High season for wrangling rattlers

We Southern Californians have lawns tended by gardeners. We have pools cleaned by guys with nets hanging out of their pickup trucks. We know people whose pets are exercised by dog walkers.

But how many people do you know who get monthly invoices for rattlesnake control?

Bo knows.

A self-described "rattlesnake wrangler," Bo Slyapich has been removing snakes and educating people about them for 30 years. His mostly wealthy clients love to live in proximity to private, undeveloped land but don't love all of the creatures who are their neighbors. Although he's happy--seriously, happy--to find, trap and remove snakes coiled around the net post on the tennis court or snoozing among the toasty rocks in the backyard lagoon, he's also thrilled when his neighbor calls because there's a snake in the bed.

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"He recently moved here from New Jersey." Slyapich grinned. He does that a lot. "It was a gopher snake," he said, adding that the neighbor wasn't that interested in the herpetological demographics of California, only in the speed with which his unwelcome guest could be evicted.

Slyapich loves snakes, loves finding them, husbanding them and teaching Southern Californians how to co-exist with the wildlife that was here first. On a recent morning, Slyapich met for a ride-along at his Calabasas apartment dressed in his business attire: high boots, plastic knee pads, cargo shorts and a tank top with copy reading "Fires, Floods, Rattlesnakes--Welcome to Malibu, Calif."

With his shaved head, bronzed skin and palpable tensile strength, at 54 Slyapich still looks like the stuntman he once was. Some people would say he still is.

His man cave is dark and stuffed with timber furniture, masks, weapons and snake-abilia given to him by people grateful for his skill at extracting serpents from under the barbecue or behind the refrigerator. He untaped the top of a terrarium under the big screen TV and removed Anthony and Cleopatra to cuddle the California kingsnakes like kittens, cooing and pursing his lips against their reptilian faces as the baby Houdini slithered around the tchotchkes covering the coffee table.

"Who's my baby? Aren't you beautiful."

Indeed they are, these slitherers with their chocolate-and-lemon skin and their sweet dispositions.

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"I've probably saved the lives of thousands of snakes," Slyapich said, explaining that he never kills snakes he captures unless absolutely necessary. Most people aren't interested in snake conservation or reclamation, most people just want them dead and gone. When Slyapich captures a snake, he either releases it back into the wild or keeps it to teach people that kingsnakes prey on rattlesnakes, and how to tell the difference between lookalike gopher snakes and rattlers; to conduct rattlesnake avoidance classes for dogs and snake safety classes for film crews and gas company employees working in the field.

He needs these animals to work but he also really, really likes them. Most of his livestock resides in what he calls a "compound" whose location he won't identify. Those critters are used primarily "for camera"--one of his rattlers was the model for the Travelers Insurance TV ad in which a bunch of rabbits laugh at a snake whose rattles are colorful baby toys taped to its tail.

Slyapich secured the kingsnakes back into their cages. Asked if Cleo et al ever escape, he nodded. "I don't worry about it. I know I'll find them eventually."

His fire-engine red pickup truck is stocked with the tools of his trade--snake tongs, thermal reader (registers ground and ambient temperature), flashlight, night vision scope, knives... He's got a fiber-optic camera to see behind cabinets and a periscope to see around corners. He's got an electrified wand for tasing snakes that might be coiled, say, in the engine block of a car. He never crawls under a building without protection. His armory includes a 9mm handgun, .38 revolver and 12-gauge shotgun with special snake shot for short-range defense to ensure he doesn't shoot out the wall or spark a fire.

Bo Slyapich looks and is equipped like the kind of guy you should report to Homeland Security. But then there's a snake in the geranium, and he's your best friend.

Most people call 911, which is what they're supposed to do. The fire department and animal control treat all such calls as true emergencies and will respond, respectively, with an engine company or trained personnel.

Sometimes the snake disappears before the cavalry arrives. "Nobody else goes under houses," he said. "Nobody but me."

Officially, public agencies are not allowed to endorse private parties or commercial interests. "He's not an approved vendor," one local fire captain said. "We have used him in the past," one local sheriff's lieutenant said, "but now we transfer all rattlesnake calls to the fire department." "Our official procedure for emergency snake calls is to take care of the problem ourselves," said an animal control worker in Agoura.

But talk to enough people in Malibu, Agoura, Calabasas, Westlake and you find only a couple of degrees of separation from awareness of the rattlesnake wrangler. By his reckoning, Slyapich has 100 clients whose property he visits at least monthly to ensure the snake-proofing measures remain in force or to remove an unwelcome visitor.

