With the warm winter and spring this year, and with summer coming on full-steam, snakes of all varieties are starting to come out in the open, often onto warm roads, and do what they do best: scare people.

But as is the case with many wild critters, they only attack if provoked, and the average rattler is more afraid of you than you are of it. Joe Newman, a volunteer for Eldorado Snake Relocation, points out that, contrary to popular belief, rattlesnakes do everything they can to avoid humans.

"People can really freak out when they see a snake, especially if they don't know the species," Newman tells SFR.

Tom Wyant, a local wildlife expert, says that venomous snakes tend to have a "cat-eye" or elongated pupil, whereas non-venomous ones like bull snakes and coachwhip snakes do not. Although bull snakes shake their tails like rattlesnakes, they don't have rattles. Other than these key differences, Wyant recommends that folks who want to know more details visit the American International Rattlesnake Museum in Albuquerque, or, if you've got three hours on your hands, attend Wyant's in-depth program at the New Mexico Wildlife Center.

Many people's first reaction upon seeing a strange slithery thing in their vicinity is to kill it, either by running it over on the road or using tongs to remove it. Snakes have soft, delicate bones which break easily, and tongs can strangle them.

If you find yourself face-to-face with a snake and you don't know Parseltongue, the best thing to do is to back away slowly. Snakes can get irritated if you move too quickly, Newman says.

"The whole idea [with catching and relocating snakes] is to be minimally invasive … it's better for all concerned," says Newman.

Snake identification is important. While bull snakes and rattlesnakes might appear similar, watch for the triangle head on the rattler.
Snake identification is important. While bull snakes and rattlesnakes might appear similar, watch for the triangle head on the rattler.

So, where do snakes generally hang out, and how can you avoid them (especially if you have small children or pets)?

Rattlesnakes are especially active at night. During the day, they like to take siestas under rocks and other shady places. If you're on a hike or out camping, make sure to check under logs and rocks. You can use a stick if walking in tall grass, and making noise will scare rattlers away. They don't always rattle to let you know they're there, so keep an eye out.

Why should we be nice to snakes instead of killing them?

For one thing, they eat rats and mice, reducing the prevalence of diseases such as hantavirus. Because they keep the rodent population down, they also prevent damage to crops in rural areas.

Courtesy of Eldorado Snake Relocation Volunteers

Another thing that's important to know is that not all snakes are poisonous. Part of the urge to kill snakes comes from the fact that people don't know what kind they are. Non-venomous snakes like bull snakes tend to be larger than rattlesnakes and even look like them, but won't inject venom. The Western coachwhip, Newman says, will bite, but doesn't have fangs. Rattlesnakes, although venomous, rarely bite. If they do, it's because they've been provoked, and they don't always inject venom.

The main reason why rattlesnakes get driven out, Newman says, is simply because they're there when people want to clear and build on land.

Newman hopes his efforts help reduce prejudice: "Rattlesnakes offer a chance for us to coexist and face our needless and often contrived fears. [They] may be an ideal catalyst for our introspection and growth."

Want more advice? Try the Wildlife Center at 753-9505.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story contained an incorrect statement about snakes and water that has been removed. Also, volunteers in Eldorado are only able to respond with help in the Eldorado area. Newman says he'd be willing to help those in other areas start a volunteer response.