CALABASAS, Calif. — In Southern California, rattlesnakes visiting suburban neighborhoods and backyards are at an all-time high. And so are emergency room visits for snake bites.
Professional snake wrangler Bo Slyapich is busier than ever. He said the invasion is because there was an abnormally wet winter two seasons ago. In these conditions, momma rattlers birthed a bumper crop of babies that, now in adulthood, have slithered off the hot, dry hillsides onto cozy pool decks, lush lawns and patios. Frightened homeowners call Slyapich to the rescue.
“We are going to Agoura Hills,” Slyapich said as he steers his bright red pickup truck onto the Ventura Freeway. A homeowner spied a serpent near their garden hose.
In the seat behind him are cages. Some are empty, some filled with live rattlers and other snake species from the previous day’s haul. He just hasn’t had time to release them into the wild yet. Slyapich also carries tools of the trade, various “grabbers,” an essential for dispatching deadly vipers.
Slyapich meets his client, a man, on his front lawn.
“OK. Now, I gotta get in there. So, I gotta tromp around,” he tells the homeowner.
Slyapich starts whacking wildly at the bushes with one of his grabbers. He politely explains to the homeowner how he may have to destroy some of the landscaping.
“What’s worth more?” he asks his client. “You or the plant?”
If not treated quickly, Rattlesnake bites can be fatal. The venom is a hemotoxin that can damage tissue and the circulatory system. It can also cause internal hemorrhaging.
It’s a good day to go tromping around for rattlesnakes. Bo holds out a temperature gun and aims it toward the ground. Snakes prefer a temperature of 80 degrees.
“And we are there,” Slyapich said after he takes a reading.
Snakes, which regulate their body temperature by moving around, prefer the same environment humans enjoy—not too hot, not too cold. In other words, they like our comfortable backyards, patios, and homes as much as we do.
So, after he is finished beating the bushes, Slyapich heads to the backyard to look under the patio furniture. He even pulls seat cushions off the lounge chairs. Anywhere people can find contentment in the outdoors is a perfect place for a snake.
The first question Slyapich often gets from people is, “Have you ever been bit?”
“Nope,” he answers after tossing a pillow cushion aside.
It’s one of the few short answers he gives. Slyapich has a gift for gab that matches his talent for trapping snakes. While he hunts, he talks nonstop and regales his clients with snake stories and factoids.
“You know, they don’t always rattle,” Slyapich said while he whacks another bush.
He caught his first rattler when he was just 5 years old. And, 57 years later, he has never been bit.
Slyapich walks across the pool deck and casually tosses out another piece of trivia. Rattlesnakes can swim. Although, that, he admits, is a rare occurrence.
Next, he sticks his head into a luxury barbecue appliance. Rattlesnakes like to crawl up into them all the time, he said. Apparently, it’s also a haven for spiders. Interestingly, Slyapich is deathly afraid of those.
“I hate spiders,” he said before slamming shut the stainless-steel doors.
Along the way, Slyapich explains to his client how they can keep rattlesnakes off their property. He points to a tiny gap between the ground and the bottom of a gate.
“See that?” he said. “You need to plug that up.” A rolled-up towel will do the trick, he said.
He carries a stack of cards with him for a contractor-friend of his who installs snake fencing.
Slyapich also takes the opportunity to educate his client. He goes to his truck and pulls out a caged gopher snake.
“See the amber eyes and pointed tail?” asks Slyapich as he pushes the cage toward the nervous homeowner. “Rattlesnakes have black eyes and flat tails with rattles, of course. That’s how you can tell the difference.” Rattlers, he goes on to explain, also have a trademark “neck” behind their head.
Next, Slyapich reaches into his truck and pulls out the showstopper.
“Aaaaand… that is a rattlesnake,” Slyapich said, as he slams the cage down on the truck’s tailgate. The snake’s namesake rattle is masked, briefly, by gasps from his frightened clients. The man has now been joined by his wife.
Slyapich presented the couple with a laminated brochure of other snake species.
“That’s a King Snake,” Slyapich said, pointing to a picture. “If you find one of those, don’t kill it! Put a leash on it and let it stay in your backyard.”
That’s because King Snakes eat rattlers.
