Snakes have been the victims of malice and misinformation for centuries, so when rattlesnakes appear in residential areas, people are naturally concerned.
Recently, rattlesnake encounters in Cottonwood Heights' neighborhoods have become newsworthy, if only because of the intense fascination and unjustified contempt people have for snakes. However, from my many years of experience dealing with snakes as both a hobbyist and educator, I can assure you these animals have almost nothing in common with those satanic creatures from the Bible, urban legend, cultural myth and that most disreputable source of all, Hollywood movies.
Utah has 31 snake species that inhabit the state from border to border and mountain top to desert valley, but only seven rattlesnake species are venomous. Any snake in Utah that doesn't have a rattle is harmless to humans, and almost nowhere in the world does identification get any easier than that. There are no copperheads, cottonmouths, or coral snakes in Utah, and contrary to popular opinion, no diamondback rattlers either.
The other 24 species are harmless, reclusive, nocturnal, and seldom-seen serpents, including the rubber boa (a true boa similar to the boa constrictor of South America, only smaller), three species of garter snake, two king snakes, one milk snake, the great basin gopher snake, and several other small and secretive species.
These benign creatures pose no threat to anyone, and most of them are quite beautiful. From spring until fall, you are likely to meet one of these amazing serpents almost anywhere you go in the Beehive State. Enjoy your snake encounters. Take pictures. Then, for the benefit of the ecosystem, leave the animal where you found it.
Because of their value in the environment, Utah wildlife laws make it illegal to harm or kill snakes or any of the state's native herpetofauna, which includes all of our reptiles and amphibians. In spite of this prohibition, unenlightened people flaunt their contempt by wantonly killing every snake they see. This attitude is unfortunate because of the innate benefit snakes provide to humanity as a natural source of vermin and disease control.
Great Basin rattlesnakes are a fact of life in Utah, as ancient as the desert itself. They are still prevalent today along the Wasatch Front in spite of human encroachment into their domain, and they're not going away. The secret is to learn how to coexist. These shy and reclusive reptiles don't want anything to do with us, and they don't attack us as some people mistakenly believe. Media reports are often sensationalized to the point of hyperbole.
If you find a rattlesnake in your yard, it is merely looking for food and water just like any other animal. Snakes will gravitate to a food source, but they'll leave once the prey is gone. By making your yard undesirable to rodents, you can reduce the chance of a snake hanging around for very long.
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The Division of Wildlife Resources is ultimately responsible for the disposition and well-being of Utah's non-game wildlife, but they lack the manpower to respond to every call from someone with an unwanted snake in their yard. Cottonwood Heights' residents are fortunate to have a team of dedicated animal control officers who will remove rattlers. Residents of other east side communities can call a licensed removal specialist like me.
Snakes are far more afraid of us than we are of them, and the only good snake is a live one.
Have a snake-a-rific summer!
David E. Jensen is a freelance writer, reptile enthusiast and administrator of the Utah Reptile Forum on Facebook. He rescues rattlesnakes in his spare time.