post Another Recognizable Face of the Old West

October 26th, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 6:34 pm

by W. St.Germain

rattlesnakeThe Old West was full of danger and excitement. One of the most recognisable dangers of the time (still existing today) was the threat of the rattlesnake. You can’t watch too many episodes of any western, including High Chaparral, without encountering one. The observant viewer might have noticed that almost every time a rattler features, it’s the same snake we see coiled in the strike position. It doesn’t matter what position it was in a second earlier, the scene cuts and in goes the same shot. This animal nearly always ends up having its head shot off but it returns again when another coiled rattlesnake is required. When this happens, in our house someone always announces, ‘Leonard’s back!’ We’ve grown so used to this snake being resurrected that it somehow deserved a name. He’s like an old friend – or special guest. Since it looks sort of Leonardy to me, Leonard it is.*

Of course running footage of a coiled snake is a smart move. It’s much safer to cut to a pre-filmed animal than to put cast, crew or stock at risk by facing a live one whenever it was required. There were enough dangers that a snake might make an appearance during filming than to go around introducing more. According to Kent McCray, among the many animal wranglers who worked on the show, there included a rattlesnake wrangler! His job was to go out into the brush behind and around the Chaparral buildings where he would kill any rattlesnakes he encountered – every day before shooting could begin! Now there’s a job that deserved danger pay!

So what do we actually know about this beautiful but dangerous marvel of evolution? There are about 30 species of rattlesnake (excluding subspecies) and every one of them lives in the Northern Hemisphere. Given that nearly all of the world’s most venomous snake species are found in Australia, those of us in the Southern Hemisphere are quite happy to let the rattlers stay up there. The largest species is the Eastern Diamondback. It generally doesn’t grow much longer than 8 feet in the wild, often less. The Western Diamondback is common to Arizona and the one we see in High Chaparral. It is the largest of Arizona’s snakes and responsible for the greatest number of bites each year. There are more species of rattler (about 11) found in the Sonoran Desert than anywhere else.

rattlesnakeRattlesnakes belong to the Pit Viper family. There are two groups of vipers; Old World Vipers (Viperidae) and New World Vipers (Crotalus). The name pit viper comes from a ‘pit’ that is a bit below the nostrils. It is actually a sunken scale. Old World Vipers, (commonly called pitless vipers, true vipers or true adders) also have the sunken scale but lack the heat sensing ‘pit’ of the New World Vipers. This heat sensing pit lets them hunt in total darkness.

Rattlesnakes are New World Vipers therefore possess the heat detecting pit. With it, the snake can sense temperature differences in their surroundings down to a fraction of a degree. When they detect an increase in temperature, called a temperature ‘image’, it tells them that warm blooded prey is nearby. If the temperature image is too great the snake is warned that it may be in danger of becoming prey to a larger animal. The size of the image is a good indicator of the size of the animal emitting it.

Approximately 8,000 people are bitten by snakes in the US every year. About 75% of bites are attributed to rattlesnakes. Of those bitten by rattlesnakes, 72% are males. That should our give male readers something to think about. Could it be because males put themselves in positions where they are more likely to encounter a rattlesnake than females or are they less cautious than the ladies? Although the rattle is used as a warning device, not all rattlesnakes bother to sound this warning before attacking so care must always be taken if you see one. Even tightly coiled, a snake can strike about 2/3 of its body length. It’s understood that if you can see the rattle clearly, you are far too close.

The rattle is made of keratin. This is the same substance as our hair and nails. Baby snakes are born with a pre-button where the rattle will grow. The pre-button is lost with the first shed. After that, the first segment, or button, of the rattle will form. It is worth noting that the venom of baby rattlers is more concentrated than adult venom and that babies are far more aggressive. So don’t be fooled into thinking a juvenile poses less of a threat to you.

The rattle is empty. Each saucer shaped button sits nested in the next one, forming a rattling sound when shaken. The buttons are modified skin cells from the tail. Many people believe that you can tell the age of a snake by the number of buttons on the rattle. This is not so. Snakes often shed more than once a year and the brittle keratin buttons can break and fall off.

