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Watch your (diamond)back: OKC snake museum owner advises caution after rainy spring

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An eastern diamondback rattlesnake.

Carl Sandefer has a special place in his museum for the albino western diamondback.

The pale yellow snake, native to southwestern Oklahoma, greets visitors with the audible rattle of its tail. It is the first snake visitors see at the OKC Rattlesnake & Venom Museum in Oklahoma City’s Stockyards district. Sandefer owns and operates the museum.

Sixteen years before he opened the museum in July 2018, Sandefer fell victim to a bite from the diamondback when taking pictures for his book on centipedes. 

“(The bite) hurt pretty good,” Sandefer said. “My arm swelled up, blood pressure was through the roof… It took about eight to ten weeks to recover.”

Following a rainy spring in Oklahoma, Sandefer said residents enjoying their summers outdoors should be on the lookout for the state’s dangerous snakes.

Sandefer said native snakes like the diamondback have been forced out of their natural habitats in recent weeks due to increased rainfall. According to USclimatedata.com, Oklahoma sees a higher level of average precipitation in June than in any other month of the year. 

Sandefer said the increased rainfall brings out more snakes — and more rodents, which attract them.

The albino western diamondback is one of the seven venomous snakes native to Oklahoma, typically occupying the southwest corner of the state. The timber rattlesnake, massasauga rattlesnake, prairie rattlesnake, pygmy rattlesnake, cottonmouth and copperhead are also found in large numbers across Oklahoma. 

All seven have a spot in Sandefer’s museum, which features over 60 exhibits and also includes different species of venomous lizards, as well as snakes from around the world.

Perhaps the albino western diamondback earned its prominent placement. It accounts for most of the venomous bites in the United States, according to an information guide provided by Sandefer. 

“They tend to be a little bit more cranky than the other snakes,” Sandefer said.

During the day, when the sun shines bright and the temperature reaches its peak, snakes prefer to seek out shaded areas, Sandefer said. Whether it’s under or behind rocks, within divots in the grass, or under piles of leaves, snakes avoid the heat and, as a result, often stay out of sight when people are out.

Sandefer said he is often asked about certain snakes and is quick to provide advice to those who want to stay safe in areas with an abundance of venomous snakes. 

“Don’t put your hands or your feet somewhere where you can’t see where you’re putting them,” Sandefer said.

It’s important for one to remain calm and seek medical attention when bitten, Sandefer added, and a bite from a venomous snake will often have two noticeable punctures in the skin. There is also value in learning the snakes native to one’s area, Sandefer said, and to understand that the majority of snake bites do not come without provocation.

“Ninety to 92 percent of the time people are bitten because they try to catch the snake or exhibit or show off the snake,” Sandefer said.

In his museum, Sandefer offers people the opportunity to see the unique snakes up close without having to worry about the venom that patiently waits beneath the sightly spot and color combinations.

“(Visitors) like the fact that they’re up close and personal with the snakes,” Sandefer said. “The snakes are in the cages with the glass separating them but they can actually see what they look like because they probably wouldn’t want to get that close to a venomous snake in the wild. And, of course, there is a little bit of a lure because they’re dangerous. People like dangerous things, I guess.”

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