American Scene: The Rattlesnakes of Pinole

  • Share
  • Read Later

A.FRED HITCHCOCK once imagined a small California town abruptly and unaccountably beset by flocks of homicidal birds. In Pinole, a suburban hamlet in the hills 14 miles north of San Francisco, the idea might not seem entirely fantastic. Each summer for the past three years, an almost biblical plague of rattlesnakes has descended on the town.

The effect upon such a bedroom community, with its $35,000 Spanish-style houses and stucco split-levels, has been a weird suburban anxiety. Twelve families living along Wright Avenue have killed 27 rattlers so far this year, and as one housewife said, "It's hardly even summer." One man found a snake coiled on the front seat of his car. The snakes slither across manicured lawns, nest in the coolness of garages and patios. Reid Waddell, a 42-year-old butcher, bent down to pick up his evening paper and saw a rattler side-winding across his driveway. -

Three-year-old Melody McGuire ran into the kitchen screaming that there was "a big worm" in her sandbox. Children are taught to play cautiously—if they are allowed outside at all. The suburban routine for housewives now includes decapitating rattlers with a shovel. Melody's parents have killed 18 of them since the family moved to Pinole in 1968. At least one husband keeps a .22-cal. rifle ready in his closet.

Surprisingly, only one resident has been bitten. Ten-year-old Gregory Doney was walking barefoot in front of his family's house early this month when he felt a searing pain in his right foot. He survived, but has not yet recovered the full use of his leg.

It is either luck or a testimony to nervous caution that there have been no deaths. The snakes are Northern Pacific rattlers, whose venom carries a hemolytic agent that destroys the red blood cells. Roughly one foot long at birth (they grow up to five feet), the snakes bear enough poison from the time they leave the nest to kill a full-grown man.

There are various theories to explain the herpetic invasion. According to one, an unusually heavy rainfall in 1968 forced the snakes out of their hillside habitat. Another suggests that exploratory oil drilling caused subterranean reverberations that drove the snakes into residential areas. But the drilling stopped last year and the rain has been light this season, and still they come.

Dr. Nathan Cohen, a University of California herpetologist, has a different explanation: "This community is like a finger poking in the eye of nature and aggravating it? These young snakes come out of their nests, and they have only one place to go. The watered lawns and garages offer them a cool refuge during the hot summer days."

Older residents recall that they once would not let their dogs wander in the canyons where the new refugees from the city now water their lawns with sprinklers—with an apprehensive eye on the

coiled garden hose.

No protection seems satisfactory. Chemical warfare against the snakes could also kill off such harmless but ecologically essential animals as rabbits, deer and hawks. Burning off the hills would also kill indiscriminately and create potential flood conditions. Someone has even suggested that the suburbanites keep wild turkeys and hogs, traditional enemies of rattlesnakes.

  1. Previous Page
  2. 1
  3. 2