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Rattlesnake Sanctuary

It’s high snake season here in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona. Recently, for the first time on the same day, I saw a king snake and then a gopher snake in my garden. Both are non-venomous. King snakes attack and eat rattlesnakes and gopher snakes compete with rattlesnakes for food and territory, so they are considered signs that you’re not likely to have rattlesnakes around.

The next day, I went out just before sunset to check what was happening with unusually loud noises from a vehicle nearby. When I stepped outside on the back porch, another sound near the cat enclosure diverted my attention. About 10 feet away, curled up in striking position, was a 2.5 foot-long Western diamondback rattlesnake completely focused on one of my cats, Lila, who was sitting in the cat enclosure looking at the rattlesnake.

rattlesnake coiled outside cat enclosure
Cat Enclosure Retrofit
Last year, a gopher snake died after getting caught in the cat enclosure’s 1/2 inch hardware cloth wire while trying to pass through. A smaller non-venomous snake also entered overnight and was killed by the cats.

I realized then that I needed 1/4 instead of 1/2 inch wire for the cat enclosure built in late 2018. Finding out early this year that baby rattlesnakes could also get through 1/2 inch wire and the small space around the gate, I called a company that specialized in rattlesnake fencing. They used 1/4 inch wire on the lower half of the cat run and extending well below the ground and also installed a concrete berm under the gate and metal barriers on the sides.

So, I knew Lila was safe. She watched the agitated snake awhile, and then slowly moved back. Lila was experienced with rattlesnakes. Our first summer in the desert in 2015,
Lila had a face-to-face encounter with a five-foot-long grandfather rattlesnake near the house.

When Lila moved further back, the rattlesnake quieted. After a few minutes of watching Lila, the snake moved about ten feet away, stretched out and relaxed for a minute while looking back at the house (and me taking photos at a safe distance) before traveling on. I noticed how wide her lower body looked when she relaxed. I could also feel how the snake was relieved that she had avoided conflict with a potential feline predator.

rattlesnake stretched out and relaxed
Opposite Attitudes
There are generally two extremes in human attitudes to rattlesnakes in our area. One is to live and let live, respecting that rattlesnakes live here, too, and have their important place in the ecosystem. You keep alert for any rattlesnakes around your house or where you walk, so you don’t startle them into striking by getting too close.

The other extreme is to kill any you see, no matter if you or your family are in danger of being attacked by them or not. I understand the fear, since rattlesnake bites are extremely painful and can be fatal without emergency antivenin treatment. There can also be serious long term health effects. However, rattlesnakes don’t generally like to be around humans, and they will leave if you walk away and give them some space and time.

A few weeks ago, I heard a neighbor shout, “There’s a rattlesnake!” Then 3 gun shots, a few moments of silence, and 2 more gun shots.

I felt very sad for the rattlesnake and connected with him at a distance. His death was swift and he was shocked to be out of his body. He told me that he intended to reincarnate as a rattlesnake again, only this time not near hostile humans or any humans at all if possible.

I rescued a rattlesnake last year who was tangled in the garden netting I had put over a cactus I planted to save it from being eaten by desert rats. I e-mailed the story of my rattlesnake adventure to a contractor friend who built my cat enclosure. He had previously told me he shoots rattlesnakes, since they have sheltered in his dog’s house and could kill his dog.

He wondered how I could put myself in such close contact with an animal who could kill me. I replied that I was frequently in close contact with humans, some of whom could also kill me.

I had communicated with previous rattlesnake visitors to find out more about their purpose for dropping by. I was curious why this rattlesnake had come into my yard and was at the cat enclosure. She told me that I had a reputation among rattlesnakes in the area of having a kind attitude toward them and even helped one who was trapped. She wanted to experience the feeling of where I lived. That’s why she hesitated when leaving and contemplated me and my home, viewing it as a peaceful sanctuary.

Rattlesnake coiled on gravel
I saw another king snake today. I will not assume that means that I won’t have more rattlesnake visitors.

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