Al Wolf reached his tongs into a bright red bucket this week, exacting a stirred-up rattlesnake. He set the snake onto his gravel driveway and then pulled out another. And another. And another.
Once the bucket was empty, Wolf stood admiring six snakes, which together gave off a chorus of angry buzzing.
“There’s rattlesnakes everywhere,” Wolf said. “These are just from yesterday.”
As the director of Sonoma County Reptile Rescue, Wolf normally catches a lot of snakes during the summer. This summer he’s seeing - and hearing - a lot more than normal.
“When May hit, it really surprised me,” Wolf said, lifting a rattler back into the bucket. “We generally get about 18 calls in May. We were up 126 by the end of May.”
Wolf doesn’t believe there are more snakes than in a typical year. But he thinks the warm run of weather is drawing the snakes into more frequent contact with humans.
“It’s been a very steady warmth and the snakes are just moving on a very normal pattern,” he said. “And people just happen to see them because of that.”
Wolf said he knew of four people who’ve been bitten by rattlers so far this year, along with 20 dogs.
On Tuesday, Fremont police issued a rattlesnake warning after a woman was bit by a snake on Mission Peak. Police said the woman was bitten as she tried to take a photo of the snake.
Wolf knows a bit about snakebites – he’s been bitten 12 times. The last time he didn’t even go to the hospital, noting his symptoms weren’t as severe as other bites.
He described the sensation as prickly tingling in the lips and face, followed by nausea and then a burning.
“The pain you feel after a while is like being too close to a fireplace and you get that heat against you,” Wolf said. “But this is from the inside out.”
Wolf said the snake calls he gets range from people who are sometimes cool as a cucumber, to people who are “worse than a wiggly worm on a hot cement sidewalk.”
This week he got a call from a woman who froze in terror after spotting a snake. Wolf said it took him 12 minutes to convince her to finally back away.
Other times, he said he answered calls from people, only to find they’d killed the snake before he could arrive.
“We’ve had so many snakes in Sonoma County, people have killed this year, they’re not even rattlesnakes,” he lamented. “It breaks my heart.”
On Wednesday, Wolf answered a report of numerous rattlesnakes on a bridge over a creek in rural Santa Rosa. The caller said she walked her dog in the area and was concerned.
Wolf studied a deep crack along the asphalt on the bridge where snakes likely had a hive. He pointed out that within the last day, someone had poured diesel fuel along the crack to drive the snakes away.
“Diesel isn’t a good smell for anybody,” he said packing up his snake tongs.
Neighbor Walt McMahan said he saw snakes on the bridge daily while walking his dog.
“I don’t bother them and they don’t bother me,” McMahan said.
Another neighbor scoffed when Wolf explained how he rescues rattlers and relocates them to large Sonoma County farms where they can feast on rodents. The neighbor Leonard Clayton said he preferred to see them killed.
“I say that because I’m concerned about people,” said Clayton, “kids coming down here.”
Wolf said he hears those opinions often, and he understands the fear. But then again, people don’t see snakes as he does.
Back in the rescue center which he runs voluntarily using his own funds and meager donations, Wolf peered into a glass pen holding more than a dozen rattlers. In a day, he planned to haul them up to a farm and release them – knowing the next day of sunshine would bring a whole new slew of calls.