Slyapich started the truck for the first call of the day, in Calabasas. A hissing sound ensued. Some kind of temperature control system? Uh, no. The passengers in the backseat, trapped in large, towel-covered plastic bins, were not happy and let their rattles do the talking.

Slyapich launched into a tutorial about the varieties of Southern California rattlesnakes (nearly all found in the greater L.A. area are Southern Pacifics), about how rattlesnakes bear live young and how their metabolism depends on the temperature. If it's cold enough, he said, they can go without food or water for years. Southern Pacific venom is a hemotoxin, he lectured, which affects blood and muscle, and the venom of Mojave green rattlesnakes, which are found in the northern reaches of the county and the Mojave Desert, is a neurotoxin, which affects the respiratory system and causes paralysis.

This has been an unusually busy rattlesnake season, Slyapich said. A couple of recent news reports also have called it a rattlesnake bumper crop season.

Andrew Hughan, information officer for the California Department of Fish and Game, begs to differ. "There's no science to support more or less rattlesnake activity this year," he said. "Climate change is not an official policy of Fish and Game, but the temperature does have a more dramatic effect on animals than people. ...When it's hotter, there's more snake activity."

"Snakes are out during the day," Hughan said. "If a Yorkie walks by and a snake bites him, somebody tweets it and some KTLA reporter shows up."

There's a perception of more snake incidents, he said, but that doesn't reflect reality as much as it does a heightened awareness of reporting through social media.

But Sean Bush, an ER doctor at Loma Linda University Medical Center and an expert on venomous bites and stings, said, "This is definitely a more active year [for snakebites]." Loma Linda, in San Bernardino County, is a renowned treatment center for snakebites, and it gets referrals of victims from as far away as Nevada, Northern California and Mexico. "We see the worst of the worst," Bush said. "We see the highest volume of rattlesnake bites in the nation."

It's difficult to find solid figures (emergency rooms, for example, are not obliged to report snakebite cases to poison control centers), but it's thought that approximately 8,000 bites from all varieties of poisonous snakes occur every year in the U.S., 12 to 15 of which prove fatal. The same sources report that perhaps one-quarter of all rattlesnake bites are dry; that is, the snake bites but does not inject venom. In Bush's experience, that figure is high; dry bites compose less than 10 percent of what he sees. "We have big rattlesnakes here, with long fangs and very efficient delivery systems."

Despite the clinical nature of his delivery, Bush has personal experience. Six years ago his 2-year-old was bitten in Yucaipa. He required 14 vials of antivenin (a single vial costs $2,000), but today has no lasting effects of the bite. Except for an aversion to snakes.

Bush caught that snarky snake, which was coiled around a sprinkler, and after getting treatment for the kid, released it into the San Bernardino National Forest.

If Loma Linda's snakebite patient count is up, so far it's an average season at the Malibu Coast Animal Hospital, where Dr. Lisa Newell said, "We're right on schedule." The clinic generally sees 20 to 30 snake-bitten dogs per year, each requiring a vial of antivenin. So far this season, the practice has used 17 vials; six owners of bitten dogs declined the antivenin, probably, she said, because it costs $890 per vial.

Difficult to quantify if this season is unusually snakey, but it doesn't really matter to the owner of the Calabasas home where Slyapich went to work.

Having moved into the gated community that week, the owner was a pediatrician whose patient was bitten a few days earlier playing in his yard in Hidden Hills. She told his mother to take him to the ER, eyed the weedy hill across the street and the sloped field behind her house, and thought about her 5- and 7-year-old. She called Slyapich for snake-proofing tips.

Slyapich unloaded some Tupperware cages from the truck and removed a gopher snake from one. The homeowner and several workers crowded around as Slyapich pointed out that although the snake often resembles a rattlesnake, its tail is tapered and its head is the same size as its neck. Like rattlesnakes, gopher snakes control the rodent population. We like gopher snakes. Everyone petted the genial fellow.

Slyapich lifted another cage with its tight-fitting lid intact. Its coiled resident was fat, brown and and having a hissy fit. Note how this head is triangular, Slyapich said, tapping the side of the bin, and how it's larger than the body. Note how its vibrating tail is blunt. Said one worker, "Sounds like a gas leak."

Note how the gopher snake has round pupils, but the rattlesnake's pupils are vertical, like a cat.

