Snakes, why did it have to be snakes?
December 28, 2007 3:10 AM   Subscribe

As a Brit traveling to California do I need to be wary of snakes or spiders (or anything else for that matter?)

In the spring of next year I'll be traveling to San Francisco but might also journey to other parts of California. As ridiculous as it sounds, bare in mind I'm British, do I need to be wary of snakes or spiders or anything else hazardous to a naive and foolish Brit?
posted by stackhaus23 to Travel & Transportation (31 answers total)
No, you don't really need to be worrying about snakes and spiders. Although California does have its share of poisonous varieties of both (notably black widows and rattlesnakes), you will rarely run into these; just don't stick your hand anywhere you can't see.
posted by beerbajay at 3:42 AM on December 28, 2007

Depends on the area of California. But in the more dry areas there are black widow spiders and rattlesnakes. If your outside in a rural area or hiking, you should look before you sit or put your hand anywhere. But really this is not much to be worried about. Problems rarely happen and when they do they are not life threatening, but you should seek medical attention.
posted by bindasj at 3:43 AM on December 28, 2007

Ticks are the probably the main annoyance most people encounter in the California wild. On the other end of the scale, some areas have had occaisional mountain lion attacks.

I feel compelled to ask, doesn't Britain have it's share of spiders and snakes?
posted by telstar at 4:48 AM on December 28, 2007

If you're in the water in SoCal, there are poisonous sea snakes. I didn't spend any thought on them, since AFAIK they will avoid you. Also, beware the valley girl in that same area.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 4:59 AM on December 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

As others have mentioned, black widow spiders and rattlesnakes are the only poisonous critters in California, although with modern medical treatment, the spiders are no longer a big deal.

There are only about 250 cases of rattlesnake bites reported in California per year, so that should tell you how probable it is in a state with something like 40 million inhabitants and vastly more visitors every year, but if you are somewhere where there are rattlesnakes around, I'm willing to bet there will be signs/pamphlets about it or Park Rangers pointing it out.

In my experience, the big practical dangers are 1) how different the driving habits are/how many lanes there are on the highways, and 2) underestimating how powerful and violent the Pacific can be in some of the more off-the-beaten-path places you can get to if you go exploring. That is, if you find yourself going somewhere along the shore that is really hard to get to, keep in mind that it will also be hard to get out of and that the tide may come in pretty damned fast, so be a little conservative.
posted by Your Time Machine Sucks at 5:10 AM on December 28, 2007

I've lived in San Francisco for eight years & spend a great deal of time outdoors. I've never seen a snake here. Ever. (I have seen snakes in parks in Southern California, which is hundreds of miles away.) It's relatively chilly in SF most of the time, and snakes are more inclined to more tropical weather. Plus, it's a relatively urban environment.

Enjoy your visit. You'll be fine.
posted by judith at 5:26 AM on December 28, 2007

As a San Francisco resident, I can tell you that you'll be fine. I've never seen a snake larger than my pinky except for people's pets, and the chance of encountering a non-trivial spider is infinitesimal. There's really not much to worry about in the city, but if you're off in the wilderness, be aware that you could encounter ticks (as telstar says, and assuming that he's who I think he is, he should know, being one of the Bay Area's more prolific urban explorers ;).

If you do end up going up to Yosemite or other mountainous areas, then bears become an important concern if you're camping, and you'll need to be extra careful to avoid unwanted visitors.

Other hazards: if you ask someone where the "water closet," "loo," or "WC" is, you may get a perplexed look. If you have an extremely fragile personality and very low self-esteem, the resulting confusion could be rather damaging to you. In addition, we drive on the right, so be sure to look both ways before crossing the street! Lastly, you may encounter naked bicyclists, random opera in the street, or even a scary jumping bush. Somehow, I think you'll survive though.

Oh and have a great, worry-free trip!
posted by zachlipton at 5:29 AM on December 28, 2007

You may also need to mind the earthquakes and the spicy Mexican food. Also, Americans tend not to eat so much cabbage or mushy peas.

