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A ‘bumper year’ for rattlesnakes in Napa County

A ‘bumper year’ for rattlesnakes in Napa County

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It wasn’t clear if Raven, the 3-year-old Scottish Terrier owned by St. Helena residents Cary and Vicky Gott, would survive the rattlesnake bite. The dog yelped in pain as its neck ballooned with internal swelling when the toxin took effect.

Immediately the Gotts grabbed their phones. Vickie dialed the vet’s office to inform them they were on their way while Cary called Len Ramirez, owner of Ramirez Rattlesnake Removal.

“For the last couple of years we’ve had to place shovels strategically around the yard to dispatch any snakes we find,” Gott said, “but these snakes were big and there were more than just one or two, so we called in the professional.”

Based out of Auburn, Ramirez is no stranger to such calls. Every year from February to October he’s on call 24/7, stopping his fevered pace only when the snakes go into hibernation during the winter months.

Ramirez has been wrangling vipers throughout the state — including in the Napa Valley — for more than three decades. His ability to find, capture and humanely transfer the snakes to undisclosed wilderness locations has garnered him the loyalty and respect of many in the region who want to protect pets and people but who also understand that snakes play a vital role in maintaining healthy ecosystems.

I am no stranger to Ramirez’s talents. From 2008 through 2014 I used his services for a vineyard and winery that I had co-founded and run. My initial impression that he was professional, highly effective and a pleasant person to be around, has only been reinforced throughout the subsequent years.

Len Ramirez talks about the bumper crop of rattlesnakes in Northern California in August 2021 driven by years of fires and droughts. Video by Tim Carl.

A bumper year for rattlesnakes

“Between the recent fires and this year’s drought it has been a bumper year for rattlers,” Ramirez said. “We are seeing more of them than ever.”

In a typical year, Ramirez estimates that he captures more than 1,200 snakes, whereas this year he’s predicting over 1,500.

Driving a fire-red pickup emblazoned with his logo, Ramirez — with his rugged, confident demeanor, sun-bleached cowboy hat and snake boots — looks as if he has stepped out of a movie. And that’s not far from the truth: He has been featured on the Discovery Channel, National Geographic and dozens of TV news programs as well as in newspapers.

From tennis to snakes

How does one decide to become a rattlesnake wrangler? When Ramirez was growing up in Cupertino, his mother worked for AT&T and wrote fiction while his father was a professor at De Anza College. Like many young people at the time, he watched a popular television program called “Wild Kingdom” and felt a kinship with the mission of the show — to educate people and protect animals.

“I’ve always wanted to be of service,” he said. “I promote all living things.”

Through Ramirez Rattlesnake Removal he is achieving his goal by educating his clients on snake-safe practices and by transporting the potentially deadly snakes to uninhabited locations, allowing the reptiles to live out their lives far from civilization.

When Ramirez was 15 years old, almost as a prank, he created a homemade shirt that read, “Rattlesnake Search and Rescue.” The shirt got attention but didn’t result in much business. Falling back on his talents as a tennis player, for the next 10 years Ramirez rose in the ranks, eventually moving to Santa Cruz and becoming a tennis pro, teaching students and playing against the likes of John McEnroe Jr.

During those years Ramirez’s interest in snakes only grew. He had a few as pets, including an “enormous” boa constrictor, but his teenage dream of having a business focused on the serpents seemed out of reach. In a twist of fate, the Santa-Cruz fires of 1985 struck near his home, forcing him to relocate his pets. Placing the boa around his neck, he jumped on his mountain bike and headed down the road.

“I was riding along with this huge snake around my neck and a crew from the San Jose Mercury News drove up and snapped a few photos,” he said. “When I saw that photo on the front page the next day a lightbulb went off.”

Ramirez kept his day job but began building his business into one that today claims to be “the only licensed, bonded and insured rattlesnake removal company in California.”

Ramirez Rattlesnake Removal services many communities and has numerous partnerships throughout the region, often being called in by the likes of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Department of Forestry, law-enforcement agencies, CAL Fire and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Being a good scout

It had been a week since the snake had bitten the dog, and we walked the Gott's property looking for any remaining rattlers. Ramirez had already captured three snakes, including a 4-foot-long “healthy” specimen. As we toured the site, the snake wrangler highlighted areas of concern — a rocky area within the garden, a loosely coiled garden hose, a dark corner, a pile of dead branches. A dog’s bark made us all turn as Raven trotted our way. The dog was wagging her tail and looked no worse for the wear.

“Raven seems perfectly fine, and that’s great news,” Cary Gott said, grinning as he picked up the dog.

Ramirez grinned, too, giving the dog a pat on the head, but then his expression hardened.

“She’s very fortunate, but there have been a lot this year that haven’t been so lucky,” he said in a somber tone. “So far this year I’ve seen 38 dogs, two horses, four ponies and a llama killed by rattlers in Northern California, and we still have a few months to go.”

Gott nodded slowly and set down the dog, who sniffed warily at Ramirez’s boots before heading back inside.

“You just never get used to snakes,” Gott said, smiling at Ramirez, “but it’s certainly nice to have options.”

To ensure safety in the coming months, Ramirez recommends bringing pets in at night to avoid confrontations with nocturnal snakes and carefully examining the area before doing any outdoor work or allowing children out to play.

“Rattlesnakes have always been here and will always be,” Ramirez said. “These creatures play a vital role in a healthy ecology by keeping rodent populations in check. They are shy animals that prefer to be left alone; however, they can’t be tolerated when it comes to threatening people and pets.”

As we walked and talked, Ramirez’s eyes continued to scan the area, pausing often to examine a spot more closely.

“Keeping vigilant is about being a good scout,” he said. “Scan, look before you step, see before you reach. No one is exempt from rattlesnakes, especially this year.”

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