Avoiding rattlesnake bites is as easy as taking precautions, wearing the right clothing for outdoor activities, being aware of your surroundings, and educating yourself and your children about snakes, said Terry Phillip, curator of reptiles at Reptile Gardens south of Rapid City.
“Whether you like them or not, you need to know about snakes,” Phillip said. “The prairie rattlesnake is the only dangerous snake we have in western South Dakota.”
And Phillip would know. He has handled tens of thousands of venomous snakes in his career and averages 1,000 encounters with rattlesnakes each week. He spent much of the day Monday trying to catch a pesky rattlesnake at a house off Sheridan Lake Road near Arrowhead Country Club.
“If I don’t get him tonight, I’ll get him in the morning,” he said. “He’ll be out then.”
Rattlesnakes are quite active in late summer, putting on the feed bag for the coming long winter months, Phillip explained. Sensitive to temperatures exceeding 80 degrees, the snakes are most active in early morning, early evening and the overnight hours, he said.
“Just be aware of the timing of your outdoor activities,” Phillip advised. “Watch where you step, watch where you sit, and watch where you place your hands. Make sure there’s not a snake there. It’s no different than stranger-danger.”
Phillip said it also is important for those seeking outdoor adventure to wear appropriate clothing, including long pants and hiking shoes. While it won’t stop every bite, the proper attire can deflect some, he said.
An average of 5,000 people in the U.S. are bitten by venomous snakes each year, and only 12 to 20 of those occur in South Dakota, he said.
“When you think of the number of people who live here and the number of visitors we have, it’s relatively low,” Phillip said. “To my knowledge, we have not had a fatality due to a rattlesnake bite in nearly 70 years, so the likelihood of a bite is really small, and the likelihood of fatal bite is even smaller.
“But we need to make wise choices after a bite,” he added. “That’s means no tourniquets, no ice, no alcohol, and none of the other wives' tales that people have heard of. The most common myths of field treatment are the cut-and-suck method, applying ice, and even hooking the victim up to a car battery. None of them are effective, none of them are beneficial, and all of them are harmful and will make the bite worse.”
Instead, if bitten, you should remain calm, remove jewelry from bitten limb, and if possible, apply a splint that restricts movement,” Phillip advised. Most importantly, seek immediate emergency medical treatment, he said.
Phillip said the No. 1 reason people are bitten by venomous snakes in the U.S. is the victim was “trying to catch, kill ‘em or tease ‘em.” In fact, 89 percent of all snake bites in this country happen to men between 16 and 30 years of age.
“Testosterone and venomous snakes don’t mix,” he said, laughing.
Most men are bitten in the upper body, including the face, while women are generally bitten in the lower extremities, he said. “That proves women are the smarter of the two sexes.”
And, not all medical treatment is equal, Phillip said. Doctors need to understand the importance of prompt and proper anti-venom therapy, he said.
“Most hospitals in America don’t have a clue. There is no standardized rattlesnake-bite therapy in the U.S.,” he said. “I took a bite from a rattler in 2006, right in the end of my finger, and the doctor damn near killed me. I got up and checked myself out.”