July 10, 2008

Snakes Have a Savior: Sanctuary and Education Service Removes Them From Valley Yards

By Judy Fahys, The Salt Lake Tribune

Jul. 10--Jim Dix knows what it's like to have a rattlesnake problem on your hands. His family once fled their home in California when he was a kid because a pet rattler got loose in the house.

"My parents had to go to a hotel for a week until I found it," says Dix, grinning at the memory.

These days, the west-side resident fields calls from people throughout the Salt Lake Valley with rattlesnake problems of their own. He operates Reptile Rescue, an education and sanctuary service many people turn to when snakes have slithered from the wildlands into homes and yards.

Calls have started to pick up recently.

Dix picked up a rattler called in by a tenacious woman from Olympus Hills. She had tailed the snake for more than 45 minutes.

He got three calls in an hour from a neighborhood at the Top of the World in Big Cottonwood Canyon.

A flurry of calls came from Emigration Canyon and north of the state Capitol.

It might seem like the snakes are everywhere -- they can be found all around the Salt Lake Valley and on the benches -- but Laura Hines, a biologist with the state Division of Wildlife Resources, says there's no reason to think the snake population has boomed.

"Every year, there's a trend [of more rattler-human encounters] in the springtime," she said. "But this year, it's been a little later because of the cold spring."

Snakes are cool, she added. But it's best to enjoy them from a distance.

"No one wants to get bit by a snake," she added. "And as one of the officers here would say, if you get bit by one, you won't die but you might wish you did because it hurts so much."

Don Belnap, a Salt Lake County Animal Control officer, often works with Dix in reptile-education programs and sometimes on emergency calls. He's fond of reptiles, too. He even has a cobra tattoo on his hand.

He's one of the officers who is happy to take part in a snake call. And he has been out to Herriman a lot lately, where construction has flushed out lots of gopher and garter snakes.

"But there are rattlesnakes out there, too," he said.

They hang out on the trails and at home, in brush, in woodpiles and on retaining walls.

Dix and Belnap said that when people see snakes, they often try to kill them. Not a good idea -- not just because many people mistake the harmless ones with the rattlers and not just because injured snakes can still bite.

"It's illegal to kill any wildlife without a license," said Dix.

"If you don't know what it is, don't pick it up," said Dix. His estimate is that most bite victims are males between 17 to 34, often under the influence.

"Most of these accidents are stupidity," he said.

If you do happen to get bit, it is important to stay calm while seeking medical attention, he said. Otherwise, the venom will spread more quickly throughout the bloodstream.

In short, it's best to enjoy rattlesnakes at a distance -- 4 to 5 feet is good -- and leave any direct contact to the pros.

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--Snakes help keep pests out of the garden, including insects, snails, mice, rats and gophers. Most of the time, if you leave them alone, they will eagerly get out of your way.

--Take care where you step, reach or put your face. Rattlesnakes like to hang out on rocks and in bushes where they might be hard to spot.

--If you see a rattlesnake, don't grab it. And remember that killing it -- or any other wildlife -- is generally a crime.

--If you are worried the situation is hazardous, call Reptile Rescue, the state Division of Wildlife Resources or county animal control officers at 559-1120 in Salt Lake County. Keep an eye on the snake until help arrives.


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