You know what? If you can see the shape of a snake's pupil, you are too damn close.

After a sweep of the property, which included a rock-walled pool, tennis court, outdoor kitchen and garden, Slyapich advised the homeowner to remove vegetation adjacent to garage door and walkways, to install snake-proof fencing and reminded her always to keep the doors and gates closed. "You like to hang out by the pool," he said." So does a rattlesnake."

She handed Slyapich his fee for services and asked, "If you find a snake at someone's house, and you remove it, what do you do with it?"

"Keep it until the check clears."

Slyapich charges on a sliding scale, he said, "from zero to a lot." Sometimes he takes emergency calls from "little old ladies living in trailers," and asks only for a sandwich.

En route to the next house call in Hidden Hills, the phone rang. "Was the tail tapered?" Slyapich asked, and set up an appointment for tomorrow morning in Bell Canyon. The phone rang again, and he told that caller he would come by tomorrow afternoon.

"That was Brad Garrett," he said, one of his regulars. He has several houses in the Malibu/Calabasas area.

In addition to his work clearing snakes from movie, TV and commercial sets, Slyapich has a lot of private, tabloid-fodder clients. Even macho Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson defers snake patrol to Slyapich, as does Jamie Foxx. "Jamie keeps asking me when I'm gonna talk to his people about a reality TV show," said Slyapich, who has been approached a few times about developing a snake wrangler show.

Some of his celeb customers are so private he doesn't even know who they are. Once he was summoned by somebody's staffer to a guard house in Pacific Palisades where he was met by a cluster of black SUVs and guys in black suits and sunglasses giving him the once-over. He wondered, "Am I looking for rattlesnakes at a drug dealer's house?"

Nah. It was only Gov. Schwarzenegger.

One client, a world-traveling photographer, recently called Slyapich on a satellite phone from Africa when workers at his Malibu property were freaked out by a snake sighting. He was giving Slyapich the details, but interrupted himself: "Hold on, Bo; gotta get this shot, a pride of lions."

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In Hidden Hills, Slyapich got the nod from the guard at the gate and proceeded to a house where yesterday he had removed a 4-foot rattlesnake sunning itself on the front porch. He greeted the crew grooming the estate's Versailles-like garden and scaled the hill out back, beyond the snake fence. He poked the snake tongs into crevices near the putting green and under the concrete drainage gutters. He wandered farther up the hill that bore more golf balls than a muni range. He pronounced the weed control excellent and found no sign of serpent incursion, even though the ground temperature measured 92, "ideal for snakes." The fencing remained sound along the far wall next to the radiation-proof bunker replete with water and air filtration system. Rattlesnakes might be the least of these people's worries.

In 49 years of rattlesnake wrangling Slyapich said he's never been bitten. "Three kinds of people get bit: Kids get bit because parents, grandparents or the nannies don't check the play area before they play. Women usually get bit gardening, and men because we're stupid."

"I've never had a woman show me her bite mark," he said. "When I ask men why they picked up the snake, they always say, 'I don't know.'"

"There's a prejudice out there that people who get bitten are young, male with a lot of tattoos," said Dr. Bush from the Loma Linda ER. "The reality is we see more accidental bites--children, gardeners, golfers, mountain bikers, rock climbers and we're seeing more women."

Slyapich drove to Thousand Oaks, not far from where he once snake-cleared the location for a Vogue magazine shoot and a 30,000-square-foot-house surrounded by six acres of snake fencing. At the guard house, Slyapich punched in the access code by memory and the gate lifted into the neighborhood where Mike and Kelly Lieberthal live. He was an all-star catcher for the Philadelphia Phillies who also spent a season with the Dodgers. He does not catch his own snakes. "They are the nicest people," Slyapich said, petting a goofy, friendly white lab and a curious Australian shepherd.

The homes in these gated communities have Hummers and Lamborghinis like the rest of us have bicycles. This one also had a basketball court and no snakes. Today.

Early in the afternoon, Slyapich got a call from the manager of a film location in Malibu Canyon where the TV series "True Blood" is shot. They weren't shooting that day, but a grounds worker didn't care for the rattlesnake lying between him and a lawn that needed mowing. Ten minutes later, Slyapich had tonged that tyrant into Tupperware. "It was the biggest one this season!" he chortled. "A big, black snake lying by the pool, 4, maybe 5 feet long!"

For Bo Slyapich, life in snakeland is good.

Photos via Bo Slyapich


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