Pictured: Norther Pacific Rattlesnake, common in non-desert areas of California. 

by David Goldstein

A tourist stops at the ranger station and asks how to avoid danger from bears. The ranger says, “The best protection is to wear these little bells and to carry pepper spray.” 

So the tourist buys the clip-on bells and pepper spray, then asks the ranger, “How will I know when bears are near?” 

The ranger says, “You should learn to recognize bear scat.”  

“How can I recognize bear scat?” 

“It has little bells in it and it smells like pepper,” answers the ranger.

Jokes aside, the danger from bears in Ventura County is so small, neither the Ojai Ranger District nor the Mount Pinos Ranger District sell bells or pepper spray, and a ranger I spoke with, who was not authorized to speak on the record, could not recall the last time a local hiker was harmed by a bear. Nearly equally as rare in Ventura County are encounters with mountain lions, although development near wildlife areas and fragmentation of habitat by transportation corridors increase risks of animal encounters.

If you encounter a bear or a mountain lion, advice is almost the same. The Ventura Land Trust, which on its Facebook page notes recent puma sightings in the Harmon Canyon hiking area, advises: Stand and face the animal directly. Never run away and do not approach. Make yourself look as big as possible by spreading your arms or a coat. Do not crouch down; if you need to pick up a child, do so under the child’s arms, rather than crouching. 

In the case of bears, which have sensitive ears, experts disagree whether making as much noise as possible is helpful. Some advise yelling or banging pots, but others, such as bearsmart.com, caution loud noises could provoke attack, advising instead,  “… speak in a calm, appeasing tone” while walking slowly backwards. 

Rattlesnakes are the most often encountered, potentially dangerous local wildlife. The risk is lower than many perceive, however. On Nextdoor.com, in response to dozens of posts about ensuring Ventura County Animal Services follows the official policy of releasing captured rattlesnakes at least half a mile from any house, David Kushner, of the Loma Vista/Foothill neighborhood in Ventura, urged an “educated” rather than “emotional” view. 

“Rattlesnakes are not a high risk!” he wrote. “You should be worried about your neighbors’ dogs and just about everything else besides rattlesnakes.”

According to a University of Florida website Kushner cited, in a typical year in the United States, over 7,000 people are bit by venomous snakes, but only six of those bites are fatal. In contrast, seven die per year from spider bites, 54 die per year from lightning strikes, and 37,594 die per year from vehicle accidents. 

It seems, if you drive to a hiking spot, your drive may be more dangerous than your hike. 

If you are bitten by a rattlesnake, the website of the Mayo Clinic advises calling 911 and getting to an emergency room quickly for anti-venom drugs. While waiting for medical help, “move beyond the snake’s striking distance; remain still and calm to help slow the spread of venom; remove jewelry and tight clothing before you start to swell; position yourself so the bite is below the level of your heart; clean the wound with soap and water; and cover it with a clean, dry dressing.”

For an urgent situation involving a rattlesnake, such as one inside the home or car, Capt. Brian McGrath, public information officer with the Ventura County Fire Department, says calling 911 is allowed. For less threatening situations, the department’s non-emergency phone number, 805-384-3011, is more appropriate. Local fire departments will either urge residents to simply avoid a snake or will remove the snake if necessary. Randy Friedman, public information officer for Ventura County Animal Services, noted his agency, at 805-388-4341, also removes snakes posing dangers, as well as sick, injured or deceased wildlife of any kind.

David Goldstein, Ventura County Public Works Environmental Analyst, can be reached at david.goldstein@ventura.org or 805-658-4312.