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This Arizona rattlesnake lover says the reptiles aren’t all that scary

By Ian McKinney
Published: Wednesday, August 9, 2023 - 10:46am
Updated: Wednesday, August 9, 2023 - 5:32pm

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From Major League Baseball to local folklore, the rattlesnake is a symbol of life in Arizona.

But rattlesnakes can also be pretty scary — particularly when one shows up in your backyard. Up until now, we haven’t known much about how these creatures interact with humans. The Show spoke with one Arizona researcher who’s out to change that.

The Phoenix Herpetological Sanctuary, billed as the largest reptile sanctuary in the country, is located in far east Scottsdale — the exact location is not disclosed to the public. The sanctuary is home to alligators, opossums, otters and iguanas. But Cale Morris, the sanctuary’s venom manager, is more interested in what’s going on in your backyard — where you just might find one of Arizona’s most famous residents: the western diamondback rattlesnake.

The Western Diamondback is the most common rattlesnake in Arizona. Despite their ubiquity, not much is known about how these creatures react in more urban settings. This is where Cale Morris comes in.

“This is very personal for me because it’s something I’ve loved my whole life. I caught my first snake when I was 5," said Morris. "I’ve never been afraid of rattlesnakes, I’ve always thought they were beautiful and fascinating creatures. I think having this ability where I’m not afraid is really beneficial when it comes to being able to educate people.”

Cale Morris and a western diamondback rattlesnake.
Morgan Kubasko/KJZZ
Cale Morris and a western diamondback rattlesnake.

Morris is an Arizona native, and has worked at the sanctuary since 2004. He’s worked with 70 of the world’s most exotic snake species, but Morris' latest research is much closer to home.

“We’re going to be tagging and tracking and tracking rattlesnakes after we find them in people’s yards," said Morris. "So we’ll put transmitters in them and then we release them nearby in the desert like we always do. But the cool thing is that I’ll be able to track them using radio telemetry technology so I will be able to see where the snakes go."

The trackers are surgically implanted into the back of the rattlesnake. Morris began the work in early July, and he plans to tag and track several hundred snakes over the next decade.  There are a few questions he’s trying to answer: When Rattlesnakes are removed from a particular yard or home, do they attempt to return? Do they go to different nearby spaces, or will they stay away? The answers, he hopes, will help humans live more peacefully with rattlesnakes.

“I really think that this research is going to help us coexist safely with rattlesnakes," said Morris. "Statistics from the Banner Poison Center tells us that people often get bit trying to kill the rattlesnakes or sometimes trying to move them without proper training. I believe that education is the answer; the more that we teach people the more that we know about them it’s easier to stay safe around them.”

Western diamondback rattlesnake
Morgan Kubasko/KJZZ
Western diamondback rattlesnake at the Phoenix Herpetological Sanctuary.

Morris believes he can help people feel more safe around rattlesnakes, and disprove many misconceptions. 

“I think that fear really affects us. Some people are so afraid that they almost can’t live. They’re afraid to go outside their house, they’re afraid to go hiking and you know it’s for good reason," said Morris. "It’s because people have told them stuff so we believe it. You’ll hear stories about your neighbor and how they got chased. If a rattlesnake really chased people, that would be frightening for me. My job would be really hard, but they just don’t. So yeah, I’ve always wanted to do a project like this so I can help educate people on a larger scale and help them feel more comfortable living here. ”

Morris plans to publish his findings periodically over the next ten years.

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