effective antivenom. Without medical care, rattlesnake bites are commonly fatal. That doesn’t mean they’re bad or deserve to die, just that they require respect.

    2. avatar Bear The Grizzly says:

      People are totally ignorant about things they don’t want to understand, kind of like…guns.

    3. avatar DaveInFlyover says:

      Yes, very few people in the US die from snakebite each year, but there are 7-8,000 venomous snake bites, and even though the victim most often lives, assuming they are of adult size and good health, the results aren’t pretty at all: http://www.venomousreptiles.org/libraries/Snakebite%20Photos/2

      Crotalus atria being your run-of-the-mill Western Diamondback.

      The hematoxin destroys tissue and blood vessels, nearly always resulting in debridement of the affected part, and if it’s a digit, well, sayonara. Didn’t need that trigger finger anyway. And if that’s not enough deterrent, the affected arm or leg typically swells badly enough that a fasciotomy, in which the skin is sliced open in a line from the heel of the hand (or ankle) to mid-bicep (or mid-thigh) is required to save the limb, followed by skin and tissue grafts. http://www.rattlesnakebite.org

      “Hot” snakes are nothing to be casual about. I don’t advocate capping every snake, but if my occupation of a particular piece of real estate is being disputed by one, I’m going to hunt him down and kill him. A rattler or cottonmouth in residence under the deck is a red-line threat to kids, pets, and quite frankly, me.

    4. avatar Ahil925 says:

      “The ignorance and stupidity is boundless.”

      Aren’t you a ray of sunshine. Considering how generally remote C.l. klauberi habitats can be, the fact that antivenoms specific to the subspecies aren’t particularly common, and that the composition of the venom can vary greatly between neighboring mountain ranges I sure as hell wouldn’t want to have to place my trust in a local medical centers hands.

      The lack of interaction between man and banded rock rattlers and their general timidness are the greatest contributing factors to the extreme rarity of deaths attributed to them.

    5. avatar LCB says:

      JPD,
      I wasn’t very clear. That’s what I was taught, not what I believe or practice. The old farmers in KY that I grew up around believed in that saying and would kill any snake they saw. I also heard many stories of rattle snakes and copper heads crawling in to their not so snake proof homes. “Remember when we killed that rattler in 49 under the dinning room table?” Looking back I think they were just trying to scare us kids…and doing a d@mned good job. Feral cats were tolerated and fed. Strange dogs (possible rabies) and snakes were killed on sight.

      Peace out…

  15. avatar jan says:

    It was saying, “Don’t tread on me.”

    1. avatar Marcus says:

      Surprised it took this long for someone to drop that.

      +1

  16. avatar cmeat says:

    “aaahh! cobras!”
    honey badger don’t care.

  17. avatar Mike Crognale says:

    Had a similar experience except this one was 5 ft western diamondback. Got out the waterhose with a spray nozzle and convinced it to leave post haste. No damage to either of us.

  18. avatar Alex says:

    I love how this was an allegory that’s message had nothing to do with snakes, and yet 95% of the comments are about “how dangerous snakes are or not”.

    The takeaway from this story is “be aware of how others perceive you” or could POTENTIALLY perceive you.

    That’s the first step to changing their perceptions.

  19. avatar Pheasant Plucker says:

    Here in the Arizona foothills where the Mohave and Sonoran deserts meet, we have mostly 1) Western Diamondbacks (aka coontails), which are mostly non-aggressive, will retreat when encountered, and are mostly seen while sunning in the roads, and 2) the “Mohave Green” rattlers which are decidedly different in temperment. Last week I came up on a Green sunning in the road, stopped the quad 30 feet from him, and he immediately coiled up and started buzzing at me.

    If snake lovers take offense at me shooting them, feel free to come over and take all you can for your own use. But we have kids, small dogs, goats, horses, etc, and our property is a zero tolerance zone.

    Twelve ga birdshot is awesomely effective, but if you want to skin them and use the hide, .38 or .45 pistol birdshot is recommended. In a pinch, Chevy pickups do an admirable job also 🙂

  20. avatar Daniel says:

    Snakes and guns? Really? How do you plan to aim for center mass on a snake?
    It’s called a Kabar, folks. Get one.

    1. avatar Vhyrus says:

      Snake shot. Not that this had to do with shooting snakes.

