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Once upon a Time
Bil Gilbert
October 21, 1974
...long, long ago a giant snake that rattled slid across this land, and he milked cows and poisoned the waters and cast a baleful eye on man and child
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October 21, 1974

Once Upon A Time

...long, long ago a giant snake that rattled slid across this land, and he milked cows and poisoned the waters and cast a baleful eye on man and child

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The most popular and persistently used remedy has been alcohol. Hundreds of snakebite victims have drunk themselves into stupors (and not infrequently drunk themselves to death). Klauber collected some of the whiskey dosages prescribed by physicians as well as folk healers. They include: two quarts of corn whiskey in 12 hours; seven quarts of brandy and whiskey in four days; a quart of brandy in the first hour, another quart within two hours; one-half pint of bourbon every five minutes until a quart was consumed; 104 ounces of applejack in four hours.

With this sort of treatment in general use, it is small wonder that a medical researcher estimated in 1919 that up to that time about 10% of the fatalities attributed to snakebite in this country were probably caused by alcohol poisoning. In fact, no species of booze is an antidote for snakebite.

The effectiveness of many of the bizarre remedies has been passionately defended, even by doctors. One reason stems from a peculiar aspect of rattlesnake behavior. The venom apparatus of the snake evolved as a method of quickly stunning or killing prey. As a predator, a snake is calculating, usually injecting only enough venom to get the job done. However, when the snake must defend itself it often panics. This is particularly true when it is striking at something as large as man, who is clearly beyond the potential prey range. Dr. Findlay Russell of the University of Southern California Medical School, perhaps the nation's leading authority on venom and snakebite, has suggested that in such a confused state the snake may respond erratically. It may eject venom in extraordinary quantities or, as in about one-third of the cases Russell was able to investigate, eject no venom at all. When this is true, when a venomless bite occurs, then any remedy—ice cream, spitting in the water or going to an X-rated movie—will appear to be an effective cure.

In the U.S. comparatively few people are bitten by rattlers each year—about 3,200—and very few, perhaps 11 or 12, die from the bite. Even so, the best advice is to avoid the snake. Even if one is intentionally looking for them, rattlers are not that easy to find. They are not abroad during the winter. In the hot weather they are most active after dark, when few people should be out in the bushes anyway. Heavy work boots, worn inside heavy pants, will turn most rattler strikes. One should be prudent about skipping lightly over logs, or putting a hand under a rock or on top of a ledge without first looking to see if it is occupied by a rattler. It is impolitic to molest, tease or play games with rattlers. This last bit of advice may seem superfluous but 25% of all bites occur not as a result of rattlers unexpectedly attacking men, but because men have been trying to handle rattlers.

In 1970-71 four of us conducted a yearlong natural-history study project in the Huachuca Mountains. This area is especially good rattler habitat. We were in the field about 300 days, tramping through the scrub, in the canyons, in the flats. We encountered 32 rattlesnakes during that time. Only one, a grumpy black-tailed rattler that was disturbed while trying to catch a nap under a juniper, struck at us and he missed badly. But the prospect of rattlers kept us alert and added spice to the expedition.

The latter point was well made by a prospector named Van Horn who lived in those mountains for 45 years. Van was a hermit with anarchic tendencies. He was the natural-history guru of the mountains. He had also been bitten twice by small rattlers. "On neither occasion," he said, "did I like the results of the experiment. Both nailed me on the hand and both times I had a bad arm for a while. But it was my own damn fault. A rattler is like anybody else. He is just trying to get along as best he can. I will tell you one thing. As a pure device a rattler is a marvel. You can take a mouse or a little bird or even something big like a coyote or a bear. You can be interested in them and like them but you do not necessarily respect them. You may not like a rattler but you always have to respect him. It is a good thing to have something outside the human line to respect. It gives a man a sense of proportion."

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