Rattlesnake Avoidance Training

 

Bo Slyapich

“I caught this one on the oth­er side of Hid­den Hills,” Bo said, bang­ing his fist on a plas­tic stor­age tub in the back of his pick­up truck. Inside, a rat­tlesnake big enough to swal­low my arm struck the tub’s translu­cent wall, spray­ing ven­om all over it.

I jumped back.

Don’t wor­ry,” Bo said. “I taped down the lid.” I eyed the tub war­i­ly while Bo picked up a plas­tic shoe­box. “Here, look at this.”  

Cov­ered with goose­bumps, I watched three shoe­strings with dia­mond-shaped heads and con­i­cal tails crawl around inside.

Baby rat­tlers,” he said. “They’re dead­ly. They don’t know how to con­trol their ven­om glands. They dump the whole load when they bite.”

Rat­tlesnake Removal Expert

A few days after we moved into Hid­den Hills, a rat­tlesnake crawled up our dri­ve­way to say hi. When I told the man next door about our unwel­come vis­i­tor, he laughed rue­ful­ly. “They’re all over the neigh­bor­hood,” he said. He told me to call Bo Slyapich, a rat­tlesnake wran­gler extra­or­di­naire, who cap­tures and relo­cates rat­tlesnakes.

I hired him to assess our property’s vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty. “You’ve pur­chased a Four Sea­sons resort for rat­tlesnakes,” he said after inspect­ing our lot. “Ample ground­cov­er for hid­ing out. Patch­es of hard­scape for sun­bathing. Plen­ty of mice, rats, and gophers for snacks, and your swim­ming pool makes a nice water­ing hole. When the fire con­trol peo­ple mow the brush on the vacant lot behind your land, scores of rat­tlers will speed-roll into Ken’s Din­er and take up res­i­dence for the sum­mer.”

Rat­tlesnake Fence

Over­reg­u­lat­ed Cal­i­for­nia requires real estate sell­ers to dis­close prox­im­i­ty to elec­tro­mag­net­ic fields, fun­gus, mold, nuclear radi­a­tion, radon, methane, and reg­is­tered sex offend­ers, but inex­plic­a­bly state law­mak­ers don’t con­sid­er teem­ing nests of poi­so­nous vipers haz­ardous enough to make the list, so I didn’t dis­cov­er the rat­tlesnake prob­lem until after I bought the place.

I can’t have rat­tlesnakes crawl­ing all over my yard,” I told Bo. “I’ve got grand­kids. My dog, Zoey. What can I do?”

Clear away the ground cov­er. Hire a pest con­trol ser­vice to clean out the food sup­ply. Install a rat­tlesnake fence.”

I hired a bush­whack­er to remove the brush. Hydrex killed off the rodents. Four guys from St. Patrick’s Fenc­ing spent three days installing a three-feet-high fine-meshed fence buried one foot in the ground. They assured me a rat­tlesnake couldn’t climb over it, slith­er through it, or bur­row under it.

I felt safe until Bo came to take a look. “Good work,” he said. “That’ll keep most of them out.”

Most of them?”

The Train­er

No prop­er­ty is com­plete­ly snake-proof. Teach your grand­chil­dren to be watch­ful, and they’ll be fine. Zoey’s your prob­lem. Dogs treat rat­tlesnakes like chew toys. The vet can give her shots, but a bite to the face is still usu­al­ly fatal. Your best bet is to train her to stay away from rat­tlesnakes.”

How do I do that?”

Bo hand­ed me a busi­ness card. “Rat­tlesnake Avoid­ance Train­ing,” it said. “Humane, safe, and effec­tive.”

Think­ing we were going hik­ing, Zoey dog-grinned at me as we drove to her train­ing class over a wind­ing road in Mal­ibu Canyon. We parked under Cal­i­for­nia live oaks and walked over to a pic­nic table. As we reg­is­tered, a fright­ened black Lab passed by us, strain­ing with all his might to get to his car, his own­er strug­gling to hang on to his leash.

A woman in kha­ki work clothes pet­ted Zoey and sweet-talked her before clip­ping on a shock col­lar. I’m against train­ing ani­mals with pain, but when I enrolled, the train­er explained that the col­lar deliv­ered a low-lev­el shock that would cause no last­ing dam­age. “Remem­ber,” she said, “it’s a mat­ter of life and death.”  

