Rattlesnake season in Lethbridge is coming to an end, according to local wrangler Ryan Heavy Head — but before the reptiles settle in for the winter, he is expecting an influx of calls as the snakes follow their annual migration patterns.
“The pregnant mothers are still at the rookeries — they are going to have babies and those babies are going to stay at the rookeries for about a week. The mothers are going to head back to the dens and then the babies are going to shed their first skin and then they’ll follow the mothers back to the dens,” Heavy Head said.
This summer is about the 14th season he has worked with rattlesnakes, responding to calls to relocate them when there is conflict between humans and snakes. He also works on public education through his Facebook page, Rattlesnakes of Lethbridge, and his YouTube channel, where he shares some of his calls.
He said this summer there have been fewer calls than normal and said it could partially be because people are getting used to having snakes in their environment, as a result of the education. He added he enjoys getting messages from people showing off snakes they encounter, even when they are not concerned about them.
“My main goal is to help our community coexist with the wildlife. When there’s wildlife that are in the spaces that we define as ours we don’t want them in, either I have to be able to kind of convince the resident of ways to coexist with that animal or I have to get the animal out of the danger zone,” he said.
In all the time working with rattlesnakes and other wildlife, Heavy Head has never been bit by a rattlesnake. He said many people fear a snake will try to chase after them and become aggressive, but this is not the case.
“There is reason to fear the experience of getting envenomated by them, but it’s pretty difficult to get that experience for yourself,” he said. “You really have to go out of your way to get bit by a rattlesnake. You either are going to have to step on it or grab it or come very close to doing that to provoke a snake to strike.”
Though it is hard for a person to be bitten, it is more common for pets to be harmed by the reptiles. Heavy Head said it is important to keep dogs leashed and try to keep them out of rattlesnake habitats.
“I try to raise awareness that whenever you are in the coulee, you are in rattlesnake habitat and just because you are not seeing snakes there — maybe you have been in Lethbridge a long time and never seen a snake in the coulees — the snakes have seen you, they are there,” he said. “You can’t really count on their rattle to give you warning — that’s more of a last resort for them. Their first defence is their camouflage and they’ll sit right there, 12 inches from you, completely stone still and let you walk by.”
Heavy Head said Peenaquim dog park is one of the safest in the summer, because it is bull snake habitat and they are not venomous.
Heavy Head got into the business of wrangling rattlesnakes because of his relationship with reptiles growing up. “I have always had snakes around me. I started handling rattlesnakes when I was in my later teens — 17-18, I was free handling snakes. They have just always been around. In terms of Lethbridge itself, I moved here in my early 20s and so I have been here about half of my life and I just am a naturalist by heart. So I got to know the coulee nature right away and of course the rattlesnakes,” he said.
When people do have an encounter with a rattlesnake, Heavy Head said it is rare for them to strike. When they do, their range is about 6-9 inches. “They can throw themselves the whole length of their body, so if you are a metre away from a snake, you are safe in terms of strike distance,” he said.