The canister swings with each stride as Bryan Hughes ventures farther into the desert outside Scottsdale, to a place that has yet to be claimed by urban sprawl. In response to the movement, what’s inside the canister rattles in irritation.
“Just a bit further,” Hughes says, slowing down.
“That’s the spot.” He stops by a rock with tell-tale signs of a rattler.
“Ready?” Hughes asks. “Because here we go.” He sets down the canister and opens the lid.
A Western diamondback rattlesnake lays dormant at the bottom, coiled and unmoving. Using a hook, Hughes carefully lifts it out and onto the ground. With a hiss, the snake slithers away.
“Another day in paradise,” Hughes says, picking up his now empty canister. “If you see signs of other rattlesnakes in the area, you know you’re in the right spot for a drop off.”
Day in and day out, Hughes and his team at Rattlesnake Solutions respond to calls for snake removals. By documenting his work with videos, Hughes has amassed more than 1.5 million followers on TikTok.
“We have a surprising number of followers. TikTok is my place to go for a breath of fresh air after working with people all day,” Hughes said. “I’m 42. I’m not the intended audience or user for TikTok but younger people are much more open to discussing ethical snake removal rationally. Far more than the average person my own age, who I work with every day.”
A self-proclaimed herper — someone who searches for amphibians or reptiles — Hughes is trying to find the balance between ethics and business.
“I’m a pretty bad business person because my default position when someone calls us is to try to talk them out of using our service. In most cases when you see a snake, especially one that is harmless, it’s not something that even requires attention,” Hughes said. “But when it does require attention, we like to be able to handle it in a way that is not relying on people’s fear.”
Hughes is sharing data from thousands of snake removals across Phoenix with researchers from Arizona State University to better understand the social and environmental factors that lead to people calling his service.
“We’re not only trying to work within the boundaries of what’s known, we’re trying to use our dataset to advance what that is,” Hughes said. “Maybe there’s a better way we can do this.”
‘A glimpse at human-wildlife interaction’
The research paper, titled “Unwanted residential wildlife: Evaluating social-ecological patterns for snake removals,” analyzes two years’ worth of snake removal data from Rattlesnake Solutions.
“What happens to rattlesnakes when they’re released is somewhat controversial. There has not been enough research of how this works in an urban environment to have an absolute degree of confidence in what is happening,” Hughes said. “The way we can improve that is to come up with new methods, or build upon existing methods, and use the data that we’re collecting along the way to check to see if it is working.”
The study examined over 2,300 snake removals in Phoenix between 2018 and 2019, comparing removal locations to neighborhood-level socioeconomic and demographic factors. It found snake removals occurred more frequently in high-income neighborhoods with recently constructed homes closer to undeveloped desert.
Western diamondback rattlesnakes, which are venomous, were extracted most often, making up 68% of removals. The non-venomous Sonoran gopher snake was a distant runner-up, making up 16% of removals.
Heather Bateman, an associate professor at ASU who is the lead author the study, said the size and depth of the dataset from Rattlesnake Solutions is an invaluable new source of information.
“Bryan and his company are able to access a data that is exceeding herpetologist’s datasets,” Bateman said.
By combining social demographic and ecological factors from each removal, Bateman says the research contextualizes human-wildlife interactions.
“All snakes are predators. Monitoring a predator in an ecosystem tells you how the other components of an ecosystem are doing,” Bateman said. “But you have to keep in mind that humans are a part of nature as well. In urban ecology, we certainly recognize that the human element is part of the ecosystem.”
Understanding interactions between humans and predators, like snakes, is especially important in a place like Phoenix because the city is continuing to grow into the desert, said Jeffrey Brown, a postdoctoral research associate at the Central Arizona-Phoenix Long-Term Ecological Research program and co-author of the study.
“When people think about ecology and conservation in urban landscapes, the main focus is on land use,” Brown said. “But we also have to think that in all of these land uses, there’s going to be lots of people. Those people are ultimately going to impact things beyond just using the landscape.”
The perceived threat of predators, like snakes, is a significant aspect of the research. Hostility against snakes is something Hughes has consistently encountered through his work.
Learning about the factors contributing to this hostility could mean fewer dead snakes. The researchers wrote that “understanding how to maintain biodiversity in urbanizing arid regions could protect snakes if relocating snakes away from areas of high human density translates into fewer snakes killed by people annually.”
“If you don’t have the cooperation of those people, you’re not going to have successful conservation practices,” Brown said.
A follow-up research paper will survey hundreds Rattlesnake Solutions’ clients to better understand their perception and intentions behind calling the service. While this research is providing new insight into snake removals, it does leave out low-income populations.
“A limitation of this study is that this is a paid service. So, there is a bar in place and there is going to be a set of humans that can’t participate in this service,” Bateman said. “We don’t know the outcome of how people that don’t use the service handle snakes in their yards.”
‘You’re going to have to coexist’
Regardless of income, interactions between humans and snakes are far more common during the summer.
Joe Hymes, venom curator for the Phoenix Herpetological Sanctuary, who surpasses Hughes’ online audience with over 2.6 million followers on TikTok, said “rattlesnakes are cold blooded, or ectothermic, that means they rely on the sun for their warmth. But the thing is with how hot it is here it’s even too hot for the rattlesnakes.”
Rattlesnakes are generally most active within the temperature range of around 79 to 90 degrees, according to Hymes.
“This time of year, when you’re getting hundred-plus degree days, a lot of people aren’t seeing snakes till the evening,” Hymes said. “When the weather is cool enough for us to enjoy it, it’s usually cool enough for the snakes to enjoy it. Any water sources around homes and backyards is also going to drive up those human-snake interactions. We’re all just trying to cool down in the desert.”
Every summer, volunteers from the sanctuary remove around 300 rattlesnakes from across Phoenix. Hymes said these removals are most common in places that are “more rural and on the edge of town.” Anecdotally, he said new housing developments usually lead to “tons of calls from all the neighbors because it wakes up everything in the desert.”
Russ Johnson, president and a founder of the sanctuary, said warming weather is compounding the core reason why he believes human-snake interactions will only continue to rise.
“We created the issue,” Johnson said. “As the population of Phoenix grows, we keep building out into snake, lizard and Gila monster habitat. A year ago, these snakes were just doing their thing on their home range. But then suddenly, their home range became your neighborhood.”
Johnson said the fact that the study found most removals were called in by people from “recently constructed homes” proves his point.
“If you’re going to move out into the brand-new area, you’re going to have to deal with the various wildlife that was there before your house was,” Johnson said. “That’s not an if, that’s an absolute. If you’re going to move out there be resigned to the fact you’re going to have to coexist.”
Environmental coverage on azcentral.com and in The Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust. Follow The Republic environmental reporting team at environment.azcentral.com and @azcenvironment on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.