When a rattler comes to call
I first noticed the Panamint rattlesnake when her head moved just beneath my feet.
I hadn’t stood on her, not yet; I stood on the edge of our concrete doorstep with my bare toes drooping west, pointing to the Sierra Nevada mountains, six inches above the glacial alluvium around our home. The snake — whom I instantly dubbed Dobby — had curled up against the same step and pointed her wedge-shaped head up like an arrow, her chin an inch below my big toes.
Dobby didn’t rattle, but her neck muscles tensed, so I backed away and found my shoes. Rattlesnakes had meandered through our yard before, so I counted her rattles (eight), admired her camouflage (rust-brown diamonds scattered on pink tuff), and went for a walk with my husband and our dog. Dobby left before we came back, although I found a snake-shaped hollow amongst the pebbles.
After three short visits, Dobby settled one night in a patch of desert wildflowers next to the front door and the dog door we'd installed. She rattled briefly — two short, sharp “ticks,” a warning to watch our feet. Our dog, an autumn-colored husky mix who treasures her dog door the way teens treasure transportation, gave me a hard look and spent the night outside, well away from the snake.
By the next morning, antelope ground squirrels had abandoned the wildflowers. Cottontail rabbits lingered near the gate but didn’t crawl in. We found Dobby basking in the sunrise amid dried flower petals. The dog came in to eat, but turned her back on us.
After two days the dog cautiously resumed using her door. Dobby moved, but not much, as if she might be busy digesting ground squirrels. After three days, my husband and I thought Dobby must be sick. After six days we realized she might be pregnant.
We humans writhed with indecision; our dog expressed no opinion. Dobby displayed the good manners we’d always experienced from rattlesnakes. We weren’t at high risk: The overwhelming majority of rattlesnake bites to humans occur to the hands or fingers of young adult males who -- not coincidentally -- also tend to be intoxicated. Baby rattlesnakes, however, can’t rattle loudly to alert potential trompers and are therefore more likely to bite.
Having lost our childhood roaming grounds and their resident wildlife to golf courses, my husband and I had resolved to try to get along with our own wild neighbors. When we found a large lot and built a small off-the-grid home there, we celebrated by pulling cheatgrass, seeding bare spots with native plants, and promoting rodent-eating snakes to skeptical human neighbors.
Our new home welcomed us with open jaws. Cone-nosed bugs as long as kidney beans sidled in to suck blood from our lips while we slept. Giant hairy desert scorpions scuttled onto our ceiling or stung our bare feet when we stumbled outside to evict their cohorts. Black widows constructed golden egg sacs in our bathroom; wood rats stripped insulation and wiring from our cars. Black-tailed jackrabbits gnawed newly planted native needle grass into nubbins.
We tried for balance, relocating black widows but condemning bloodsucking bugs to death by freezer. We fenced younger native plants, stocked small boxes with polyester insulation for the wood rats, and looked the other way when antelope ground squirrels raided the bird feeders. But we adored reptiles: They only wanted us to avoid them.
If we relocated Dobby, my husband and I worried aloud, would we lose her forever? How could we betray such a polite neighbor?
On our eighth night of rattlesnake indecision, we found Dobby swaying threateningly on our doormat. Light from the translucent dog door gleamed in her eyes.
“I’ll move her,” I promised the dog. "Tomorrow, maybe." But Dobby ignored us. She tapped her nose gently against the ground and slid across the yard, drifting in a perfect arc towards the antelope ground squirrel colony.
Dobby didn’t return the next morning, or the next. After a while, ground squirrels filtered back and denuded the desert mallow, cottontails converted evening primroses into pockmarks, and our dog decided to stay outside all night anyway to enjoy the cool air.
Eventually, my husband and I admitted to each other that we missed Dobby and hoped she was well. We should have known better, but it surprised us that she was just a visitor, only there to enjoy the space and call it hers for a short while, just like any of the rest of us.
Ceal Klingler is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a syndicated column service of High Country News. She studies watersheds and the habits of small animals in eastern California.