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After mild winter, rattlesnakes taking to desert -- and lawns -- in search of food

Bryan Hughes, owner of Rattlesnake Solutions, handles a rattler removed from the lawn of a north Phoenix home. Coming out of a mild winter, residents can expect to see an earlier start to rattlesnakes popping out of their underground nests.
PHOENIX - A few hours earlier, this 2-foot-long Western diamondback rattlesnake was hanging out in the front yard of a nearby home, prompting an urgent call to Bryan Hughes, owner of Rattlesnake Solutions.

"They are starting to come out because it's getting warm," Hughes said while holding the snake with a hook, ready to release it back into the desert.

Coming out of a mild winter, Arizonans can expect to see an earlier start to rattlesnakes popping out of their underground nests, looking for prey that can be easier to come by in someone's lawn.

The Phoenix Herpetological Society has been receiving plenty of calls about rattlesnakes, according to Russ Johnson, the organization's president.

"They don't have calendars, so everything is temperature-driven," he said. "So when it gets warm, the cold-blooded animals, they want to get up, move around and get something to eat."

There are 13 types of rattlesnakes in Arizona, all of them venomous but not deadly, though a bite requires emergency medical treatment, according to Randy Babb, information and education program manager with the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

"Unlike the Western movies, people generally wouldn't die if they were bit by a rattlesnake; most people would survive," he said.

The wisest course of action is avoiding rattlesnakes, including staying on trails and being cautious when doing yardwork, said Johnson with the Phoenix Herpetological Society.

"Absolutely do not put your hands or feet where you can't see," he said.

If one encounters a snake, calmly moving away works, Johnson said.

"If you take one giant step back, you can't be bit," he said. "It's physically impossible."

In the event of a bite, stay calm and get to a hospital as quickly as possible. Experts say that cutting the bite and sucking the venom, the method often shown in Westerns, hurts more than it helps by damaging tissue.

Many believe that a tourniquet will prevent the venom from spreading, but that really makes things worse by keeping blood from diluting it, said Dr. Keith Boesen, director of the Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center, part of the University of Arizona's College of Pharmacy.

The best response to rattlesnake venom is the antivenin available at hospitals, he said.

"You can't reverse it, but you can prevent the injury from getting worse," Boesen said.

The Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center received 218 reports rattlesnake bites in 2013. Through the end of February, it had received three as the weather began to warm up, according to Ginny Geib, the center's director of communications.

Babb, with Game and Fish, said it's important to keep in mind that rattlesnakes fear people as much as people fear them and will go to great lengths to avoid encounters. Most of the time they won't strike even when given the opportunity.

"People should be comforted knowing that rattlesnakes are doing everything they can to avoid contact with people," Babb said. "They're certainly not out looking for a fight."

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