Have you ever wondered why you only see a rattlesnake’s long fangs when it strikes? Where are they the rest of the time, you might ask. The hollow fangs are connected to muscles that allow them to fold back when not in use. They lie parallel to the jaw line. Opening the mouth causes an instant muscle reaction that flips them forward. The fact that ‘dry strikes’ (strikes that do not release venom) occur suggests that the animal has control over the venom glands. These glands are at the base of the fang and when venom is released, it travels through the hollow fang with a syringe effect. Rattlesnakes can eat animals that weigh more than themselves. Their diet tends to be small mammals such as rats, mice, gophers and chipmunks. They also eat birds and amphibians. Hunting tends to occur at night since much of their prey is nocturnal. They too are hunted, often by owls, hawks, eagles and other snakes.

rattlesnakeWhen John accidentally steps on a rattlesnake in The Brothers Cannon episode, everyone’s fear for him is justified. Without anti venoms, or indeed nearby hospitals, the risk of John’s death was great. Rattlesnake venom is scary stuff. It is a potent blend of toxins that affect blood, enzymes – which break down and digest cells – and assorted other substances that cause muscles such as the heart and lungs to seize up or lose control and others that cause the blood pressure to drop. All rattlesnake bites should be taken seriously and attended to by a doctor as soon as possible. While many people survive the bites, numerous are left with lasting tissue damage, scarring and/or permanent disability. Even handling dead snakes can be dangerous since the fangs can release venom.

However, like all misunderstood predators, the rattlesnake plays an important role in nature. They provide a vital service. Without them, populations of vermin, like rats and mice would increase. With that, more spread of disease. Their prey eats valuable crops as well. Unless threatened, most rattlesnakes avoid humans. Many bite victims approached too close for the animal’s comfort so if you see one, give it plenty of room to escape. Many bites result from accidentally stepping on a snake so take care watching where you walk in snake territory. It is an easy enough mistake to make. Like John did, I once stepped on a large venomous brown snake, failing to see it basking on the sandy ground where I walked. It was easily over six feet long and I walked right over it. Snakes can be right under your nose and you can miss them. Fortunately for me, it was a dry strike so I lived to write this article where I hope I have helped you to better understand this beautiful creature.

*For any Leonards out there, please note that this is not intended as an insult. I think rattlesnakes are amazing and beautiful creatures so it is more in the line of a compliment.

Did You Know? A rattlesnake can shake its rattle up to 60 times per second!

Rattlesnake Anyone?

Although rattlesnakes were and still are a danger to people, they also provided a meal to many an Old Wester. Lots of the snakes were simply skinned and fried while more adventuresome chefs tended to prefer them in a chili. Since the people of the Old West often ate these snakes, we thought it might be fun to include a recipe.

Thanks to our own Rusty LaGrange, we have some information about cooking rattlesnake to share with you.
However, be warned! This recipe is included more as a curiosity than as something for you to try. Handling and preparing rattlesnake poses very real dangers. The dead snakes can continue to writhe and/or bite for as much as several hours after they are killed. The head, once removed, can also still bite. This is caused by reflex actions in the muscles. The snake is not consciously attacking but that doesn’t make the bite any less dangerous.

We recommend that you visit the site below for a full list of warnings and rules regarding the handling of rattlesnake for a meal.
According to Rusty, any seasoning will do though she prefers Cajun spice. My research also suggested that hot spices are popular with this meat.

  • Rusty’s General Tips
    • Don’t overcook it and make it too tough to eat.
    • Rinse the snake meat and cut it into 4 inch lengths, simmer it in butter and lemon to soften the meat. Simmering in milk doesn’t seem to matter. Butter tastes better. Like sautéing fish.
    • Dredge the pieces in flour, egg and light mix of spices.
    • Mix with Cajun spice, parsley and a bit of garlic powder. Toss the pieces back into the frying pan on medium heat. You have to watch it closely so you don’t crisp it too much. There’s so little meat on the body that it gets stringy.
    • Remember that it’s full of spiky little spine bones all the way through, so you’ll have to pull the meat away from the bones with a fork.

    Rusty’s Fried Rattlesnake
    1 egg, beaten
    salt to taste
    ½ tsp. powdered garlic
    3/4 cup milk
    1 tsp. pepper
    flour to dredge
    1 rattlesnake cut into 4-inch pieces
    ½ tsp. Cajun seasoning

  • Cut snake meat into 4-inch lengths. Beat egg and milk. Mix spices, except Cajun spice, with flour in a separate bowl. Preheat cast iron pan with cooking oil. Dip snake into egg mixture and then in flour/ spices mixture, then sprinkle lightly with Cajun spice and place it in medium hot oil. Cook until the white-ish meat changes color to a gray-brown and begins to crisp on the edges. Place fried snake pieces on a paper towel to drain. The snake will cool down quickly so eat as soon as you talk yourself into it!

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