Snake population may be declining, but the snake business thrives

According to a three-continent study of 11 species of snakes, the number of reptiles is declining. Maybe so, but not in my backyard.

Anecdotally speaking, it would seem that southern California rattlesnakes have reproduced with a vengeance this spring. Actually we're seeing last year's babies, says Jason McElroy of Southern California Snake Removal. There's no Planned Parenthood in Snakeville, and rattlers generally give birth in August or September.

Experts say that the past winter's heavy rain has fostered a large population of rodents, which the snakes like to eat -- hence we are seeing more snakes venturing out for dinner.

And with the advent of snake season comes a burst in the market for snakebite treatments, snake removals and snakebite vaccine demands. Snakes, it seems, are big business in this part of the world.

There is one legendary guy whose rattlesnake-removal services I have had occasion to use: That's Bo Beware the Rattlesnake Wrangler. Yep, he says that's his legal name. It used to be Bo Slyapich. Bo does a lot of work for the movie studios. He crawls into those likely snake-hiding places ahead of the actors and crew, fully outfitted in Vietnam War-era gear (updated with a few jungle machetes) and ferrets out the enemy, I mean the snakes.

Bo's rates vary, depending on what he thinks the market will bear -- an admission found on his web site. The guy is good, what can I say? Not without a sense of humor -- a valuable trait in a rattlesnake wrangler -- he says he hangs on to the snake until your check clears.

Darryl Hannah called Bo when she found a snake in her pool. You want a better reference than that?

Snake removers, without question, are a different lot. Most of them prefer not to kill the snake but to relocate it. I have some suggested addresses of former bosses, but I digress. Snake removal generally costs $100 and up, depending on travel time and the difficulty in locating the snake that you swear you saw "right there." Yes, that should be read with hysteria in your voice.

Right now, the big debate in my neck of the mountains is whether to vaccinate pets against snake bites. The vaccination costs about $75 and is available at veterinary hospitals. What the vaccine does is raise antibody levels in your pet. The antibody levels in a recently vaccinated dog is comparable to treatment with three vials of anti-venom, which means a vaccinated dog should experience less pain and a reduced risk of permanent injury if bitten by a snake. The pet will still need to be treated, but has a greater chance of survival -- as does your wallet, because treating a bitten pet runs into the thousands and likely requires hospitalization.

One reason the anti-venom treatment is so expensive is that it's a highly perishable medication. Vets must carry it but it has a limited shelf life, so if they don't use it, their investment is wasted.

Many dog trainers in Southern California offer rattlesnake avoidance training. It essentially consists of showing the dog a hissing snake and then zapping the pet with a low-volt but still unpleasant electrically charged collar. The pet presumably links the two events and steers clear when he hears the hissing sound. Too bad many rattlesnakes don't actually hiss until you get close enough to them for the fear factor to kick in. The hissing, by the way, sounds more like an errant lawn sprinkler than a rattle.

Go ahead, ask me how I know.

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