The eastern massasauga rattlesnake, which lives in areas around Georgian Bay and the Bruce Peninsula, is Ontario's only venomous snake.
A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Natural Resources said the number of bites so far this summer is "unusual" — in general, people don't report bites until August.
Jolanta Kowalski added that though people should be cautious, it's important to keep the threat of a snake bite in perspective.
"You're much more likely to be hit by lightning than to be bitten by a massasauga rattlesnake," she said.
Kowalski said this year there are three factors prompting early-summer interactions between rattlesnakes and humans.
It's mating season so the snakes are active, and cooler weather in June meant snakes stayed in the uplands instead of moving to cool off in the wetlands, where there are fewer people, she said.
And with cottage season in full-swing, Kowalski said more humans are taking to snake habitat to relax.
People likely won't even notice the snakes because of their camouflage, Kowalski said.
"If you hear the rattle, that's a warning sign," she said.
Kowalski said most bites are a result of people trying to handle the snakes or accidentally stepping on them.
In Ontario's history there have been two fatalities related to snake bites — both happened more than 40 years ago and the deaths were due to a lack of appropriate medical attention, Kowalski said.
"The massasauga rattlesnake would prefer not to have any interaction with people," she said. "It's not a vicious snake by any stretch of the imagination."
The species is classified as "threatened" and massasauga rattlesnakes are protected both provincially and federally. Intentionally killing a massasauga rattlesnake carries a hefty penalty of up to one year in prison and a $250,000 fine.
The population number was drastically reduced by habitat loss and from being killed on sight, Kowalski said.
If someone is bitten by a massasauga snake, the next step is to go to a nearby clinic or hospital, she said.
"Don't try to do the tourniquet or what you see in the movies about sucking the poison out, that's not what you do," she said, adding that people who have been bitten should not exert themselves to slow the spread of venom.
The West Parry Sound Health Centre is the hub for the province's anti-venom program for massasauga rattlesnake bites.
Spokesman Jim Hanna said the centre has treated five of the six bites so far this year. In 2009 there were 14 snake bites so this year isn't out of the ordinary in terms of the number of bites. But Hanna agreed that it's strange to have bites reported so early in the season.
While swelling or pain is common with the bites, the main concern is how venom affects the body inside, requiring medical tests, he said.
"People should always be aware the snakes are here in our environment," he said, adding that appropriate footwear and long pants are useful.
"People who get the opportunity to see a massasauga rattlesnake in the wild should consider it rare," he said. "Just enjoy the experience."
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