  21. avatar Joe says:

    Snakes are part of life in the southwest. If you are a rancher or have small children rattlers are trouble, but otherwise not that big of a threat if you keep a certain level of situational awareness. Heck, it took me about a year to get out of the habit of tapping out my boots in the morning, looking for scorpions. Rattlers really don’t want a fight, they just want to be left alone. Back in the day, I had a 22lr revolver loaded with birdshot for any rattlesnakes that wandered too close to the feed or the corral where we kept the calves.

  22. avatar Shwiggie says:

    The most beautiful snake I ever saw was an Eastern Diamondback in two pieces surrounding a Kaiser blade. Not on my property, bubba…slither elsewhere. If I want rodent control I can find a cat easily enough.

  23. avatar Koh says:

    Looks like you need a couple of things:

    1) 8′ piece of pvc electrical conduit with about an 10′ long piece of paracord, make a loop in one end of the paracord, run the rest up the conduit. Get the loop over a snakes head, and pull the string to either capture/kill the snake…I recommend just hauling it out in a field away from your place and turn it loose, they are beneficial after all. (I prefer rattlesnakes to Hantavirus)

    2) Get a cat or two….they are the best way to keep snakes away from your house. Cats hunt rodents, eliminate the food supply and the snakes won’t bother you.

    1. avatar Vhyrus says:

      We have two cats, but they’re fat useless house pets for the most part. The Siamese has actually been bitten by a rattler… twice.

      1. avatar Koh says:

        They aren’t hungry enough!

      2. avatar Doug says:

        “That dog won’t hunt!” Cats have got the instinct and speed, and that’s usually all it takes.

  24. avatar Hannibal says:

    Hmph… no one calls me ‘valiant’ when I’m trying to retreat!

    1. avatar Vhyrus says:

      The effort may be valiant even if the act is not 🙂

  25. avatar frank says:

    Someone said black snakes are aggressive. Truthfully, I’ve never seen an aggressive black snake. I once stepped on one on the deck at the cabin at night.
    I felt something squishy and thought I had stepped in some dog poop. I looked down with the light from the bathroom on the deck and saw it was a black snake. It didn’t seem to bother him being picked up nearly as much as it did my wife.
    My buddy in Arkansas told me his 15 year old daughter picks them up and puts them around her neck.
    I won’t generally go that far since snakes like to poop when they are picked up.
    Snake poop stinks, really, really bad. Trust me.
    I saw one down by the lake the other day. I got so close to his face my iPhone couldn’t focus. All of the sudden he bolted in the opposite direction and was gone.

  26. avatar bandolero says:

    I love snakes.

  27. avatar Jeff O. says:

    Here’s my favorite snake recipe:

    1 .44 Magnum case, resized and primed.
    7.5 grains Unique
    a thin cardboard wad cut at .45
    – a sharpened .45 auto case works well to cut it
    – Use the flat end of a pencil to tamp it in flat
    fill almost to top with #7 shot (about 90 grains)
    .45 cardboard wad
    One drop of wood glue
    Let dry overnight.

  28. avatar Martin B says:

    AFAIK (and that may not be much) there are only two places in the world that don’t have snakes: Ireland and New Zealand. Luckily I live in New Zealand, so I’ve never been up close and personal with such slithery critters. A short trip to Australia would risk encounters with some of the most venomous vipers on the planet. And then there are the snakes…

  29. avatar Martin B says:

    BTW, a .22 revolver would seem to be the perfect remedy for snake fever, but sadly our Gummint has decreed that we the people cannot be trusted to walk abroad with such ferocious firepower as a .22 pistol. Mind you, that might be wise, because in our thick bush areas, it takes a rifle or shotgun to take down a wild pig or trophy deer. Our most lethal adversary might be the West Coast mosquito. I’m glad not to live there, where men are men and sheep are worried.

  30. avatar Phillip R says:

    Your best and easiest defense against these smaller guys (assuming you’re on flat ground or concrete) is a nice two-hand sized rock as used in landscaping… almost always easy to find wherever you find rattlers whether in nature or… as part of your landscaping! Chuck the rock from your chest or overhead, whichever allows you to hit your mark. The landing rock will generally solve your problem. If the snake is coiled, your problem will end up in multiple pieces. No sense taking a conservationist approach with these guys who decide that your yard, walk, or driveway are places for them to spend time. Yes, snakes are good, unless they’re posing a threat to the health, safety, or comfort of you or your family. Scorpions are in the same boat (except wind scorpions, which aren’t really scorpions). Leave the tarantulas be though. Southern NM is full of charms!

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