Rattlesnake hotline keeps Lethbridge serpent expert busy
Local veterinary clinics bring in new vaccines aimed at protecting dogs from venomous bites
People in Lethbridge, Alta., know Ryan Heavy Head as the "Snake Man."
He's the one you call when you've run into a rattler.
The Lethbridge rattlesnake hotline — run through the city's rattlesnake mitigation program — sometimes only receives about 40 calls all summer. Within a span of two days this week, Heavy Head has gone out nine times, relocating seven of the venomous snakes.
Heavy Head, or one of the volunteers he works with, responds to calls on the hotline within about 15 minutes. They're on call 24 hours a day. They get all kinds of calls — from employees finding rattlers at job sites to people wanting a snake removed from their backyard.
Upwards of 500 snakes
Signs up at local parks warn that the rattlesnake population is in decline, but Heavy Head said that might not be the case.
"We don't know if the populations are in decline or not. The reality is the science just isn't there. It is a species that is being watched and that's why it's a protected species because we don't know what the population's doing."
He estimates that there are upwards of 500 snakes in the city, but he can't know for sure. He bases his estimate on the number of individuals he's seen.
The adult snakes range in length from 80 centimetres to 1.4 metres and live primarily on the west side of the Oldman River from the east side where you would be more likely to find garter snakes and bullsnakes. The University of Lethbridge, located on the west side, is a hot spot for the snakes as there is a den pressed up against one of the buildings on campus.
In addition to trying to mitigate interactions between the humans and the serpents, Heavy Head also sees it as his job to rebrand the rattlers who he says have been demonized.
"Here in Lethbridge for about the past 100 years, the protocol for somebody if they ran into a rattlesnake, was to kill a rattlesnake. The idea that a good snake was a dead snake," he said.
Snakes bite humans, but more often dogs
In any given year, there is normally one person in the city who is bitten by a snake but so far none in 2017. The far more common victims are dogs, especially those running in the coulee off leash.
Two of three off-leash parks in the city are in — or near — well-known snake habitat. Heavy Head advises to avoid these areas, especially the Popson Park off-leash area. While most dogs recover from bites, there are cases where the dogs die and others where they're permanently disabled.
For unlucky dogs, there is little that can be done.
"In Canada, [veterinarians] don't have access to anti-venom, that's only for human use," said Katrina Jonker, a veterinary technician at Park Pet Hospital.
So as the only other alternative, Pet Park Hospital – as well as a few other clinics in the city – has started bringing in vaccines to pre-empt snake bites. The vaccines are not regulated in Canada but have been licensed in the United States.
The maker of the vaccine, Red Rock Biologics, claims it stimulates a dog's immune system to generate antibodies to the snake venom, which allows for dogs to recover more quickly from bites.
There are some questions raised online about the effectiveness of the vaccine, but that is hardly stopping Lethbridge dog owners. Jonker estimates at least 30 dogs have already come in this spring to be vaccinated since they started stocking it.
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