Updated: April 18, 2013 at 12:00 am
The first time Bob Falcone nearly was bitten, he was scrambling around the hill just east of Garden of the Gods, trying to get the perfect photo of the rocks.
The hill is known, appropriately enough, as Rattlesnake Ridge.
“It had four chances to bite me in the hand and it missed,” the avid hiker recalled.
He’s had four more close encounters hiking around Colorado Springs, which left him with a “healthy respect” for rattlesnakes, though no puncture wounds.
“They’re there to protect themselves and eat and they really don’t want to take a chunk out of me because they can’t have me for dinner,” he said.
April is when the region’s abundant population of prairie rattlesnakes emerge from their winter dens. While not as deadly as some Western rattlesnake species, the prairie rattlesnake can kill, or at best make for a bad day.
It’s one of only two venemous snakes in Colorado. While they won’t usually attack people, they will strike if threatened, as the nine people — and many more dogs — treated for rattlesnake bites in Colorado Springs last year discovered.
Said Falcone: “I think people just don’t realize they’re all over this area. If they stick their hands someplace or stick their foot someplace, they’re not going to feel too well about their adventures.”
Despite its name, the prairie rattlesnake can be found in the foothills as high as 7,000 feet.
Ute Valley Park, Pulpit Rock Open Space and Cheyenne Mountain State Park are all home to plenty of rattlesnakes. But the city’s most-visited park, Garden of the Gods, has the most sightings, said park ranger Bernard “Snook” Cipolleti.
He hadn’t seen any as of the end of March, but expects, as temperatures rise, they will begin to emerge from their winter dens and will be found sunning themselves on rocks and pavement in the midday sun. Later in the summer, they spend the hottest part of the day under rocks or in the shade.
Three of Falcone’s encounters were in the park, two on Rattlesnake Ridge. He recalls one occasion after arriving too late in the morning.
“Bushes on either side of the trail were literally shaking from the snakes shaking their rattlers,” he said.
Now Falcone tries to get out of rattlesnake habitat before the day gets too warm. He also makes plenty of noise and carries hiking sticks to deflect any snakes.
Experts say avoidance is the best tactic for coping with rattlesnakes. Wear heavy boots and pants in rattlesnake habitat. Be careful stepping over rocks and logs. If you hear a rattling, turn around or proceed with caution. If you see one, give it a wide berth.
The rattle is your warning. It might be your last warning.
What to do if bitten
Generations of Boy Scouts were taught to suck out the poison of a snake bite.
Don’t tie a tourniquet or go hacking at the puncture wound with your Swiss army knife either.
Experts say immediate emergency medical treatment is essential. Get away from the snake and call 911 if you have cellphone coverage. Keep calm and control your breathing.
“We want people to stay calm, though that’s probably easier said than done when you’re bit by a snake,” said Memorial Hospital emergency room Dr. George Hertner.
If you can, await rescue while moving as little as possible, or have your friends help you walk. That will keep the toxin from moving through your system. But if you’re alone or without cellphone coverage, walking out is the only option.
About a third of rattlesnake bites involve no toxin. The snake saves that for its prey. Victims will know soon enough.
The first symptom will be severe pain and swelling, said Dr. Jack Dillon, an ER doctor at Penrose Hospital who’s been fascinated by snakes since he was bitten by a water moccasin 40 years ago.
The pain will begin to spread up the arm or leg, followed by tingling, nausea or vomiting. If left untreated, confusion, difficulty breathing and low blood pressure might follow.
The good news is, with application of an anti-venom readily available in area hospitals, bite victims usually recover fully, with young children and the elderly most likely to die from bites. The El Paso County Coroner’s Office was not aware of a rattlesnake fatality in recent decades. Scars are the most common long-term impact.
The bad news is the cost of treatment, which Dillon said can be $10,000 to $20,000.
Vital part of the ecosystem
Rattlesnakes might be the most reviled denizens of the Pikes Peak region, but they serve a purpose, eating pesky rodents, as well as bird eggs, insects and lizards. And they are food for eagles and hawks.
When city parks officials get calls about a rattlesnake on a trail, there’s little they can do, said Kurt Schroeder, the parks head.
“We have to learn to share the environment with the wildlife that lives there. If indeed there is one that seems to be in a threatening posture on the trail, we’ll try to do something about it, but chances are by the time the report gets to us and we get somebody out there it’s long gone,” he said.
At Garden of the Gods, Cipoletti relocates as many as 20 rattlesnakes a year that have strayed onto trails, sidewalks or roads, for the snakes’ well-being as much as the tourists’.
“When somebody tells me they see a snake, I say, ‘That’s good. You’re lucky to meet a snake today if you stand clear. They are poisonous, but they’re not out to bite you,’” he said.
How to tell it’s a rattlesnake
Many snakes in Colorado do a good job imitating their venomous cousin. Here’s how to tell a rattler:
• Rattles at the end of the tail.
• Fangs in addition to their rows of teeth.
• Facial pits between the nostrils and eyes.
• Vertical and elliptical pupils that might look like thin lines in bright light. (Nonvenomous snakes have round pupils.)
• A single row of scales between the vent and the tip of the tail. (Nonvenomous snakes have two rows of scales.)
• Broad triangular head and narrow neck.
Source: CSU Cooperative Extension