Snaking bad

Sacramento’s ‘ ‘snake guy’ Len Ramirez wrangles some of the region’s creepiest, crawliest creatures

Leonard “Len” Ramirez of Ramirez Rattlesnake Removal has been professionally relocating snakes since the 1980s.

Leonard “Len” Ramirez of Ramirez Rattlesnake Removal has been professionally relocating snakes since the 1980s.

photo by cody drabble

California is the rattlesnakes' state, we're just living in it.

During rattlesnake season, Leonard “Len” Ramirez’s phone rings off the hook seven days a week, day and night. His business, Ramirez Rattlesnake Removal, works from March to November, removing at least 1,200 rattlesnakes most years, sometimes more. The current season has proved to be one of his busiest yet, but Ramirez says he won’t have time to calculate a precise tally until after the reptiles retreat into winter hibernation.

People recognize Ramirez’s trademark cowboy hat and Eden-apple-red pickup truck wherever he goes. Certainly, after numerous appearances in local newspapers, TV news broadcasts and on reality shows, such as National Geographic’s The Animal Extractors and United Snakes of America, Ramirez has earned a reputation as “the snake guy.”

Indeed, this is the guy homeowners and county animal-control officials call when a dangerous snake shows up in someone’s backyard, slithers across the putting green of a golf course or bites a house pet—something that’s happening with increased frequency, thanks to urban sprawl.

And while it’s difficult to estimate whether the population has grown or shrunk in the last decade because the reptiles spend so much time underground, business is booming, Ramirez says.

“There doesn’t seem to be any shortage of rattlesnakes, that’s for sure,” he says.

Ramirez regularly fields requests for emergency safety inspections and maintenance contracts from all over California and the United States. A self-taught snake expert, he also answers calls for wildlife-management advice from all over the world. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife has also granted Ramirez special provisions to humanely capture and release snakes into remote areas of the state’s wilderness every few days. (He keeps the precise locations secret to prevent poaching and limit liability.)

Ramirez freely admits that he’s into snake wrangling for the rush.

“To me, it’s an extreme sport,” Ramirez says. “Adrenaline is my drug of choice. It’s my lifestyle. It’s a risk. It keeps me hopping. It keeps my spirit alive.”

Still, Ramirez shrugs off wide-eyed questions about daily danger.

“[The] fire department doesn’t go underneath these houses [with rattlesnakes],” he says. “Nope, nobody does. Call Ramirez.”

Snakes on the plain

Ramirez answers his phone (“Rattlesnake removal!”) with a warm, customer-friendly tone, and then settles in with the calm, clinical precision of a 911 dispatcher. He nods, scribbles on a legal pad and takes notes on the snake's description: slender with a thin, pencil-point tail.

A nonvenomous California kingsnake.

“It’s a harmless snake,” Ramirez tells the caller. “Let’s keep that snake on your property. They regulate the rodent population behind the scenes.”

Ramirez ends the call in less than a minute. He could have made a field trip, earned a quick $200 for a safety inspection, but he knows his time is too valuable to catch the harmless varieties when rattlesnakes threaten people and pets all over California.

Ramirez’s livelihood thrives on the inevitable consequences of modern suburban sprawl. As people build more houses across snake habitats in the rural outskirts, the number of human-rattlesnake encounters increases.

As Ramirez puts it, “They were here first.”

Business has grown steadily over the last five years as more people build up to the American River levees, he adds. Those homeowners become repeat customers for Ramirez because “they will probably always have snakes.”

Despite his current wildlifecentric occupation, Ramirez did not grow up like Mowgli from The Jungle Book. He grew up in Los Gatos, the son of a clinical psychologist. Ramirez remembers falling in love with wildlife as a boy, exploring creeks and ravines by day and watching Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom on NBC by night.

He learned composure and focus on the tennis courts of De Anza College in Cupertino, and in his previous career as a tennis-club pro, Ramirez says he developed the mindset that shaped his wildlife-management philosophy.

“When you spend this amount of time by yourself, you actually learn a lot about serenity,” Ramirez says. “Calculating risks. Your surroundings. How wildlife responds.”

