In the dead heat of summer, it feels almost incomprehensible that the desert could sustain any form of life. It’s hard to believe but this Sonoran sun bed is actually teaming with wildlife. Like any other ecosystem, the animals here go hand in hand with their environs. With harsh pokey cacti come harsh pokey critters. I do not blame the animals – you would have to be a little rough around the edges to have survived here.
There are your classic Arizona horror stories – like the coyote snatching your neighbor’s cat or that brazen 3 a.m. wake-up call of a scorpion stinging you in bed. Ouch! Yes, this stuff does happen but I still choose to appreciate the beauty and significance of these animals.
It just wouldn’t be the Wild Wild West without them.
While I do admire this austere environment and all of its creatures, I know I can’t just go frolicking through the desert barefoot and carefree. There is a level of awareness needed to stay safe in the event of a bite, or sting, or any other animal interaction mishap.
The tarantula hawk, for example, is a large, black, red-winged spider wasp that hunts and eats tarantulas for food. It has a sting that is rated top of the pain index landing it the reputation as having the 2nd most painful insect sting in the world (the first being the South American Bullet Ant). The sting was once described by Justin Schmidt, entomologist and creator of the Schmidt Sting Pain Index as “…immediate, excruciating pain that simply shuts down one’s ability to do anything, except, perhaps, scream. Mental discipline simply does not work in these situations.” Needless to say, when I am walking my puppies down the street and I see one of these bad boys, I make a B-line straight for home.
Living under these circumstances for the past three years, I have accumulated a few generalizations about wildlife in Arizona.
1. Hunting scorpions with UV light is completely normal practice and actually pretty fun. They glow a bright neon greenish blue under a black light which helps in spotting them on your ceiling or under your bed frame.Yikes!
2. Tarantulas will give you the heeby jeebies when they drop down on you from a tree or join you for a beer on the patio, but don’t worry, they are harmless. This has only happened a few times but I like to keep it in mind for the next unexpected visit.
3. We consider all bees in Arizona Africanized – so dont mess with them. Be calm. If you leave them alone they will leave you alone. (I am still struggling with this one).
4. If you hear rustling across the street and shine your flashlight out to see several pairs of beady eyes staring back at you, don’t worry – its most likely not a bobcat or mountain lion (which are rarely sighted and usually seen alone) but more typically a family of javelina. But don’t get too comfortable – these wild hog looking creatures are known to be fearless and not too friendly towards humans.
5. Rattlesnake roadkill is unfortunately very common. I stopped the car the first few times because it was such a foreign sight but now I just feel bad for them. This is their home too. Ive learned that Arizona firefighters begrudgingly have more rattlesnake relocation calls every year than fires. The snakes are here to stay and we should respect them.
This last point brings me to the once in a lifetime opportunity I experienced yesterday. Due to working in a rural location, we do not have a local agency that can relocate the rattlesnakes we find on site. We have had three rattlesnake sightings and for safety reasons, the company realized we needed some professional training to help us handle these situations ourselves.
As a safety coordinator, I was tasked with collecting a group of volunteers and finding the trainer. As for myself, I did not originally intend to volunteer for the class. No way was I going to be handling these fang-toting, venomous, slithery serpents. Notice how all my “love the animals” sentiment goes straight out the window at the prospect of having to be in proximity with a rattlesnake.
Anyhow, I located the trainer, Terry Johnson aka “The Reptilist,” from the Arizona Herpetological Association and wrangled up a group of brave – or maybe crazy – volunteers. As the coordinator, I was present throughout the training and by the end of class, my sense of adventure got the best of me. With tong and hook in hand, I successfully captured and bucketed my first rattlesnake.
We practiced our snake wranglin’ skills on several different species. The instructor brought out a feisty little Diamondback Rattlesnake, an Arizona Black Rattlesnake, and a beautiful yellow and black Black Tailed Rattlesnake. We even got to feel the rattle of a horned Sonoran Sidewinder (with his head safely secured down a long clear tube) and play with two nonvenomous snakes, a Gopher and a King.
We also learned how to capture and relocate the protected Gila Monster, a rarely sighted large orange and black lizard native to Southwestern United States. They have a different mechanism responsible for the release of venom which is only achieved through chewing. Therefore when a Gila Monster bites, they clamp down hard and chew, sometimes until their teeth fall off. They can regenerate new teeth for this purpose. Imagine learning all this and then being shown how to capture one with your bare hands.
Talk about an adrenaline rush!
I am happy to announce that I survived without a bite. Im now officially tough enough to hang out with the likes of Bear Grylls and the late great Steve Irwin… Ok, maybe I am getting ahead of myself, but I still feel like a badass.
If you are visiting Arizona, you will definitely have a run in with some type of wildlife. It is not uncommon to see coyotes, scorpions, lizards, toads, quail, turkey vultures, javelina, deer, bunnies, squirrels, roadrunners, and even rattlesnakes. They are all living together and surviving just like we are. We must be careful and respectful. After all, they were here first.
A chill will always run through my bones when I hear that late night symphony of coyote yips and howls that signify the pack has had a recent kill. But eventually, you learn to embrace the great mysticism of this creepy crawly desert – in all of it’s unforgiving glory.