CASA GRANDE — Equipped with black lights, nets, snake tongs and other tools, Phil Rakoci regularly treks into the desert at night, taking a group of curious adventurers with him.
While many people try to avoid encounters with rattlesnakes and other desert-dwelling creatures, Rakoci and his nocturnal excursion tours go in search of them.
When they encounter a snake, lizard, scorpion on other creature, Rakoci will often temporarily trap it and explain various facts about the animal such as how it lives, what it eats and why it thrives in the desert.
With each encounter, Rakoci hopes to dispel myths and alleviate some common fears and misconceptions about the creatures who call the desert home, including rattlesnakes.
Few desert-dwelling creatures are more feared by people than the rattlesnake. But Rakoci said people can peacefully co-exist in the desert alongside them and information and awareness makes it easier.
“Rattlesnakes are a very important part of our environment,” he said. “And they are harmless if not harassed.”
Rakoci is a wildlife educator and longtime advocate for the creatures of the desert.
For more than 25 years, he has traveled the region performing as Wildman Phil, sharing the stage with snakes, lizards, bugs and other critters.
He handles snakes on a regular basis — in his shows and in his personal life — and wrote his first book about rattlesnakes, covering their habitat, life cycle and other interesting facts.
“If I see a rattlesnake on a hiking trail, I think, ‘ah cool — a rattlesnake,’” he said. “People can safely enjoy the desert by watching for them and leaving them be — same as safely enjoying the desert knowing they share terrain with bobcats, hawks, etc.”
In his book “Rattlesnakes,” Rakoci tells his story of being bitten, hospitalized and recovering from a rattlesnake bite. Rakoci was bitten in the leg in 1998 when moving a snake to a box following a safety show about desert wildlife.
He wound up in the hospital after having an allergic reaction to the snake venom and lived to tell the tale. Pictures of the effects of the snake bite are documented in his book.
Nationwide, there are an estimated 8,000 rattlesnake bites each year, resulting in about eight to 15 deaths annually, according to the Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center.
Although a rattlesnake bite is a medical emergency and requires medical attention, fatalities are rare and in recent years, the death rate from snake bites has dropped to less than 1%, according to the center.
There are 17 different species of rattlesnakes and all are venomous.
Thirteen of those species live in Arizona: the massasauga, Mohave, prairie, sidewinder, speckled, twin-spotted, tiger, ridge-nosed, western diamondback, black-tailed, Arizona black, western and rock rattlesnakes, according to Arizona Game and Fish.
Being cautious and aware that snakes might be in the area can reduce the risk of snakebites.
To avoid snake bites, Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center recommends:
- Leaving wild animals, including snakes, alone. About 50 to 70% of reptile bites managed by the center were provoked by the person who was bitten.
- Be aware of peak movement times. Reptiles in Arizona are most active April through October. During the hottest months, they will be most active at night.
- Keep hands and feet out of crevices in rocks, wood piles and deep grass. Always carry a flashlight and wear shoes or boots when walking after dark.
- Dead snakes can bite and should not be handled. Reflex strikes with injected venom can occur for several hours after death.
- Install outdoor lighting for yards, porches and sidewalks.
Long fascinated by snakes and other desert creatures, Rakoci has been entertaining audiences and educating kids about wildlife since he was 13 years old.
Among the most interesting facts about area rattlesnakes, he said, is that they “have heat-sensitive pits that can detect within 0.01 degree of temperature,” he said.
And their population numbers can vary from year to year. While in some years, weather, climate and environmental conditions are optimal for snakes, this year is not one of them.
“Just like climate change, rattlesnake populations are cyclic. The rattlesnake numbers are down this year due to drought,” Rakoci said.
But he said groups on his nocturnal excursion tours are still likely to encounter a snake or two along with other critters.
“We’ve found Gila monsters, mountain lions, deer, badgers, skunks and tarantulas, too. Geckos, jackrabbits, foxes, kangaroo rats, toads, horned lizards, bullfrogs, bobcats and various non-venomous snakes are found also,” he said.
More information about the nocturnal excursion tours may be found on Rakoci’s website, wildmanphil.com.
Want to see a Wildman Phil show? Rakoci has an upcoming performance at the Santa Cruz Public Library in Eloy. The event starts at 11 a.m. on Monday, June 27.