The course was the size of a base­ball infield. There were rat­tlers coiled at first base, sec­ond, and third. The snake han­dler had attached a hard plas­tic bub­ble over each snake’s head so it could strike, but not bite.

The train­er led Zoey to first base. Tail wag­ging, she ran right up to a furi­ous­ly rat­tling snake for a sniff. As it struck at her face, the train­er hit the shock but­ton. Zoey yelped, jumped in the air, regained her foot­ing, and des­per­ate­ly scram­bled back­ward.  

The train­er pulled Zoey to the snake on sec­ond base. She approached it war­i­ly, but still got too close and took a sec­ond shock.

Some Cal­i­for­nia Dia­mond­backs don’t rat­tle before they strike. “Dar­win­ism at work,” the train­er said. Zoey had to learn to avoid the silent rat­tlers by their scent. A snake that didn’t rat­tle lay on third base. When Zoey got close enough to pick up its odor, she retreat­ed.  

Zoey

The ulti­mate test was the last step in the process. The train­er had set up two par­al­lel chain-link fences five feet apart to cre­ate a grass cor­ri­dor about twen­ty feet long. The snake han­dler, a guy with greasy black hair, scars all over his arms, and a droop­ing left eye (what­ev­er they paid him it wasn’t enough), dropped the biggest rat­tler I’d ever seen in the cen­ter of the cor­ri­dor. They put Zoey at one end and told me to stand at the oth­er. “Call your dog,” the train­er said.

Come, Zoey!”

Vis­i­bly dis­tressed, Zoey looked at me long­ing­ly, but wouldn’t budge no mat­ter how enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly I called her.

Smart dog,” the train­er said. “You’re good to go.”

When P.D. came along four years lat­er, he was a dif­fer­ent sto­ry. He has such high tol­er­ance for pain the train­er had to adjust the volt­age meter to the max­i­mum before he got the mes­sage, but after two trips through the infield and three heavy jolts, he was as rat­tlesnake averse as Zoey.

Shock Col­lar Packs a Jolt

His prob­lem was the grass cor­ri­dor. When I called him, he dashed toward me and tried to jump over the rat­tler. It struck at his bel­ly and the train­er zapped him. The shock knocked him side­ways. He fell, strug­gled to his feet, and ran into my arms.

They set him up again. He ran for me and took anoth­er jolt. 

On his third try, he hes­i­tat­ed, look­ing back and forth from me to the snake, then sprint­ed across the grass, and suf­fered the blow again. This time when he reached me, he bur­rowed his head in my chest, pant­i­ng hard and whin­ing.

I want­ed to quit, but the train­er insist­ed. They pulled him back to the head of the cor­ri­dor. He stood at the line, trem­bling all over, still whin­ing, look­ing at me, wait­ing for my com­mand. I knew what he would do if I called him.  

Fight­ing back tears, I walked around the fenc­ing, took off the shock col­lar, and hugged him. “That’s enough,” I said. “I can’t do it to him again.”

Back at the pic­nic table, the train­er told me she thought P.D. had learned to avoid rat­tlesnakes even though he failed the last test. “It’s rare,” she said, “but I’ve seen it before, a smart dog so faith­ful to his own­er he’ll run to the snake when called no mat­ter how much it hurts him.”

P.D.

Zoey and I have a spe­cial rela­tion­ship. She loves me above all liv­ing crea­tures, but the only way they could have dragged her across that big snake to join me would have been to hitch her leash to a Mack truck.

P.D. is devot­ed to my wife. Before that day, I liked him, but our bond wasn’t over­pow­er­ing.

On the dri­ve home, he lay on the front seat beside me, exhaust­ed. I stroked his neck where the shock col­lar had deliv­ered the juice. It was still warm. His yel­low-brown eyes looked up at me, trust­ing, loy­al, coura­geous. I won­dered then, and I won­der now, how I could be so lucky.          

 

Post Script: After eight years in Hid­den Hills nei­ther dog has been bit­ten, and only one rat­tlesnake has ever made it through the fence. Iron­i­cal­ly, my grand­daugh­ter found him in our back yard the day after I fin­ished writ­ing this post. The snake fence guys return on Mon­day, and Zoey and P.D. are enrolled in refresh­er cours­es in July.