Rattlesnake haven

The Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre in Osoyoos is the place to be if you want to learn about the fascinating world of rattlesnakes.

Once a day staffers hold a 45-minute snake show discussing the realities and the myths of rattlers and other snakes at the south end of the Okanagan Valley.

The stars of the show are a three-foot, 12-year-old rattler and a lovely albino Sonoran gopher snake.

There are about 1,200 rattlesnakes – which are on Canada’s endangered species list -- on the Osoyoos Indian Band reserve on the east side of the valley.

A few interesting facts:

  • Rattlesnakes use their venom primarily to kill their food (mostly rodents and other small mammals).
  • They generally will bite a human only if they are startled or threatened.
  • Baby rattlers are more dangerous than adults because they haven’t learned to control the amount of venom they inject with a bite.
  • When they shake their rattles, they aren’t warning of a strike; they are announcing their presence.
  • Rattlesnakes are stone deaf but very sensitive to vibrations through the ground.
  • They hibernate from late September until April or so.
  • They return to the same den every year, usually in the company of between 20 and 200 other snakes.
  • The biggest threat to them is humans, particularly cars and trucks.

While being bitten by a rattlesnake is unlikely, there are a few rules to keep in mind if you do get bit: stay calm so that your heart rate doesn’t skyrocket; circle the bite with a pen or a marker so doctors will be able to assess the progress of the poison; and get to a hospital fairly soon, but remember you have six to eight hours before serious damage occurs.

A couple of things you should avoid doing, despite what you may have seen in Hollywood westerns: do not apply a tourniquet; do not open the wound and/or attempt to suck out the venom; and do not ice the bite area.

Behind the theatre where the snake is performed is a small lab where two young biologists – Jared Maida and Jill McAllister – are conducting a study of the habits and habitat of the local rattlesnake population.

The snake research has been going on for about 12 years at the Nk’Mip facility, McAllister said.

Maida said the focus of this year’s project is to assess the impact on the rattler population of the latest development phase on the Nk’Mip property. “The snakes are smaller in the resort area” than in the wild, he said.

Each day they head out into the desert and collect live rattlesnakes. Their daily catch ranges from none to about eight.

Back at the lab, the snakes are weighed and measured and catalogued. If the snake hasn’t been to the lab before, the biologists inject a so-called “pit tag” under skin. The electronic, scanable device, about the size of a grain of rice, contains each individual’s essential information.

About five snakes a year are fitted with a radio transmitting device, which allows the pair of scientists to track the travel patterns of the animal over time.

For show times and information for Aug. 31 and Sept. 1 check out their website or call (250) 495-7901.

Roy Wood


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