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What you should - and shouldn't - do if you run into a rattlesnake

Teresa Botkin likes to hike with her husband, Ben, and one of their favorites is Rim View Trail in the South Hills.

“We’ve seen deer, sheep and other animals that aren’t going to bite you,” Teresa said.

That’s why it surprised her — even scared her — when during a recent hike the Twin Fallswoman came upon a rattlesnake resting on the trail.

“We weren’t even a mile up the trail when all of a sudden, out of the corner of my eye, I saw something move,” said Teresa, who was walking ahead of Ben, a Times-News reporter. She saw the snake coil, heard its rattle and jumped back.

“Iran back down the trail and barreled through Ben, the poor guy,” she said.

They didn’t return to look at the snake, figuring if there was one on the trail there might be more nearby.

“I was told later on that what I did was absolutely wrong,” Teresa said. Don’t ever jump away from a snake.

Since her encounter, she’s read up about rattlers — “I’m even intrigued by them,” she said — and learned a few other things that she plans to remember in the event she encounters another.

Will she hike the trail again?

“Absolutely,” she said. “But I will be more cautious.”

Look ahead

If you’re in an area where signs are posted to keep an eye out for rattlesnakes, use caution. They’re probably not far away. You won’t likely find such warnings on remote trails, but if you’re in desert terrain, often where there’s sagebrush and rock, the snakes might be there anyway.

One of the things Teresa learned is that you should always look ahead of you when hiking on trails — not just where you’re stepping, but several yards in front of you. You’re looking for dark oval patterns that often blend in with rocks on the trail. Teresa said the snake she saw was stretched out on the trail and did not coil until she got close.

“Be alert,” said Kelton Hatch, conservation educator with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. “Pay attention to your surroundings.”

This way your chance of encountering a rattler unaware is lessened.

Give it room

Paying attention to what’s ahead of you allows you to make proper judgements if you see a snake.

“If you encounter a rattler,” Hatch said, “give it a wide berth and walk around it.”

Snakes do not have external ears but are sensitive to vibrations and will “feel” your footsteps as you get close to them. Snakes can strike only within half their length, Hatch said. But don’t take chances. Rattlers coil up when they feel threatened, so it’s difficult to tell how long the snake might be.

Stay calm, respect the snake

As Teresa learned, quick movements aren’t good if you stumble close to a rattler unaware.

“When they start rattling, it’s a warning for you not to get too close,” Hatch said. “If you’re within a couple of feet, that’s pretty close. So what you’d want to do is stand still and wait until things de-escalate. Usually, they’ll drop and try to slither off.”

Rattlesnakes aren’t interested in humans because we’re too big for them to eat. They bite us only if they feel threatened, or if we startle them.

Statistically, Hatch said, most of the bites that occur are on twentysomething males, often who are intoxicated and start teasing the snake.

Don’t do that, he said. Respect the snake and it will leave you alone if you’re not too close.

If you feel threatened

“There’s nothing wrong with killing a snake if you feel threatened by it,” said Gary Hompland, conservation officer with Fish and Game.

But if you’re not within striking distance, there might be other options — such as walking around it.

“Just because you see a rattlesnake doesn’t mean you have to kill it,” said Hatch. “They are beneficial to the environment and good at rodent control. They eat a lot of mice and things like that.”

What if you’re bitten?

About 25 percent of all rattlesnake bites are dry, non-venomous bites. But don’t take chances. If you’re bitten by a rattlesnake, stay calm and seek medical help immediately.

Do not cut the wound, as this can cause extensive bleeding, according to BitesandStings.com. Because human mouths are full of bacteria, sucking venom from the wound can cause infection, making treatment more difficult.

Tie a tight bandage a couple of inches above the bite. This slows the dissemination of the venom. Do not cut off your circulation, or you can damage the healthy tissue not receiving the proper amount of blood below the wound.

Carry a snakebite kit. Kits such as the Sawyer Extractor contain a syringe-like device that extracts venom from the wound without the complications of bleeding or wound contamination.

Rattlesnake bites are extremely painful and life-threatening without medical intervention. But according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, more people die from bee and wasp stings than rattlesnake bites. Each person reacts differently to bites, Hatch said. But most people who are bitten by a rattler — as long as they get medical help — make a full recovery without lasting effects from the bite.

Going without medical treatment can result in death within the day or following day due to venom disrupting blood flow and the function of vital organs.

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