How to Love a Rattlesnake: Eco Hero Tom Wyant at Work E-mail
Thursday, 21 February 2013 00:00  |  Written by Joy Nicholson | Article

Rattlesnake photo by Tom WyantTom Wyant gets some strange calls. Recently, he got one about a public display of affection. It seemed a young couple had parked themselves beneath some poor woman’s window and decided it was as good a place as any to get romantic. Wyant’s job was to relocate the amorous couple to a more appropriate setting. His job was made more difficult by one single fact: the couple in question was a pair of Western Diamondback rattlesnakes.

Wyant is a volunteer reptile rescuer in Northern New Mexico, one of only a few fully dedicated reptile rescuers in the area. So what exactly does a reptile rescuer do?

“I’ve rescued snakes that have been run over by cars, half-killed by frightened people, or were someone's captive pet that had been neglected and abused,” he reflects. His most common call, though, comes for relocation. An unwanted intruder has slipped into someone’s house, garage or yard. Since humans have something of an innate fear response to snakes, oftentimes the callers are quite hysterical. “Snakes are like any other wild critter,” says Wyant. “They come looking for shelter, food and water. But because they ‘resemble’ the devil or are thought to be evil, most people just go nuts when they see one.”

Wyant, on the other hand, sees both the beauty and practicality in reptiles. Especially snakes. “What other animal depends on its environment for body temperature, can only see objects in motion, cannot hear—except for vibrations—swallows its prey whole, smells by collecting odor particles with its tongue, crawls on its belly its entire life and still manages to survive so well?”

Plus, he points out they’re Mother Nature’s perfect mouser. “Snakes hunt day and night, above ground and underground, so they control rodent populations better than any other critter.” And because rodents carry diseases like Hantavirus, Plague, Lyme and Leptospirosis, it’s unfortunate, in Wyant’s view, that so many people are so afraid of snakes. “Statistics show that many more people are much more likely to get infected by a disease-carrying rodent than bitten by a snake.” People, he says, can become infected from fleabites. Fleas commonly live on rodents, never on snakes.

Wyant never planned on becoming a snake enthusiast. His day job is at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico; his side job is as a travel agent. But because of a need for raising reptile awareness, he’s focused much of the last 25 years on helping and rescuing snakes. Certainly, he and his team of trained volunteers will come to the aid of any reptile in need of medical attention and/or relocation, but his local fame is as the ‘snake man.’ He’s also launched a Snake Awareness Campaign, slowly, as he says, “turning the fear factor down and helping many to see snakes in a different light.”

What he means is that he’s trying to stop people from killing snakes on sight—an unhelpful human impulse he combats with information. “If you see a snake, the best thing to do is freeze,” he says. Since snakes have a difficult time seeing stationary objects, slowly back away then clear the area of children and pets. Call a local wildlife rescuer, while trying to keep the snake visible at a distance. “It’s much easier for us to rescue the snake if it hasn’t been bothered and doesn’t feel threatened.” And no, the snake isn’t going to hunt you down. In fact, reptiles are docile unless threatened. But some snakes are easily threatened and put on quite a show to scare you off.

Snakes, even rattlers, are invaluable to a healthy ecosystem. And, “Though they have very small brains, they have their own personalities—they have a way about them,” Wyant insists. Still, if you don’t want them around, it’s a pretty simple fix: The easiest way to keep snakes out of your yard is to get rid of their food sources, primarily rodents. “We can always tell the homes most likely to have snakes due to the condition of their yards,” Wyant says. “Yards that have lots of cover such as bushes, sheds, wood piles, rock walls, tall grass, etc. will attract rodents and bring in the snakes.” Also, he warns, bird feeders can attract rodents foraging for birdseed that falls on the ground.

When asked if he’s ever felt fear while rescuing or relocating a rattler, he smiles. “I’m so fascinated with the snakes I’ve encountered, fear isn’t really an issue.”

When asked if snake rescuers need special snake gear, he says, “Yes, we have tongs, hooks and leggings. I only use the tongs as a last resort because it is easy to hurt the snake or break some ribs.”

Who knew snakes had ribs?

But who knows much about much?

Tom Wyant, at least, knows quite a bit about rattlesnakes. His view?

“Snakes are everywhere,” he says. “So live with it.”

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Comments (1)add
Written by Willow , April 05, 2013
Thanks for the great article! Snakes are awesome, and it appears that Tom Wyant is definitely an Eco Hero.
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