Spring has sprung in Arizona, the weather is beautiful and the desert is a fun place to play. But when you spend your free time in the Valley of the Sun, you should know what sorts of animals to look out for and how to behave around them.

The Arizona Game and Fish Department, in a recent press release, said that paying attention to where you put your hands and feet is the main thing people can do to assure their own safety.

“That one rule can help people avoid the majority of potentially dangerous encounters,” said Tom Jones, amphibians and reptiles program manager for the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

The Game and Fish Department also said that immediate medical attention is the best way to deal with a bite from a snake — not some of the myths and anecdotes passed around. A cell phone is the best piece of first-aid equipment one can have.


Rattlesnakes are the foremost safety concern across the entirety of the South, but especially in the Southwest. The 15 species of rattlesnake in Arizona represent the largest danger to hikers, campers, off roaders, and even to suburban residents.

Unlike the sharply pointed tail of most snakes, rattlesnakes have a blunt tail, split into sections that form a rattle. The snake uses the rattle to warn off possible enemies when it feels threatened.

The tricky part is when it comes to baby rattlers. Young rattlesnakes have only one section in their tail, (called a pre button) and it doesn’t rattle. However, because they are small and vulnerable, their venom is even more potent than that of an adult.

The most common myth about rattlesnakes is their speed. While they are extremely fast within striking range, that only accounts for about 6 feet of movement. Beyond that the snake must crawl, at an estimated top speed of about three miles per hour.

Most varieties of snake in Arizona are harmless, and some even eat snakes that are harmful. The only other species of particular concern is the Sonoran Coralsnake. This black-white-and-red snake is small and shy, not considered dangerous unless handled.

Gila Monsters

Black and orange or pink, these venomous “monsters,” (actually, just a lizard) may sound scary, but the important thing to remember is that they are extremely rare, endangered, even. It is actually illegal in Arizona to bother them.

They can reach 2 pounds and 22 inches in length, according to the Smithsonian National Zoological Park, but live underground, coming out only in the spring to feed and mate. They return underground when the weather heats up in the summer.

Upon encountering a Gila Monster, one should keep small children and pets away. Curiosity is the most dangerous behavior to exhibit around this animal.


Only one of the 30 species of scorpion in Arizona is considered life-threatening, according to the College of Pharmacy at the University of Arizona. The Bark Scorpion only grows to an inch and a half at maturity, making it a relatively small variety, but it is among the better climbing scorpion types.

Scorpions are arachnids, and behave the way one would expect spiders to behave. They can survive for months on just water so look for them around sinks and tubs. Otherwise, be sure to check shoes and clothing for them, just as with spiders.

Lions and bears

Unless you venture outside the suburbs of Phoenix, you are unlikely to see any of these animals. Urban sprawl has encroached upon their territories, meaning that seeing a mountain lion or bear in an urban area is possible, but unlikely unless they have gotten used to people and found a food source.

Occasionally, authorities will move an animal for the safety of nearby human residents, but the preferred method is to remove whatever is attracting the animal and educate locals on safety. This is because mountain lions range over a vast area and black bears are notorious for traveling long distances to return to the area they consider home.

If you do venture into the desert or the mountains, remember that even the largest animals in Arizona prefer to avoid humans. Mountain lions are the only real large-game threat to a human. The Arizona Game and Fish Department actually recommended engaging a mountain lion if attacked by one. Many people survive by fighting them off. However, be prepared to prove that the lion attacked you. Hunting mountain lions requires a permit, and if it looks like you killed the animal for sport, you could be in for trouble.

The worst thing a person can do when faced with a mountain lion, state officials say, is run. This can trigger the cat’s “chase instinct” and make the situation more difficult.

Black bears are very shy, secretive creatures that prefer not to be bothered. They will only attack when cornered or when their young are threatened.

In both cases, the best way to avoid a confrontation is to travel in groups, make a lot of noise and do anything else possible to alert animals in advance that people are coming. This also works well for snakes.

So, when enjoying the outdoors this summer, keep in mind that animal safety is simple. Be mindful of where the animals are and they will be mindful of you.

For more information, visit www.azgfd.gov.

• Trevor Godfrey is a senior at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. He is interning this semester for the AFN.

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