15 Things You Should Know About Snakes!

Penny DiLoreto, CPDT-KA
Coffee With Tom Derr with a Side Order of Snakes!
By Penny DiLoreto

At 8:00 AM, two hours before starting my scheduled Sunday morning Snake Avoidance Class, Tom Derr and his lovely wife, Brahna, joined me in Escondido, CA., for coffee and talked about snakes. Tom has over 20 years of experience working with and handling rattlesnakes and snakes of all breeds. Tom's business, Tom's Snakes and Rattlesnake Rescue, located in the Mira Mesa area of San Diego, California, is known to locals as the place to call if an unwanted snake wanders into backyards, homes, or any space it is not welcome. Tom does not advocate killing any snake, including Rattlesnakes; instead, he removes the snake from the unwanted location. In most cases, Tom will take the snake to his home, where he makes sure it is healthy and is eating correctly, and then releases it back into the wild away from humans.

DiLoreto:   I want to thank you, Tom and Brahna, for agreeing to meet with me this morning and for taking part in this interview. I want to start by asking, how did you get started with handling snakes?

Tom:    Well, I guess it was 20 years ago when my daughter turned 15 and asked, Dad can I have a snake? Lightning cannot strike as fast as I said, yes! As a kid, I always wanted to have a reptile, but the family said no, dogs are the only things we were allowed to have. I just put the idea of getting a pet snake out of my mind until I was old enough to be on my own. So my daughter got a snake, I got a snake, then she got another snake because her snake was lonely, and now I have 41 snakes.

DiLoreto:  Are all your snakes non-venomous, or do you have venomous snakes as well?

Tom:  I have venomous snakes. They are not to the point that they are harmful to humans, except for the ones that I am rescuing. I have two Red Diamonds and a Southern Pacific right now that I was planning on releasing today, but that's not going to happen because of this interview and the fact that they did not eat the food I gave them, and I have to make sure that they eat before I let them go. They will be released in Sycamore Canyon, away from human harm. The other snakes are classified as venomous, but they are rear-fanged, which means that they have to bite on and chew for 10 - 15 minutes before envenomation, and I don't know anybody or animal who would allow a snake to chew on them for that long. 

DiLoreto:  Laughing. Yes, I agree. 

DiLoreto:  Rear fanged? That's a term I have never heard before; please explain.

Tom:  It's like a Garder Snake. A Garder Snake is venomous; they have small rear fangs that are meant to immobilize their prey. Their venom is harmless to humans; you might get an allergic reaction if you get bit by one, but nothing harmful.

DiLoreto:  Kind of like a bee sting if you are allergic to bees?

Tom:  Yes, if you were to get a reaction, that would be the worst-case scenario.

DiLoreto:  That's fascinating. So how did you get started in the Rattlesnake Rescue business?

Tom:  Someone said to Susan Nowicke, the President of the San Diego Herbalogical Society, "I have a rattlesnake in my yard, and I don't know what to do!" Susan suggested that she call me. I went over and took care of it; that was my first time to rescue a Rattlesnake. I was a little nervous, but handling a snake is handling a snake; there is nothing different; you just have to use tools when handling a venomous snake. Afterward, I thought, Gee, I can get used to this! So from there on, it just blossomed. I'm teaching the Animal Control cadets and San Diego Humane Society volunteers how to handle and remove venomous snakes humanely. 

DiLoreto: Between your rescue business and teaching, you must stay very busy. Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to speak with me today. I have a few questions I have gathered from students over the years and would like to get your opinion. I'll start with, Do Rattlesnakes become angry and chase after people, dogs, or other animals to bite them?

Tom: There is no such thing as an angry Rattlesnake or any other snake; they do not chase they defend. Snakes would instead prefer to be left alone, but if you get them cornered, they will do whatever they can to protect themselves. Their first instinct is to rattle, hiss, and then bite, unless you surprise them. If you startle a snake, all bets are off on how it will react. Snakes are virtually deaf; however, they pick up vibrations in the ground and feel footsteps as people approach.
On the other hand, dogs walk softly, and their vibrations are not as easy to detect, mostly if a snake is sunning himself. So it is easy for a dog to startle a snake which can cause the snake to strike/bite in defense. Snakes do not want to use their venom for defense if they don't have to. It takes a venomous snake a long time to regenerate venom after a bite, and venom is what they use to kill their prey and feed. 

DiLoreto:  Avoidance?

Tom:  Yes. 

DiLoreto:  I have heard that snakes are blind while shedding their skin and thus more apt to bite. Is this true?

Tom:  Yes.  It's referred to as being "in the blue," their skin is opaque, their eyes are clouded over, and it is tough for them to see. They become scared and will lash out at anything they feel may be threatening them.

DiLoreto:  The term "in the blue" refers to shedding?

Tom:  Yes. A snake that is about to shed is what we refer to as being "in the blue." Once the cloudiness clears up, within a week, the snake will start shedding. 

DiLoreto:  I have heard people say they found a nest of snakes. Do snakes live together in a nest?

Tom:  The only snakes that live together are Garder Snakes and Rattlesnakes. Rattlesnakes will go to a den and hibernate or brumate in the winter months in areas that have a proper winter. They do not hibernate here in Southern California; it's too warm. In regions like Colorado, Rattlesnakes will hibernate. I'm assuming the hibernation takes place before the first snow, but I honestly don't know. (*)
DiLoreto:  So you are saying that Rattlesnakes are present all year long in warmer climate areas like Southern California, that there isn't a Rattlesnake Season as I had thought?

Tom:  No, there is no season for Rattlesnakes in Southern California; they are out and about 24-7, 12 months a year, so you need to be careful. However, between November and March, we do see fewer Rattlesnakes.

DiLoreto: If you are walking your dog and you come upon a snake, how far can the snake strike or jump, for lack of a better word, towards you and your dog?

Tom:  Snakes can strike out 2/3 - 3/4 of their body length if the snake is coiled and a little less if it's not coiled. If you run across a snake sunning himself in a path, just pick up some soft dirt and toss it at him. Let the snake know you are in front of it, and a lot of time, it will just scurry away. If not, you may need to find an alternate route. 

DiLoreto:  Thank you, Tom, this has been very informative. In closing, what advice do you have for dog owners that like to go out on nature trails, camping, and hiking paths and want to keep their dog safe?

Tom:  Stay on the trail, don't go off in the brush! Stay in the middle of the course and keep your dog on a short leash. Snakes are usually located right on the edge of a trail sunning themselves, and you could pass ten snakes before you see one, they are camouflaged so well.

(*)Note: According to Dr. Major L. Boddiker, the Rocky Mountain Wildlife Services Rattlesnakes hibernate from October 20 to March 20. See the resource section for more information on Snakes in the Colorado area. (1)

Warning  Graphic Photos of Snake Bite Victims!

 Dr. Seibold, DVM, was so kind to take time out of her hectic schedule and provided me with answers I had on treating venomous snake bites.  Dr. Seibold, the owner of Animal Urgent Care, established in 1996 in Escondido, CA., lectures locally and nationally on the diagnosis and treatment of envenomations in dogs and cats. She is a Board Member for Venom Week (human toxicology group) and a 1998 Diplomat American College of Veterinary and Critical Care.
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