It's a lousy day by summertime standards. Rain is spitting from the gray clouds and low overcast that cover the tops of the mountains. It's terrible weather for snake hunting, but Dave Garst, a biologist with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries still believes he can find a couple.
Garst has been researching rattlesnake populations in Virginia since the early 1990s. Though the snakes can be virtually anywhere at any time, they tend to congregate in places where they can bask in the sun not far from denning areas, such as rock ledges. They also like places where they will be undisturbed by people. Garst knows of many such places.
As predicted, the hunting is tough. Many of Garst's go-to spots are empty. Then, on a cliff about 100 feet over the valley below he peers over a rock and spots his quarry. A rattlesnake nearly three feet long is coiled up, trying to absorb what little warmth it can find from the day's hidden sun.
"The snakes that are here to keep their body temperature elevated," Garst said. "They are also here because there are no people."
Using a long-handled device made just for snake handling, Garst gently extracts the snake from under the rock and places it in a bag. A few minutes later he pulls out a second snake, while a third, out of his reach, continued to rattle under the rock.
Despite his years of poking at rattlesnakes, he's never been bitten. He is unapologetic in defense of the animals, which he believes get a bad rap from the snake-hating public.
"These are docile animals," he said. "They won't bother you if you don't bother them."
He can't do his job without bothering the snakes. They don't tend to like being extracted from under a rock, in a place where people virtually never go. "They might think of me as a space alien," Garst laughed.
He admits that the snakes have reason to snap at him. "If I've had a snake strike at me, it's totally due to my actions as a person. I'm poking at the snake. I'm trying to catch the snake, to mark the snake. I'm giving the snake a reason to want to strike at me."
Garst attributes his bite-free record to proper handling and respect for the snakes. He learned some of his technique at Virginia Tech, where his master's thesis focused on mapping the places in Virginia that rattlesnakes would be most likely to bask.
He admits that he has a different opinion of snakes than most people. But it's clearly an informed opinion. "People hear that they are a venomous animal. They're horrible. They're everywhere. They're just laying in the woods waiting for me to come by so they can eat me. And that's not really the case," he said.
During the time that Garst handles our snake, about 15 minutes -- it did not try to bite him. Garst says that's usually the case. He argues that it's just more evidence that the snakes are not out to harm humans.
The Virginia Poison Control Center says that fewer than 15 people have died from snake bites in the past 30 years. The center's website has advice for people who've been bitten. Many of their points debunk old wives' tales. For instance, the website advises victims not to attempt to suck the venom out of the wound or to apply ice or a tourniquet. The best option is to seek medical attention immediately. Many of the people who have died in recent years declined to go to a hospital.
Wikipedia has an interesting accounting of many of the fatalities due to snake bites -- by rattlesnakes and other species.
The listing seems to confirm much of what Garst believes about rattlesnakes. The victims, for the most part, were all doing something with a snake when the animal bit them.
Considering the fact that Garst needed to hike four miles, climb a cliff and search in dozens of cracks and crevices before he found a snake, it seems unlikely that the average person might happen upon a snake and suffer a bite. That' doesn't mean you won't find one in a shed or along a trail. (Or as startled drivers found -- in the middle of a busy Roanoke intersection this summer.)
But if you do, take Garst's advice and leave the snake alone.
More stories about snakes.
A near-deadly encounter in Yosemite: https://www.outsideonline.com/2315436/surviving-rattlesnake-bite
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