It's been a banner season for snake snatching, and the season has only just begun, Slyapich said. "After 20 years catching these guys, I've never seen a season like this."

Record rains over the last couple of years produced record plant growth, allowing the rodent population to flourish. More rodents means more food for snakes.

Buddha, a 9-year-old yellow Lab, was spending a Sunday doing what dogs do in sprawling backyards. After bounding in and out of the nooks and crannies of his Old Agoura yard, Buddha cornered an adult rattlesnake coiled around a planter by the pool.

Going nose to forked tongue with a 5-foot rattler as thick as a grown man's forearm prompted a venomous bite that landed Buddha at the Pet Emergency Clinic in Thousand Oaks for a dose of antivenin.

According to Buddha's owner, Michael Nadlman, Buddha was the fourth dog rushed to the clinic June 3 because of a rattlesnake bite.

"It was a big, nasty snake as thick as my arm," Nadlman said.

Buddha's ordeal is typical, according to Bo Slyapich, a local snake wrangler. Slyapich works full-time nine months out of the year capturing and releasing pesky poisonous snakes from people's homes and conducting free workshops on snake safety. He advises ways to snake-proof homes so the critters aren't tempted to make a summer house out of a garage, move in under a deck or curl up in lush landscaping.

"The southern Pacific rattlesnake accounts for more bites than any other snake, probably because there's a lot of them and we build our homes where their homes are," Slyapich said.

Strike force

It's been a banner season for snake snatching, and the season has only just begun, Slyapich said. "After 20 years catching these guys, I've never seen a season like this."

Record rains over the last couple of years produced record plant growth, allowing the rodent population to flourish. More rodents means more food for snakes.

According to Slyapich, a healthy female rattlesnake can produce a "clutch" of four to 10 offspring, sometimes more. Within a week, the baby snakes leave their mother's side and slither into comfortable habitats in garages, behind refrigerators or in the thick, damp plants that surround homes.

Houses provide ample spots for hot and bothered snakes to take cover either from the cold or rising temperatures.

"They come out in the morning," Slyapich said. "When it gets too hot for us, it gets too hot for them."

Sprinklers also lure rattlesnakes to homes, he said.

The booming snake population keeps Slyapich busy. Compared to previous years, he has had three times the number of calls for snake removal. Last week he was fielding three to four calls per day. Slyapich said he'll answer snake calls at all hours of the day and night.

He started catching snakes when he was child and later turned his hand to catching snakes on movie sets.

After 20 years as a snake wrangler, Slyapich has gone hightech and uses nightvision cameras and fiber-optic scopes to peer into paneled walls and look into refrigerators and vehicles. He even had custom tongs created, allowing for snake captures in one fell swoop. When Slyapich goes on the prowl for poisonous snakes he wears thick boots and protective padding.

The captured snakes are dropped into clear containers and either released in the wild away

rom densely populated areas or kept as demonstration reptiles for Slyapich's ongoing educational programs for Cubs and Girl Scouts, homeowner associations and other groups. Sometimes he donates the snakes to animal trainers or dog aversion programs, but, he said, he will not sell a snake.

Avoiding trouble

During trail hikes or mountain-biking trips, use common sense, snake experts warn.

Brenda Sanchez, a spokesperson for Los Angeles County Animal Care and Control, suggests hikers always wear boots and travel with a buddy.

"Never hike alone. If something happens, you need someone else to go for assistance," Sanchez said.

Slyapich recommends staying in the middle of the trail at all times. He said people often are bitten when they stop to have lunch. Sitting on a rock or log may disturb a snake that is resting nearby.

If bitten, Slyapich suggests victims remove their shoes and socks while waiting for help to arrive and sit down against a tree with legs straight out.

If the bite is on the arm, he recommends removing rings and bracelets and placing the injured arm on the knee while waiting for an ambulance.

Cutting the area of the bite to suck out the venom does not work; Slyapich warns against using the method. The best bet is to call 911. Paramedics will transport the bite victim to the closest trauma center with antivenin.

"Urgent Care doesn't handle rattlesnake (bites)," Slyapich said. Going there "just wastes time."

Although the southern Pacific rattler is not aggressive, it will bite a person who gets too close. The rule of thumb is that a rattlesnake can strike as far away as the snake is long.

Make rattlers unwelcome

Children are especially vulnerable because snakes often like to cozy up to sandboxes, slides and other play areas that offer cool shade.

Certain plants are especially attractive to snakes, including red apple, ivy, rosemary and juniper. Ground cover plants should be trimmed close to the ground and kept dense enough that a snake must lie on top of it rather than hiding underneath.

"When spring starts, give your property a butch," Slyapich said. "Nothing should encroach on walkways. Buffer zones are needed (because) snakes are ambushers."

From Calabasas to Camarillo, where as much as a third of the land is dedicated open space, the gray and brown creatures have plenty of room to eat rodents and roam. But in other parts of the region, homes and shopping centers snuggle against brushy hillsides and cause the native wildlife to become confused and threatening.

Bite out of the wallet

Slyapich will not quote what he charges to remove an unwelcome snake, saying the cost is related to the difficulty of the job.

"I've been paid by homemade bean soup by grandmas who live on fixed incomes," he said. The educational programs Slyapich hosts for community and children's groups are conducted free of charge, he said.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has been a regular customer of Slyapich's, as are many movie industry personnel whose Malibu homes require more comprehensive services.

The cost to treat a rattlesnake bite also varies. To treat Buddha, Nadlman had to shell out $2,000 for antivenin. He said he knew of another person who was charged $4,000, and a woman with two cats in need of treatment paid $7,000. "I guess antivenin is expensive," he said.

Who you gonna call?

When people happen upon rattlesnakes they often call the fire department. Even though nothing is on fire and no one has been hurt, firefighters answer these calls as a public service.

"During the summer months we get about two to three calls a day for snakes," said Capt. Barry Parker, Ventura County Fire Department spokesperson.

Bruce Freeman, an Oak Park businessman and lifelong lover of reptiles, amphibians and other creepycrawly things, offers his rattlesnake removal services for free.

A certified huntersafety instructor for the California Department of Fish and Game, Freeman ventures onto private property with his snake pole and lasso and removes rattlesnakes whenever a member of the community calls for help.

He said rattlesnakes are territorial and often will return if not permanently evicted.

What next?

Taking advantage of his growing fame as a snake wrangler, Slyapich has begun working on a television program akin to the late Steve Irwin's "Crocodile Hunter." He's also creating safety videos for veterinarians and members of the community.

"I am the only rattlesnake wrangler who does what I do," Slyapich said.

People periodically offer to help Slyapich in his snake pursuits, but he said his only assistant is his 12-year-old son, Colby, who learned the ropes from his dad when he was 5.

"I go where nobody else gets to go," Slyapich said. "I love what I do."