The arroyo at Los Gatos was at first large, wide and open, gravel bottomed and easy to see our surroundings. Perfect for our morning bird walk. But as we gained elevation the arroyo began to close in, the mesquite and ironwood thick on both sides, and the cutbanks about a foot high. Wylie was on his best behavior, trotting about five feet in front of us, while Katie and I walked slow and silent looking for the elusive Pyrrhuloxia. We all heard the unmistakable sound, and Wylie froze with his nose a foot away from a big blonde diamondback rattler. The instant we heard the rattle, a machine gun fire staccato from behind the brush, we yelled “Wylie! No! Come! Get Back!” and probably ten other commands that if he didn’t know the syntax, he surely knew the tone. Thankfully he got the message, and it was about this time that a distant memory crept back into his wee little dog brain.
Last June, we did a rattlesnake aversion training with the help of a defanged rattler and a shock collar. The moral of the story was: Rattlesnake = Bad. He got the point pretty quick that day, but we’ve been wondering if the memory had stuck seven months later.
Well, it seemed to have taken just a moment, but when he heard us holler, it appeared as if it all came flooding back, the smell of the scales, the tension in the half coiled body, the deep terror and shock of electricity that arose with that hellish sound. He jumped with what looked like fear, enough to make me worry he’d been bit, and he came right over to our side, all the while the rattler just shaking away, staring, daring, never ceding an inch.
Once Wylie was safely at heel, we took turns stepping into view of the serpent to see the beauty and ferocity of the strange creature, as well as to get our yearly dose of endorphines. There is something so pure and complete about our fear for that creature. It’s as if they take control of our bodies from ten feet away; our muscles tense, our chemicals flood, our minds spin. There is power in its stare alone.