Also, remember to look left before stepping off the curb. Seriously, pedestrian fatalities are a possibility, especially when the cars are not behaving in ways that your internal wiring tells you they are supposed to behave.
posted by Pollomacho at 5:57 AM on December 28, 2007

If you're in the water in SoCal, there are poisonous sea snakes.

I grew up a beach rat and not only have I never seen one, but no one in three generations of my family have. So I wouldn't worry. Nor would I worry about mountain lions; not that they don't eat people (they do), but seriously, they will take you out at the throat before you have a chance to know what's going on if they plan on eating you, so not much to worry about.
posted by dame at 6:25 AM on December 28, 2007

I feel compelled to ask, doesn't Britain have it's share of spiders and snakes?

Northern Europe is not known for its poisonous spiders (virtually all stories regarding such critters involve stowaways in foreign food consignments). And it's too cold in the British/Irish Isles for reptiles to thrive, so Britain only has a handful of varieties, and only one -- the adder -- is poisonous (though I've never heard of any fatalities from an adder bite).

Here in Ireland, of course, we have no native snakes, because St Patrick drove them out. Hee hee.
posted by macdara at 6:25 AM on December 28, 2007

The most dangerous things in California are humans. You'd be in a lot more danger in Oakland than you would be out in the desert.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 7:03 AM on December 28, 2007

I've gone hiking and camping in the deserts and foothills of southern California for over 20 years, in prime rattlesnake habitat, and I've only ever seen *one* snake that could potentially hurt me. If you're in urban areas, it just won't be an issue. As long as you don't go digging around in woodpiles and other places with lots of dark, neglected nooks and crannies, brown recluse and black widow spiders shouldn't be a problem either.
posted by LionIndex at 7:55 AM on December 28, 2007

Don't worry a bit. You'll be fine.
As a matter of fact, I have seen fewer spiders this year than in years past.
posted by HotPatatta at 7:57 AM on December 28, 2007

You're more likely to have an encounter with a wasp or scorpion in California than Black Widow or rattlesnake. While painful, wasps and California scorpions aren't dangerous unless the victim has an allergic reaction. I stepped on one of these while barefoot in suburban SoCal a couple years ago and it was the most painful thing I've ever endured. The California Cow Killer is usually red but the rest of the description is a good match.
posted by buggzzee23 at 9:16 AM on December 28, 2007

I've done a fair amount of camping with younger scouts. Once we saw a black widow in a quiet corner of the laterine. We didn't bother her, she didn't both us. The biggest problems was animals that had gotten used to scrounging human food from campsites. Racoons were a big problem in the Santa Cruz mountains, I remember very agressive squirrels in Yosemite and I have often been warned about keeping food away from bears.
posted by metahawk at 9:22 AM on December 28, 2007

Never seen a rattler in my 26 years in CA. Bears are the biggest issue, mind food precautions when camping. You might see a Black Widow or two, I've encountered dozens, but they're just tiny little things on a rafter or in a shed. They don't want to get in your ear that badly. If you see a Mountain Lion, make yourself noisy, large and throw things at it. Don't run. There are more Shark attacks than Mountain Lion attacks, by far. Don't pet friendly raccoons or skunks, obviously, and get a rabid bite. Riptides and traffic are your primary concerns.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 9:36 AM on December 28, 2007

San Francisco? You'll be fine. If you're worried: every time I've seen a black widow (not totally uncommon, but rare), it's been in someone's dusty old garage. As long as you aren't poking around a cluttered garage with your bare hands, you have nothing to be worried about.

As far as snakes, well, if you're hiking you might see some -- and I actually had the privilege of getting bit by a rattlesnake as a teenager in Sacramento (where they are more common), and it ended up being nothing more than a sore foot and a good story (although, yeah, i did go to the hospital, which I'd obviously recommend if you manage the miraculous and get bit by a rattlesnake in SF. Also, for a couple hours there I was pretty sure I was going to die but it turned out I was just hyper-ventilating).

