A little precaution can go a long way to prevent a negative encounter with reptiles — especially as people get ready to hit the hiking trails over the May long weekend,
Sheri Monk owns Snakes on a Plain, a company specializing in reptile education and removal. She's lived in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and now southeastern Alberta, all in her quest of studying snakes on the Prairies.
In Saskatchewan, nine different types of snakes share this home: garter snakes, hognose snakes, bullsnakes, smooth greensnakes, eastern yellow-bellied racers, northern red-bellied snakes and the venomous prairie rattlesnake.
Monk says it's been a long winter, and for the past couple weeks the snakes are starting to emerge from their dens.
"They are dispersing from their dens out into their summer playground, just like we are."
This time of year, Monk says snakes only have two things on their minds: "When it comes time to go out of the den, they want to find food and forage, and breed and find mates."
If you encounter a snake, they probably aren't interested in you — they are simply looking for food and a breeding partner.
For those interested in observing garter snakes, Monk says at this time of year, "there may still be quite a bit of garter snake activity at some of the dens, particularly in the northern part of the province."
But not all snakes are the same. While the prairie rattlesnake is also looking for food and a mate, they will respond differently if you encounter them.
Monk says rattlesnake mating rituals are different than others.
"Garter snakes will often breed right at the den site, but many other snakes disperse, and rattlesnakes in particular will breed in the field. And that's how their genetic exchange happens, to prevent inbreeding."
Southwest Saskatchewan is snaky
Rattlesnakes can be found starting around Moose Jaw, all the way across Alberta and straight down to Mexico. Monk warns the myth that "Canadian rattlesnakes are nice" is simply not true — no amount of maple syrup will make their venom non-lethal.
"The first thing you want to do is just, you see a snake, you want to stop," Monk said. She says to stay six to eight feet away from it to give the snake opportunity to retreat and escape. When it comes to rattlesnakes, eight feet is optimal — close enough to take photos, but far enough to stay out of range of a strike, Monk said.
If the snake starts to rattle, Monk says that's a sign the animal is stressed and you're too close.
"They might be rattling, but they'll sort of back up away from you. They're not going to want to take their eyes off you, but they're not going to chase you. They don't lunge at you.
"If you give them space, it's just like a badger. It will prefer to go down his hole or to go somewhere else."
The last human death from a prairie rattlesnake bite was a 31-year-old man hiking in Colorado in 2017. Monk says when it comes to treating snake bites, there is no field treatment that can be administered, so anyone bitten by a rattlesnake needs to seek medical help immediately. In rattlesnake country, she says most hospitals should have antivenin treatments available.
For pets, it's a different story.
On backcountry trails, Monk warns dog owners to keep pets leashed at all times. If humans get bit, it's usually on the hand or foot, but for dogs it's usually their face, which isn't likely to result in a good outcome for the dog, she said.
Most veterinary clinics don't carry the antivenin treatment and will need to bring them in from a local hospital. The typical cost for one antivenin vial is $1,000 and most dogs need four to five vials, Monk said, but "it can even go up to 80 vials, so that's $80,000."
Walk with a big stick
Monk says hikers shouldn't be afraid of encountering snakes while hitting the great plains this summer. She thinks they are a beautiful part of the Prairie landscape, but says if you do go out, grab a good walking stick.
"It's really good because you can use it to sort of lightly brush the grass or the ground in front of you, and that walking stick can alert a sleeping rattlesnake rather than your foot, or maybe your dog."
If you do encounter a garter snake this summer with your kids, Monk says it's important to teach them to hold them gently and not to drop them. Before even handling a garter snake, it's important to know that they also bite, which could startle a child, Monk said.