By Karla Bloem
Being scared of something isn’t fun. The goal of the Rattlesnake Jubilee held September 15 in Houston was to educate people and reduce fear of rattlesnakes. This, in turn, is good for the snakes because they aren’t killed out of fear and it’s good for humans, too, since they are less likely to be bitten if they leave rattlesnakes alone.
Being bitten by a timber rattlesnake is indeed serious business, as we found out when lifelong area resident Marty Ambuehl, who in 2012 was bitten legitimately (he wasn’t intentionally pestering the snake), told his story. What was to be a fun morning driving in his classic car turned into something very different when he must have bumped or bothered a rattlesnake under his shed door when he opened it. Marty thought he had been stung by a wasp on his ankle, but when he looked down he saw a very big (and it turned out very uncharacteristically cranky) timber rattlesnake.
After brushing his teeth and a biting discussion (pun intended) with his wife about which hospital to go to, they opted for Winona only to find out after they arrived that Winona does not carry antivenom. So Marty got an ambulance ride to Gundersen Hospital in Wisconsin.
Marty spent a week in the hospital, with his platelet count yo-yoing to dangerously low levels and his leg turning purple up into his thigh. But 22 vials of antivenom later and a hospital bill of $100,000 he was discharged, and after two more weeks was able to go back to work. Thankfully, his insurance covered it all except for his deductible, he has no lingering effects and he doesn’t blame the snake. But he does have a healthy respect for the distance he keeps between himself and rattlesnakes.
Stephen Winter from Winona talked about what he does as a volunteer for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resource’s Rattlesnake Responder program. When someone has a rattlesnake in an unsafe location at their home and calls the police, members of the responder program are notified by law enforcement dispatch and one will go to the site to assess the situation. Sometimes the “rattlesnake” turns out to be another species of snake or something else. But when it is indeed a rattlesnake, the responder will capture and relocate the snake to a place safe for humans and snakes, then discuss how to safely live with and lessen the chance of encounters with this state-threatened species.
Dr. Dan Keyler has consulted on over 500 venomous snakebites in his career, and actually was consulting on one the morning of the Jubilee, even though he is retired. Since the majority of rattlesnake bites are “illegitimate” (people doing dumb things with snakes), Dan is loaded with stories. He talked about previously used “treatments,” such as giving massive amounts of alcohol (not kidding, this used to be done), cryotherapy (which could and did result in at least one person losing an arm), and suction. But antivenom is the way to go. That being said, roughly half of all timber rattlesnake bites require no to minimal treatment because approximately 25% are dry bites, or so little venom is injected that no significant treatment is needed. Still, anyone who is bitten should go to a hospital that carries antivenom immediately, without waiting, since time is critical if venom is injected into a major vessel.
Dr. Keyler cautioned that doctors rarely have any experience in treating rattlesnake bites. He encourages anyone who is bitten to have their attending doctor contact a regional poison center and seek consultation with a known clinical toxicologist who is experienced in treating venomous snakebites. If needed, Dr. Keyler’s cell phone number is on the Rattlesnake Responder list our local county dispatchers should have. He warned that some doctors still cut into skin or muscle to relieve the pressure from the swelling caused by the snake venom, but he has never recommended this, since the cutting is virtually never necessary and causes permanent damage, including loss of use of hands or feet.
Jim Gerholdt of Remarkable Reptiles gave two enthusiastic presentations on the native snakes of this area. He brought along live snakes so people could learn to identify them and tell them apart from rattlesnakes. Eric Thiss of Lanesboro also brought captive timber rattlesnakes, demonstrating how they vary in color.
A few really serious folks braved the heat, mosquitoes and a very steep bluff outside of Houston on private property to see rattlesnake habitat and hopefully see some wild snakes, led by DNR personnel. But they came back very sweaty and tired having seen one garter snake, and with just a couple of shed skins from other snake species, without having seen any rattlesnakes.
The event was rounded out with hilariously fun snake-themed cookies and treats, used snake and other books, and several snake crafts for the young and young at heart.