If you want something to be paranoid about, the possibility of getting bit by a tick carrying Lyme disease is more of a worry for most people: avoiding ticks is largely a matter of dressing properly (long sleeve shirts, long pants, etc etc). However, I've been bitten by ticks several times (as I imagine most people have been) and it's never been an issue -- so the odds of that are pretty low too.

The biggest thing I'd advise a British visitor to look out for is cars -- I understand you guys drive all backwards over there, and it's easy to look the wrong way when you're crossing the street (I know I did this several times in London). Drivers around the Bay Area can be a little nuts, and sometimes the crosswalks aren't as good as they should be (by the way, pretty much NO-ONE stops for a crosswalk that doesn't have a light -- even though by law you are supposed to -- keep that in mind when you're walking).

You'd be in a lot more danger in Oakland than you would be out in the desert.

Like every city, there are parts of Oakland where I'd probably avoid walking through, but this sort of broad-brush stupidity isn't helpful. Oakland is a fantastic city.

posted by fishfucker at 9:48 AM on December 28, 2007

You should watch out for deer. They cause more deaths* than pretty much any other species, discounting other humans. (Or possibly more than EVERY other species, combined.)

* Deer kill you by jumping in front of your car, in case you're wondering.
posted by anaelith at 9:49 AM on December 28, 2007

wasp or scorpion in California than Black Widow or rattlesnake

wha? i've never seen a scorpion in North California (outside of a zoo) -- which isn't to say they don't exist, but I've certainly never seen them. I'll give you a wasp is a more common sight than black widows or rattlesnakes though.

posted by fishfucker at 9:51 AM on December 28, 2007

Nthing not to worry much about the local fauna. Where there is any danger at all there will be signs posted to that effect.

The flora though ... There is a local chameloid bush/tree/vine that goes by the name of "Poison Oak". There are those who claim that it is simply a plant, but most of us know better: it is in fact a pernicious predator who will HUNT YOU DOWN for the sheer sadistic pleasure of smearing the oil from it's leaves all over your unprotected skin. Even better, it will smear the oil all over your clothes so that you can accidentally smear it all over your skin later.

The rash that will develop will ooze and pus, but mostly it will itch. And itch. And itch itch itch itch itch oh i beg you hand me that cheese grater ow ow ow ooooooooooh, that is so much better.

And if you listen carefully, back out on the hiking tail the fool plant will be laughing its head off.

So anyway, if you go hiking anywhere in California be careful about what you brush up against.
posted by tkolar at 9:54 AM on December 28, 2007

Bears are the biggest issue, mind food precautions when camping.

Have you ever used a bear keg while camping?Pacific Crest Trail hike this year and he swears by them.
posted by buggzzee23 at 9:54 AM on December 28, 2007

Sorry, I must have deleted the 1st part of the second sentence above. It should read: My uncle made his 3rd PCT trip this year and he swears by them.
posted by buggzzee23 at 9:58 AM on December 28, 2007

fishfucker, take another look at the OP and you'll see that trips to other parts of the state are a possibility.
posted by buggzzee23 at 10:00 AM on December 28, 2007

stackhaus23 no one mentioned Poison Oak or Rattlesnakes yet.

There are none of these in San Francisco, but if you venture out into the Sierras (and you should because they are beautiful, and not overly far from SF by car) then you should mind both of these. Cougars too.

The remedy for poison oak is washing the affected area with Tecnu.

When on trails, mind your footing. Snakes love to take the sun on a warm rock, and get upset if you inadvertently step on them. So make lots of noise as you approach and like any wild animal they will run away.

Cougars are stealthy and like to track people. You will likely not see one at all. Just travel in a group of at least two, to be safe.
posted by seawallrunner at 10:10 AM on December 28, 2007

Once you get past the DHS goons at the airport, you're pretty much all clear. That includes the earthquakes. The black widows hide, and the rattlesnakes tell you where they are. Lion and shark attacks are rarer than car crashes. Lyme's disease vectors are innoculated by a lizzard on the west coast, so it's much rarer here than on the east coast. The poison oak (search CalPhotos for Toxicodendron diversilobum )sucks, but the reaction is an immune response so everyone gets at least one free exposure.

