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Rattlers share the trails

This is No. 24 of a multi-part series, taking an in-depth look at the parks and park-related facilities in the town of Petaluma. You can reach David Templeton at david.templeton@arguscourier.com. For a full list of Petaluma parks and open spaces, visit Cityofpetaluma.org/parks-open-spaces-and-recreation-facilities-list/. For5 information on rattlesnake safety, visit SonomaCounty.ca.gov. To check out Al Wolf’s work, visit SonomaCountyReptileRescue.com.

At Helen Putnam Park, in summers past, there have been prominent posters warning hikers to be on the watch for rattlesnakes. According to Al Wolf, director of Sonoma County Reptile Rescue, the fact that such posters are not currently in position at some local parks does not mean there is no reason to exercise caution this season. In fact, the opposite is true.

SNAKES IN THE GRASS: When hiking, never go off trail, as snakes are more likely to be napping where they hope to avoid human foottraffic. (PHOTO BY DAVID TEMPLETON)
SNAKES IN THE GRASS: When hiking, never go off trail, as snakes are more likely to be napping where they hope to avoid human foottraffic. (PHOTO BY DAVID TEMPLETON)

“Rattlesnakes are amazing creatures, so the posters get stolen,” Wolf says. “People can’t resist the rattlesnake posters, and the mountain lion posters have been popular too. So in some parks, they just don’t put up the posters, or they haven’t replaced them yet. But do keep your eyes out for rattlesnakes. Just the fact that the babies are being born early this year means that they are out there. A lot more than usual for this time of year.”

That said, Wolf believes there’s no reason for park visitors to be overly alarmed.

“They are a great snake, rattlesnakes are,” says Wolf. “I love ‘em. They keep the rodent population down. They serve an important ecological purpose. And they are not as dangerous as people think. If you google how many people die of snakebites in this country, it’s almost nothing. Last year there were something like 6,000 to 8,000 snake bites across the US, and that includes water moccasins and all the others. You know many of those people died? Its an annual average of less than one person a year.”

Adds Wolf, “We’ve lost more people to the coronavirus in Sonoma County in the last five months than we’ve lost to rattlesnakes in the last 15 years.”

In other words, when hiking the trails of Helen Putnam Park – or any of the other rattlesnake-friendly habitats in Petaluma and Sonoma County – you are at higher risk from passing some unmasked, asymptomatic Covid-carrier, on foot or on horse, spraying a fine mist of droplets into the air you pass through, than you are at risk from a resident rattlesnake. For one thing, unlike in the movies, rattlesnakes don’t have a very long strike-range, only about 15-inches, estimates Wolf.

A rattlesnake at Sonoma County Reptile Rescue, in Sebastopol, on Friday, February 22, 2013. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)
A rattlesnake at Sonoma County Reptile Rescue, in Sebastopol, on Friday, February 22, 2013. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

“If you see a rattlesnake, just stay calm, keep your distance, and maybe take a picture,” Wolf says. “They aren’t going to leap through the air at you from six feet away.”

Wolf allows that there have been a number of reports of rattlesnakes in Petaluma, with several babies spied at Helen Putnam Park, and many near residences on Sonoma Mountain. Locally, the rattlesnake we see in Petaluma is the Northern Pacific Rattlesnake. Last month, a story in the San Francisco Chronicle reported three times the usual number of Northern Pacifics out-and-about this year, a report that evidently has made some hikers a bit antsy when it comes to traipsing the area’s hiking trails.

“I think that data probably came from me,” laughs Wolf. “I started getting rattlesnake calls in mid-February. Usually, that’s not the case till march or April, but they’ve been breeding early. Yesterday, I picked up two baby snakes.”

Baby rattlesnakes, for the record, though definitely cuter than a full-grown adult, are no less lethal. In fact, in some cases they are more hazardous than the adults, says Wolf.

“The babies are definitely more dangerous,” Wolf confirms. “You don’t see them as easily, and you don’t hear them. And they can’t control their venom, the way an adult rattlesnake can, so if they bite, they give you everything they’ve got. Since there are so many babies out right now, I’d say you should definitely pay attention when you’re out somewhere.”

Last week, Wolf was at Jack London State Historic Park when he was visited by a medium-sized adult while he was eating his lunch.

“I sat on one of their stone walls,” Wolf recalls. “And I had an orange soda that I sat next to me on the wall. I was eating my sandwich, and I went to reach for the soda, and five inches away, there was a coiled up rattlesnake, just sitting there in the sun. So I moved over a couple of feet, finished my lunch, said ‘Hi’ and ‘Goodbye’ to the snake and went on my way.”

It’s not just the parks and trails where snakes are showing up, of course.

TRAILS OF PUTNAM PARK: Experts advise staying on trails, remaining aware of your surroundings in order to avoid surprising a snake.
TRAILS OF PUTNAM PARK: Experts advise staying on trails, remaining aware of your surroundings in order to avoid surprising a snake.

“A lot more people are home gardening,” Wolf says. “So, they are seeing more snakes in their yards and gardens.” That’s where Wolf comes in. He captures and relocates snakes and lizards when they show up in places they are not welcome.

Asked if the recent closures of parks might have drawn snakes out into the open, the way some wild animals have been reported to have repopulated areas where human traffic and activity had disappeared, Wolf says no.

“Snakes aren’t that smart,” he says. His guess, actually, is that in addition to the early breeding period this year, the fact that so many folks are returning to parks after sheltering indoors might be contributing the higher number of snake reports. “The more people there are to see the snakes, the more snakes get seen,” he says.

Wolf does keep in touch with the regional parks, and it really does seem to be the case that more snakes are on the moving doing snake things than usual for this time of the year. Asked if the early baby season means a shorter all-around snake season, Wolf says the early start only means the snake season will last longer, overall.

“So it’s going to be a good year for snakes,” he says. “And next year should be better. With more babies born over a longer period of time, there will be more snakes to survive till the next season. It’s just math.”

So when out in your yard, should you live in an appropriately dry and hot part of Petaluma, or when you are venturing out across the trail at one of our many parks or open spaces , always stay mindful of your surroundings, listen carefully for that recognizable rattle, never reach into areas you cannot see - and if you do see a rattlesnake, enjoy the moment.

“I always say it’s a lucky day when you see a rattlesnake,” says Wolf. “If I ask most people what they did two weeks ago, they can’t remember a thing, but anytime you see a rattlesnake, that’s a day you remember.”

This is No. 24 of a multi-part series, taking an in-depth look at the parks and park-related facilities in the town of Petaluma. You can reach David Templeton at david.templeton@arguscourier.com. For a full list of Petaluma parks and open spaces, visit Cityofpetaluma.org/parks-open-spaces-and-recreation-facilities-list/. For5 information on rattlesnake safety, visit SonomaCounty.ca.gov. To check out Al Wolf’s work, visit SonomaCountyReptileRescue.com.

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