Excerpt from “Valley 101: A Slightly Skewed Guide to Living in Arizona,” a collection of Clay Thompson’s columns for The Arizona Republic. (Originally published April 2, 2000.)
Q: Since we moved to Arizona, my daughter and I have become avid hikers. The other day we saw our first rattlesnake. How many kinds of rattlesnakes are there around here?
A: I hate to tell you this, but there are a lot of them. And not just rattlesnakes. There are coral snakes, and a lot of others, including Gila monsters and killer bees. We’re not supposed to call them killer bees anymore. Africanized bees is the term. Call ’em what you like, they’re not nice neighbors.
The good news is your chances of being bitten or stung or otherwise killed by any of these creatures are fairly small, unless you’re a dope or just naturally unlucky. A study a few years ago showed, as I recall, that the primary victims of rattlesnake bites are young, White males who had been drinking. Of course, the primary cause of a lot of problems is young, White males who have been drinking.
Snakes: There are 11 species of rattlesnakes in Arizona and, for the most part, they are best left alone. Technically, they are pit vipers, which have triangular heads, large fangs and pupils that resemble vertical slits. Much like some editors I’ve had.
If you’re hiking or climbing, don’t put your hands where you can’t see. Rattlers, affectionately known as buzz worms, don’t always rattle before they strike, and yes, baby snakes can be venomous.
You don’t even want to know about coral snakes. They don’t have fangs and they don’t have slitty eyes and instead of injecting venom in one quick shot, they chew on you for a while. Gross.
Coral snakes have black snouts and red, yellow and black rings. Other, harmless snakes have similar colors, but their snouts aren’t black and the red and yellow bands don’t touch. If the red and yellow bands touch and it just chewed on you, man, you’re fried. Get some help right away. Don’t call me to tell me to say you hate the Phoenix temperature range chart and, oh, by the way, you just got chewed on by a coral snake. Get to a doctor.
Gila monsters are the largest U.S. lizard, up to 22 inches, and the only venomous U.S. lizard. They’re shy, slow-moving things and would be quite happy if you didn’t stop and say, “Hey, there’s one of them Gila monsters. Watch me swing it by its tail.”
Legend has it that Gila monster venom is especially toxic because the lizard does not have an anus and secretes waste through its mouth. (I hope you’re not reading this over breakfast.) This isn’t true, but its venom is considered to be at least as toxic as that of most rattlesnakes, and if you did manage to tick one off to the point that it chewed on you, you should get some help right away.
There’s more — scorpions and black widows and brown recluse spiders. My advice would be to either stay home, which wouldn’t be much fun; take care and use common sense; or keep a young, White male who has been drinking with you at all times and let him get chewed on.