Oakland rocks, and there are tons of scorpions in No CA, you just have to get your hands dirty to find them (and they aren't dangerous, you have to go to Arizona for that).
posted by Eothele at 11:04 AM on December 28, 2007

California scorpions exist in Northern California--I have found them there. Flip some logs and you might, too. (You might also find giant millipedes and lots of exciting salamanders! Don't eat salamanders and they won't hurt you. Eat newts and you will surely die.) You may also see lots of cute little snakes in the Bay area. Gopher snakes, ring-neck snakes, sharp-tailed snakes, garter snakes (these will musk you something fierce if you pick them up.) I go out looking for all these things, and I STILL don't find rattlers.
The biggest danger is Poison-oak. If you go into rural/parkland areas in California, you can almost certainly find it. It's easy to identify with a little training, but if you don't have that training, simply avoid brushing against ANY leafy plants or twigs. Poison-oak may be a vine, a shrub, ground cover, it may pretend to be a tree by climbing the tree from the back and then hanging down like a branch. It is basically the sneakiest plant ever.
Don't hassle shiny black spiders. Don't worry about brown spiders--the brown recluse is a tropical spiders. Most (some say all) diagnosed brown recluse bites in California are actually not.
posted by agentofselection at 11:05 AM on December 28, 2007

Native Northern Californian here (a relatively rare breed). In 45 years of hiking, camping and other outdoorsy pursuits, I've seen one rattlesnake (it tried to crawl onto my head while we were both swimming across a wide lake. I learned I can indeed swim faster than a snake.) and two black widow spiders (they were living in corners of a dilapidated shed in my back yard). Zero mountain lions, even though I live at the gates of one of the largest regional mountain parks in the SF Bay Area where cougar sightings are common. Lots of poison oak along most trails, though: buy some Technu for your backpack because it works better the faster you apply it post-exposure.

In SF city proper, watch out for the meter maids. And our folding money will drive you nuts: it's all the same color.
posted by jamaro at 11:15 AM on December 28, 2007

i stand corrected on the scorpion issue.
posted by fishfucker at 12:34 PM on December 28, 2007

stackhaus23 no one mentioned Poison Oak or Rattlesnakes yet.

There are none of these in San Francisco

Actually, there is poison oak in San Francisco, I've seen it in the Presidio and mucking around on the trails by the Cliff House. You are more likely to get poison oak or ticks if you go hiking than being bit by a spider or rattlesnake. Black widows tend to be shy, so like others have said, don't stick your hand in a woodpile or help anyone clean out their garage and you'll be fine.

You'd be in a lot more danger in Oakland than you would be out in the desert.

Oh for fuck's sake. Don't listen to advice about Oakland from anyone who doesn't know Oakland.
posted by oneirodynia at 12:58 PM on December 28, 2007

All the above is good advice - nothing to worry about as long as you don't blindly crawl through the nooks and crannies in the back of our dusty old garage - bound to find at least one black widow a-hiding out in there.

Additionally, you are not the first Brit I've heard wonder about this. Last year a couple of Irish went out to Joshua Tree for a weekend. As they were hiking along a fairly well beaten, commonly used path, one of them kept looking from right to left, clapping as loud as he could. When the second hiker asked him what was up, the first replied that he was warning off rattlesnakes. He was a little spooked, but got over it - should have checked with ask.Mefi first!

Yer gonna love it, as one thing that certainly won't bite you is the exhange rate.
posted by asparagus_berlin at 5:33 PM on December 28, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks for all your replies, they've all been very helpful and pretty reassuring. I just need to keep saving up now... the flights are so damn cheap at the moment it would be stupid for me to miss this opportunity to go somewhere I've wanted to visit for as long as I can remember.

Thanks again!
posted by stackhaus23 at 9:06 AM on January 1, 2008

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