On this house call, Bo came up empty. He never did find the offending snake.
“You never know. The day’s not over,” Slyapich said as he drives away. “On some calls, you get nothing. But, on the next call, you’ll find six rattlesnakes.”
He has been wrangling rattlesnakes professionally for 30 years. Slyapich began in the film industry, protecting cast and crew by clearing movie sets of the deadly reptiles. Now he is on call and hires himself out to anyone.
His regulars include a very famous daytime talk show host, Oscar-winners, and even a legendary Calabasas family some of us “keep up with” on their reality show.
“Calabasas, we call it the ‘Mecca of Rattlesnakes,’” Bo said as he pulls into a Calabasas driveway. The owner called Slyapich after he found a rattler hanging out on his back patio.
But, after looking around the property, Slyapich didn’t find a snake there either. Nor did he catch one at his next call in Topanga Canyon. Curiously, the owner’s dog peered over the balcony to see Slyapich disappear under a large wooden deck in search of snakes.
Rattlesnakes are a particular threat to pets, especially to dogs who are not afraid of the deadly reptiles and are apt to sniff at them before getting struck.
“I average about 80 to 90 dog bites every year,” Slyapich said, as he turns his truck into a Calabasas dog park where he often gets calls.
Near the park, he peers carefully into a sewage drain with a flashlight. Slyapich lets out a big sigh and holds up three fingers.
“We got three in here!” he said.
Slyapich leans back down for another look.
“Oh, do I have four in there?” he asks out loud and to no one in particular. “I think there might be four!”
Slyapich swings open the grate. But then, he discovers something else in the sewer.
“There’s a rabbit in here!” he shouts.
In one corner of the underground concrete box is a baby bunny rabbit, shaking, as it is surrounded by four sleeping rattlesnakes.
“No, six!” Slyapich shouts.
He found two more.
Slyapich points his temperature gun into the box. It reads 63 degrees. That’s cold for a rattler. They literally have a hard time moving. If it were a little warmer, Slyapich said the bunny would have been a meal by now. It’s a race to get the bunny before the snakes wake up.
“You OK, bunny rabbit?” Slyapich asked, in a sweet voice, as he looks down into the box. “You’re just scared. I’d be scared, too, with six rattlers.”
He sets out to rescue the bunny, first by removing each rattlesnake one by one. He counts them off as he puts them into plastic storage containers.
“Four, five… six,” he said. “Don’t think my adrenaline isn’t pumping!”
“Hello, Bunny. I’m gonna get you out!” he said, just before crawling down into the den.
But then, he pauses. There is a reason Slyapich has never been snake-bit. He is cautious.
“I just gotta make sure there’s no more damn snakes in there,” Slyapich said as he grabs his flashlight one more time. “It would ruin my day.”
It’s a good thing he did a double-take. Slyapich found two more rattlesnakes hidden in one corner.
“I’m glad I didn’t jump in there,” he said, certain that he would have been struck.
Finally, Slyapich crawls into the box and extracts the bunny from what was a den of eight deadly vipers—Slyapich’s biggest catch of the season so far.
It was almost too much for the veteran snake wrangler. He sits down on the asphalt next to all of his plastic containers full of rattlesnakes, who, of course, are all rattling away. Slyapich raises his hand. It’s shaking.
“That’s me being as still as possible,” he said. “I got something on the end of that stick that can kill me. We won, especially for the bunny rabbit. And Bo, too! I didn’t get bit. I like that.”
Slyapich lets out a big sigh.
The other question he often gets is, “What do you do with the rattlesnakes?”
“Well, of course, I keep them until the check clears!” Slyapich said. “I’ve never had a bounced check. But I will bring the snake back with interest.”
Actually, Slyapich takes them to a secret location, away from people and houses.
Since Spring, Slyapich has been doing this seven days a week. And he won’t take any time off until the snakes do, which, traditionally, is around October.
Or, as Slyapich puts it, “when snakes go into hibernation, Bo goes on vacation.”
However, Bo said he now has to wait to make vacation plans. He claims that, due to climate change, the snake season now extends into early December. And today’s record catch —urban viper dens like the one at the dog park—may become the norm.