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A Wilder View: Wrangling rattlesnakes for science

rattlesnake wrangler
rattlesnake Joe Thompson
Posted at 11:07 AM, Jun 01, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-01 13:08:46-04

MISSOULA - We introduce you to a real rattlesnake wrangler who is going out to photograph the animals and find out why they are more than just venom in this edition of A Wilder View.

The iconic sound is unmistakable – and whether you live in rattlesnake country or not, you know that sound means back off. But for some, it’s more like an Easter egg hunt. After all, if you’re out hiking, it’s nice to be looking for something and finding something special — special creatures that are the newest and most evolved snakes in the world.

Veterinarian Joe Thompson has found paradise in the unique hobby of rattlesnake wrangling.

" first see you know a rattlesnake being venomous and know that they’re potentially life-threatening. I think whenever you see one, you’d have to be dead, I guess, not to have some type of adrenaline rush of seeing it…excitement of seeing it,” Thompson said.

Rattlesnakes are the highlights for Thompson, but he says it’s also about being in touch with nature, "usually when I go out its not just snake hunting, looking for rattlesnakes to photograph — which is a big part of it — but it’s about hiking too. It’s about being outside on a beautiful spring day and there’s no reason not to enjoy the hunt.”

Rattlesnakes are the newest and most evolved snakes in the world.

This passion was sparked in Thompson at a very young age.

“I think I first got interested in rattlesnakes when I was just a little kid watching cowboy movies like Gunsmoke and Rifleman and so on. It seemed like they always had a rattlesnake picture in there so it piqued my interest,” Thompson recalled. “From the time I was a young kid I remember going out catching garter snakes and it kind of evolved into bigger things.”

"Well, I think rattlesnakes probably take a bad rap because they are venomous but there are very few envenomations in the country and fewer deaths from them,” Thompson continued.

rattlesnake Joe Thompson
Veterinarian Joe Thompson has found paradise in the unique hobby of rattlesnake wrangling.

Rattlesnake venom has led to immense medical advancements. For instance, two frequently used drugs used to treat heart attacks were derived from snake venom. One of the most significant drugs that have come from rattlesnake venom is ace inhibitors which help reduce blood pressure and are now used to treat more than 40 million people worldwide.

“There’s probably things we don’t even know. Maybe the venom contains some protein that would cure some types of cancer or something,” Thompson noted.

Venom continues to be a highly studied resource in the medical field. Plus, rattlesnakes can even help keep the rats out of your house. Because of this, rattlesnakes play a very important role in their ecosystems by controlling small mammal populations.

Thompson has some words of wisdom for people looking to go out on a beautiful day but who are afraid to encounter a rattlesnake: “The main thing is knowledge. Knowing what a rattlesnake can and can’t do.”

"I’ve always heard that rattlesnakes can only strike half or three-quarters of the length of their bodies. I’ve seen a few that approached striking the entire length of their body. So I’d give them more room than that,” Thompson advised. “If you have a four-foot snake, you’d want to be six feet or more from it. But if you stay away from it and don’t really bother it, it’s unlikely that you’re going to have any problems at all.”