Rattlesnake Handling Class: May 4, 2019

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Presenters:  Cecil Schwalbe, retired Arizona State Herpetologist and Dr. Tom Biuso, physician at TMC spoke, who about snake bite treatments.

Attendees:  Penny Miller(C2), Diana Holmes (C2), Dan Collins(C2), Vicki Ettelman(C3), Kathe Sudano (C3), Jenna Marvin(C3), Doug Hoerr(C3), Andrea Hoerr(C3), Carrie Barcom(C2), Sharon Overstreet(C2), Jessie Rack(C3), Jean Boris(C2), Josh Ruddick(C1), Peggy Ollerhead(C3), Kathy Carter McLin(C3), Meck Slagle(C3), Don Featherstone(C1), Marilyn Liss (C2)

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Eighteen of us were gathered on the first Saturday in May (4th, 2019) to attend a class titled Master Naturalist Rattlesnake Handling.  The setting was Penny Miller’s fabulous west side garage and we were all feeling a mix of excitement and curiosity.  The presenter,  Cecil Schwalbe, retired AZ state herpetologist, with a shock of wizardly white hair and eyes the color of the Arizona sky, told us outright that mistakes were made.  We listened and leaned forward.  He also told us that because of his experience (getting bit by a Gila Monster and being transported to the local ER) none of us today were going to make those same mistakes.  I watched individuals sigh with relief and smile.

As per numerous press releases,  Schwalbe, who is from Texas and studied mechanical engineering at Rice University, pursued ecology research at Washington State and the UA, earning a master’s degree and doctorate along the way. In 1984, he was appointed state herpetologist by Arizona Game and Fish.

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For decades, Schwalbe has toured with his reptiles across Arizona. At his presentations, he lets kids pet his Gila monster which he has had since 1985, one of the world’s most dangerous lizards. In the wild, they spend up to 95 percent of their lives underground. While Schwalbe takes extra precautions, he tells us that the Gila monster bit him five times at a public show and his “finger was on fire.”

His passion for snakes, lizards and tortoises has led him to us.  He’d rather train people to safely remove the critters rather than see them destroyed.  He demonstrated with several of the animals that currently reside in his east side garage.  To say he made it look easy would be a gross understatement.  His calm demeanor and healthy respect for the critters (plus a close look at those blue eyes that are full of mischief!) had us transferring five-foot rattlers from one very large trash can using a 42-inch Pillstom metal tong.  We were instructed to grab the snake gently but securely about one-third distance down from the head and walk about ten feet and deposit the confused snake into another trash can.  Snakes can strike about one-half to two-thirds the distance of their body length so we learned to hold the tong with our arm extended.  If we see a snake out hiking, give it the same clearance as its approximate body length.

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During the four-hour training, we passed collared lizards to each other by gently holding their front foot, learned how to “tube” the head of a snake and hold its body safely.  The Gila Monster, Pancho, got to use the glossy garage floor like a runway and show us his ears, mouth grip and how fat stored in his tail allows him to go long periods without food.  We also got to safely handle his two tortoises, each about the size of his fist.

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To complement Schwalbe’s presentation, we got to hear from  Dr Tom Biuso, physician at TMC who spoke about snake bite treatments.  We learned there is wisdom, if you are able, to call 911 before proceeding to any hospital.  Not every facility has anti-venom on hand but if the individual is already nauseous, vomiting or losing consciousness- head straight to the closest ER.  If others have a chance to attend this class, it is highly recommended!  Thanks for organizing and hosting for us, Penny Miller!

Article written by Kathe Sudano, Cohort 3, Master Naturalist in Training

Photos below from Penny Miller (Cohort 2, certified Master Naturalist) and Kathy Carter McLin (Cohort 3, certified Master Naturlist)

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