One morning, my wife told me she'd seen a rattlesnake on a knoll behind our house in southern Utah. Nestled under a bush just 25 yards up the hill, it didn't look aggressive. It lay circled in the shade as if taking a nap, its diamond pattern strangely enhancing the scene. We decided to leave him in peace -- let the wildlife be wild.
Our house was new, built on ground that hadn't been disturbed except by an occasional cow. It wasn't long before we discovered that the wild critters found us as interesting as my wife and I found them. Already, something -- maybe a mouse -- had gotten inside while we were away, working on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. The morning we spotted the snake, a Great Basin rattler, I'd set a mousetrap in the kitchen. We were having friends over for lunch. Just about the time our guests showed up, the trap snapped shut with a pop.
We ran to look, and there, pinned down by the bar of the trap, was a good-sized pack rat. He wasn't moving. My wife and I exchanged glances, reading each other's mind: Lunch for the rattler! Yes, we were enthusiastically violating our ranger-bred ethics about not feeding wild animals, but what else do you do with a half-dead pack rat?
I picked up the trap with the rat dangling from it and walked up the knoll, which still cradled the snake. I leaned over as far as I could without toppling over on the rattlesnake, and pried up the bar. The pack rat fell with a plunk in front of the snake, raising a puff of dust. Suddenly, it shook its head like a boxer that had been knocked down in the ring.
My wife grabbed a stick. I was all for letting this be a fair match, but she had other ideas: She prodded the pack rat, urging it to run for its life. The trap must have really knocked it silly, because it ran away, all right – right over the snake. The rattlesnake struck, briefly stopping the rat, but then the rat jumped up and ran back in front of its foe. The snake struck again, and this time the pack rat got the shakes: It was clearly a goner. I suggested we repair to our lunch and let the rattlesnake have his.
Later that fall, at dusk, I walked around the house, checking things out. As I rounded the corner, a large rattlesnake slithered away in front of me. When we looked out the kitchen widow later that night, we saw a rattlesnake crawling past. My, I thought, he's really grown; he must be 4 feet long now. It occurred to me that the next time we went outside in the dark, we should bring a flashlight.
It wasn't long before more houses sprang up around us. One day, my wife encountered a neighbor, and the talk turned to rattlesnakes. The neighbor killed every one he saw because, he said, "It's them or us!" Another house went up, and the owner cleared away all the sagebrush. When I asked why, the neighbor said, "I've got a young daughter; I've got to protect her from rattlesnakes." As other houses appeared around us, we noticed that the rattlesnakes no longer visited.
One day, I noticed a sensation of intense itching. Later, when I was working at the Grand Canyon, it faded away, only to return for real during our next days off in Utah. When I turned on the bathroom light, I was startled to see that my entire torso had turned a bright red. At the hospital emergency room, I was given an ephedrine shot and released, but now, it seemed, I was only safe in our rented cabin on the canyon rim.
The other day, my eye was caught by a book on the shelf, Desert Venomous Pests. I opened it to a page entitled "The Kissing Bug or cone-nosed bug." It was the culprit: Kissing bugs can cause an extreme allergic reaction in people and, in some cases, life-threatening anaphylactic shock. The bug is parasitic on pack rats, and somewhere in my home, another packrat must be living.
One solution is obvious: Bring back those Great Basin rattlers my neighbors have been so committed to killing off. The slithering animals might have made strolling around the house an adventure, but they also protected people like me from a more annoying pest. Besides, the snakes were part of the place before we humans ever got here. They belong here, and I, for one, really need them to get back to work: I want them to start bumping off those parasite-ridden pack rats.
Tom Carter is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes in Kanab, Utah.