“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.”
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.”
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?”
“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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.