A tranquil jaunt with her two dogs among the shady trees at Hahamongna Watershed Park, just across the street from La Cañada High School, turned into a nightmare on Saturday for local resident Bobbi-Lynn Caparella when her rescue husky was bitten by a venomous snake, just 15 yards from the parking lot.
“It was hot, so we stopped for a bit and I looked around and sat down on a low limb of a tree,” Caparella said, noting that there were children and families at picnic tables just yards away. “Suddenly, Orion whined a little and then jumped back and cried. He was bleeding and thrashing — I couldn’t tell where the blood was coming from.”
At first, Caparella thought her dog had been stung by a bee, and as his snout began to swell she rushed him to an emergency animal clinic, thinking he was allergic to such stings. Within the hour, Orion was laid out and unable to walk. Caparella had to carry him into an animal ICU after she was turned away from another clinic that doesn’t treat venomous bites. The emergency clinic where the husky was treated determined he’d been bitten by a rattlesnake.
By Tuesday, Orion finally started to see signs of improvement and was able to go home after spending three nights in the ICU, but it remains to be seen if he will suffer any neurological problems.
“His vitals are steady now but his muzzle swelled up like a chipmunk and he couldn’t open it to eat or drink,” said Caparella, a professional dog trainer, who has estimated the vet bill, medicines and upcomng therapies to cost some $10,000.
On Saturday evening, Caparella posted the incident to the Nextdoor app to warn neighbors, especially those with children and pets, of that entrance to Hahamongna Park.
“I don’t recall seeing signage about snake dangers in that area,” she said. “I’m aware we live in an area that has venomous snakes. However, it was a shock to me that snakes were in these populated areas. I took every precaution to keep my dog safe and yet he was bitten.”
From the outset, Caparella did everything she could to prevent a snake bite. She keeps her animals leashed and close to her, and never lets them dig in the brush or put their heads in holes, she told neighbors.
Among those who saw the Nextdoor post was Chris DeGroof, who lives nearby. DeGroof, who describes himself as an “amateur herpetologist,” does volunteer research for a natural history museum, conducting wildlife surveys and contributing reptile data. He contacted Caparella and offered to find the snake and relocate it before it could hurt anyone else.
He returned to the exact same location in Hahamongna on Sunday and found the snake within 30 seconds, he said. He determined it to be a 3- to 4-year-old Southern Pacific rattlesnake. Initially, Caparella had thought it must have been a baby rattlesnake, because she never saw it or heard its warning rattle.
“I was shocked, really, that no one ever even saw this snake before — it was curled up right by the tree, near picnic tables and by the restroom. There were all these families around, including children,” DeGroof said. “I quickly went back and got my prongs and bucket and put the snake in there. I don’t think anyone really noticed.”
DeGroof quickly relocated the snake to a more secluded area past the Arroyo Seco and near a stream.
“Look, I love these animals, but I don’t want anyone to get hurt. Typically, snakes want nothing to do with people,” said DeGroof, adding that the snake he found may have been at the public site to eat the rodents that feed off the garbage left in the picnic area.
The Big Dig excavation project higher up at Hahamongna Park could also be affecting reptiles, causing them to seek another habitat, he noted.
He emphasized that not all rattlesnakes give a warning rattle before they strike, noting “some snakes never give any warning … just like people, you have all different types.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a venomous bite, called an “envenomation,” occurs 7,000-8,000 times per year across the United States. Although it’s rare, some people with a severe envenomation or allergy to snake venom may be at risk of death if bitten. About five of those people bitten die, though the number of deaths would be much higher if people did not seek medical care. Disability and permanent injury (such as the loss of part or all of a finger or its ability to function) are much more common, reported to be between 10% and 44% in patients with rattlesnake bites.
DeGroof said he doesn’t want to scare the public and was alarmed at some of the reaction on social media, including calls to kill all rattlesnakes, but urges people in the area to look around carefully before sitting down in an open park space, especially near logs or trees. If a person or animal is bitten, it’s urgent to seek medical care, since venom immediately starts breaking down tissue: “Time is tissue,” he added.
Meanwhile, Caparella, who frequents local parks and trails near Descanso Gardens to walk her dogs, is urging dog owners to look into an antivenin vaccination and consider “snake avoidance” training with a professional trainer.
From now on, however, she noted: “I’ll be walking my dogs in the street.”