Rattlesnake hotline keeps Lethbridge serpent expert busy

Southern Alberta's rattlesnake hotline sometimes only receives about 40 calls all summer. But local expert Ryan Heavy Head recently responded to nine calls in just two days.

Local veterinary clinics bring in new vaccines aimed at protecting dogs from venomous bites

Heavy Head is one of the main responders to the 24-hour Lethbridge snake hotline. 0:34

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.

This pregnant Prairie Rattlesnake uses the ledge under the University of Lethbridge's University Hall as her rookery, where she will live until she gives birth and returns to the den at the end of the season. (Sarah Lawrynuik/CBC)

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.

Heavy Head catches the snakes with his hook and bucket, and releases them in a more appropriate area closer to their dens, of which there are more than a dozen on the city's west side. 
Ryan Heavy Head is known as 'the snake man,' in Lethbridge, Atla. He's one of the main responders behind the 24-hour rattlesnake hotline, responsible for finding and relocating venomous snakes in the area. (Sarah Lawrynuik/CBC)

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. 

Danielle Schmidt, a biology masters student at UBCO, is studying over 800 samples of rattlesnake DNA from around the Okanagan, Kamloops, Lillooet and Ashcroft. (Ryan Heavy Head/Rattlesnakes of Lethbridge)

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. 

"I try to advocate how we can develop better relationships with them."
Neonate, or newborn, rattlesnakes are born at the end of the summer in August or September. This one is curled up in a baseball cap. (Ryan Heavy Head/Rattlesnakes of Lethbridge)

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.

"A lot of times we're just giving them anti-inflammatories, pain medication, and fluids. Things that will help us to flush their system, to give them the best chance to fight against it." 
The effectiveness of rattlesnake vaccine has been called into question, but that hasn't stopped Lethbridge dog owners from vaccinating their pets. (Sarah Lawrynuik/CBC)

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. 

About the Author

Sarah Lawrynuik is a freelance journalist based in Calgary who has covered news stories in Canada and around the world, including in France, Hungary and Iraq. She has worked for CBC in Halifax, Winnipeg and Calgary and is currently travelling through Central and Eastern Europe on a reporting bursary.