In 1985, he incorporated under the name Crotalus Viridis Inc., to honor the species that eventually paid for his house and swimming pool. His part-time business took off that year when a fire in the Santa Cruz Mountains displaced wildlife, diverting it onto local residents’ properties.

Then, in 1995, Ramirez gave up pro tennis to focus on rattlesnake removal full time. Now, he says, he sees it as more than a business—it’s a community service and an opportunity to educate the public about snake safety.

“I love what I do for a living,” Ramirez says. “I get to help people: It’s a service job.”

Today, visitors to Ramirez’s house will find, in addition to five pairs of snakeskin boots and Laurence Monroe Klauber’s authoritative two-volume herpetology text Rattlesnakes, a small stack of books that includes The Spirit of Tao, Zen Flesh Zen Bones and The Art of Worldly Wisdom. These books provide insight and wisdom to a man whose job involves crawling under houses, snatching deadly reptiles, and dealing with irate and terrified clients.

“I should read [them] a lot more,” Ramirez says. “I try to remember it’s not about me. I remove Len Ramirez from the equation. I’m just an entity providing a service for somebody else. By doing this, it gives me probably more courage.”

He needs the courage. On a job in Texas nine years ago, Ramirez removed 362 rattlesnakes from under a house, his personal record. “That was a process, it took a few days,” he says.

Who ya gonna call?

Ramirez's phone rings again.

His latest clients, a couple named John and Jennifer, just purchased 10 acres in Lake of the Pines, a foothills community in Auburn. Their 18-month-old Belgian Malinois puppy just suffered a rattlesnake bite, which the veterinarians at Animal Medical Center are now treating with antivenin.

Ramirez quotes his price for an inspection and sets out for a visit.

On the way over, behind the wheel of his red pickup, Ramirez breaks down some essential information: Rattlesnakes produce, depending on the subspecies and individual snake, a deadly mix of neurotoxin and hemotoxin. Neurotoxins paralyze the central nervous system; hemotoxins induce necrosis and severe tissue damage.

In late summer, baby and juvenile snakes are surprisingly deadly because their hypodermic-needlelike fangs produce more venom the first time they clear their ducts. In contrast, older snakes occasionally “dry bite” prey without venom.

Western diamondbacks in Southern California can grow up to 6-feet long and produce mostly neurotoxic venom with a dash of hemotoxin. Northern Pacific rattlesnakes in Northern California average 4- to 5-feet long and produce hemotoxic venom with traces of neurotoxin.

So, what happens to envenomated prey?

“Oh, it’s beautiful. It goes through a necrotic state, eats the flesh, digests it,” Ramirez says. “It’s really gross.”

Ramirez guardedly admits he’s suffered a few snakebites in his three-decade long career. He doesn’t like to talk about it: “I don’t want to hex myself,” he says. “The consequences are very unforgiving, should one be bitten by a rattlesnake.”

Last year, Ramirez responded to so many calls like this one that he personally “saw 38 dogs killed, two horses, four ponies and a llama.” He shakes his head, adding, “I didn’t keep track of cats.”

Later, at the client’s property, Jennifer, a petite mother of two with auburn hair, guides Ramirez around her property.

He kneels down, balancing against a claw grabber, while dispensing snake wisdom to educate his client.

“The best snakebite kit that anybody could have … is a cellphone,” he advises.

Ramirez’s search strategy revolves around the “never-ending thermal balancing act” that snakes undertake in the summer. When it’s more than 100 degrees, snakes seek shade and shelter under houses, wood piles and boulders.

He bounces the noon sunlight off a hand mirror into the holes between boulders, squinting his eyes. Jennifer’s 10-acre property has myriad culverts, ravines and other ideal hiding spots for the snake that bit her dog.

After 45 fruitless minutes, however, Ramirez declares, “We’re going to call this one on account of heat—not that we’re done.”

He won’t charge her for this visit, but he arranges a follow-up appointment for the next morning, when he knows the nocturnal rattlesnakes will still be hunting mice and rats.

Ramirez will eventually return to the Lake of the Pines property, on the rattlesnake’s timetable, ready to snatch it, seal it in a bucket and release it deep into the wilderness, as far away from people and their pets as he can go.

Until the people build houses there, too.