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This 'venom manager' says rattlesnakes are misunderstood

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It is snake season in the American Southwest. That is because springtime is when the snakes start to perk up after hunkering down all winter, and that includes rattlesnakes, which start to show up in people's yards and garages. But Cale Morris says there is nothing to fear, and we should trust him because he is the venom manager - yes, that's right, venom manager - at the Phoenix Herpetological Sanctuary in Arizona. And he teaches a class on how to safely remove venomous reptiles like rattlesnakes from your property. I kind of hope I will never, ever need your advice, but Cale Morris, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

CALE MORRIS: Thank you. Thank you. I'm really glad to be here.

CHANG: Oh, we're so glad to have you. So I admit it - I hold a deep-seated prejudice against rattlesnakes. And is that fair of me? Like, are rattlesnakes as menacing as people think they are?

MORRIS: Well, you're not alone.

CHANG: (Laughter).

MORRIS: There's a lot of fear associated with them...

CHANG: Yes.

MORRIS: ...And I think that's because they do have the ability to hurt us so bad. But yeah, this fear, though, is usually way beyond what they can actually do to us. Meaning, they're very shy.

CHANG: They're shy?

MORRIS: Yep. I think most of the fear comes from the fact that people think that they're aggressive, that they're mean, they're going to chase you. And that's all just utterly ridiculous. They're such a shy creature that likes to hide, mind their own business. And it's very easy to stay safe around them.

CHANG: OK, so if hypothetically, I still don't believe you, you've actually done research, I heard, on how likely rattlesnakes are to bite, say, like, a hiker's leg. Like, you did this research with a fake leg, I understand?

MORRIS: Yes, that's right. Yes, I looked rather funny walking around with a six-foot fake leg...

CHANG: (Laughter).

MORRIS: ...On my shoulder.

CHANG: Wait, wait - the leg was six-feet long? Why (laughter)?

MORRIS: Yeah. It's tall so I can be able to maneuver it and flex it...

CHANG: Wow.

MORRIS: ...And use the amount of pressure I need to step on the snakes. But yeah, it looks funny. Yeah, I'd walk around the desert, and I would find a rattlesnake, and I would step on it with enough pressure to restrain it from moving but not enough to hurt it. I was simulating an accidental step - if somebody accidentally stepped on one, and then they realize it and moved.

CHANG: Right.

MORRIS: So yeah, it was very interesting because I ended up stepping on 175 rattlesnakes. And each time I did that, I recorded their behavior. Only six of them actually struck the boot. The majority of them just tried to get away.

CHANG: Oh, those are good odds. But it just takes one snake who decides they're not going to get away, and they will strike you to really ruin your day - right? - because we should mention that rattlesnake venom is filled with all kinds of nasty compounds that can do serious harm to your body and, in some rare cases, can kill you. So let me ask you, if you do get bitten by a rattlesnake, what do you recommend that people do?

MORRIS: So if you do get bit, there is actually nothing you can do in the field to actually fix it. You just got to get to the hospital. Antivenom is the only thing.

CHANG: Wow. OK, well, in the meantime, you teach a class that basically instructs people how to deal with the rattlesnake if you're just at home and you encounter one in your yard or something. What do you teach in this class? If I can't make it down there (laughter), I want to know still.

MORRIS: So we teach about how they're just not aggressive, and this helps lower fears. And then the last half of the class, they actually will practice moving a non-venomous gopher snake. They capture it with snake tongs. They put it in a bucket. And then they go into moving a real rattlesnake. So we train them how to do it with proper tools to be able to capture it and then relocate it.

CHANG: My kindergarten class had a gopher snake. I actually held it quite often, I remember. So I could take this class.

MORRIS: Yeah, I think you would do great.

CHANG: (Laughter) That is Cale Morris, venom manager at the Phoenix Herpetological Sanctuary in Arizona. Thank you so much.

MORRIS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jordan-Marie Smith
Jordan-Marie Smith is a producer with NPR's All Things Considered.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
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