Tehachapi's Online Community News & Entertainment Guide

Ron Hayton, the wizard of rattlesnakes

Land of Four Seasons

Jon Hammond.

Ron Hayton in Bear Valley Springs with a large Northern Pacific rattlesnake that he is relocating.

There is a longtime Bear Valley Springs resident who has caught and safely relocated not dozens, or even hundreds, but literally thousands of rattlesnakes over the course of his life. His name is Ron Hayton, and he started catching rattlesnakes under his grandfather's tutelage when he was only five years old.

Ron, 79, is a retired L.A. County fire captain, and decades ago he started the Snake Guys snake relocating service, providing free assistance for area residents. Ron's volunteer efforts bring peace of mind to the residents who call him, and saves the lives of rattlesnakes who have done nothing wrong. The snakes are simply living in the same area their species has lived in for thousands of years, before pioneers and homebuilders arrived and decided the snakes weren't welcome.

Ron was born in Alhambra on October 30, 1944, and because his mother had a chaotic life at the time, he was picked up from the hospital and raised outside Arcadia by his maternal grandparents, Morgan and Clara Clarke.

Morgan was a big man, part Osage Indian, who came from Missouri to live in Arcadia. He worked as a blacksmith and machinist, and also broke horses for a living. Clara had been schoolteacher, but had to give it up when she got married.

"My grandmother was a schoolmarm, but got fired when she married my grandfather," Ron explained. "Back in those days, you couldn't be married if you were a schoolteacher – men could, but women couldn't! Crazy. I'm sure she was a good teacher – she taught all of the grandchildren to read before they started kindergarten."

Later, when his mother's life was settled and she married a good man named Richard Hayton, Ron went and lived with his mother and stepfather. But Ron still spent as much time as he could with his grandparents on their rural property.

Morgan would take his little grandson with him when he hunted for rabbits and quail in San Gabriel Canyon. Ron would follow along behind, and try to catch lizards and snakes. He was only allowed to catch non-venomous snakes until his grandfather felt he was old enough for rattlesnakes – at age five.

"When I caught a reptile, my grandfather had me make a little rock stack at that location," Ron remembers. "Then I could take the animal home for one week. My grandmother would take me to the library and I'd get a book and learn all I could about it. Then after a week, I had to return the reptile exactly where I found it."

Ron would catch San Diego Gophersnakes, California Kingsnakes, Red Racers, California Striped Racers, and more. "Those Striped Racers are about the smartest snake," Ron says, "They watch what's going on. My uncle told me that to catch them, take four or five kids, and when you spot one, it will vanish. Uncatchable. Then have all the kids but one leave, and the racer will crawl back around to where it was and the remaining kid would have a chance to catch it."

Ron graduated from Monrovia High in 1961 and enlisted in the Army and became an M.P. -- a Military Policeman. "I was stationed in Georgia, and sometimes I would be sent to go around with a couple of civilian police officers, when they went to bars and such," Ron recalled. "By the time I was done with my two-year enlistment, I didn't want to be a policeman anymore. The way those cops mistreated people in Georgia soured me on being a police officer."

Ron explains what happened next: "When I got back home from the military, a friend said that he was going to apply to the L.A. County Fire Department, and I said "That's sounds good. So we both joined the fire service and went through paramedic training together. I loved that job!"

Jon Hammond.

A big Northern Pacific rattlesnake. The snakes are always held around the middle of their body, never their neck, because that is delicate area and squeezing them there can easily kill them.

Ron spent the next 38 years with LACFD, eventually working his way up to chief, though he decided to go back to being a captain after he found he did not like working in an office doing paperwork most of the time.

Ron married Linda Heckrodt, and he worked all over, staying at a fire station for a year and then bidding on another one. Wherever he went, his snake handling skills were put into service. Even if a call involving a snake didn't come into the fire station where he was working at the time, he would be dispatched to go relocate the snake.

Eventually Ron and Linda moved to the Antelope Valley while Ron worked at Station 79 in Littlerock. A fellow firefighter told him how nice it was in Bear Valley Springs, and Linda was tired of the heat in AV, so one day they drove up to take a look.

"It was 110 degrees in the Antelope Valley that day, and like 85 degrees in Bear Valley," Ron told me. "Linda said 'I want to move up here tomorrow.'" So they bought property up on Skyline, in one of the most remote portions of Bear Valley, in the mid 1980s and built a house there.

There was no police station in Bear Valley then, and the police department was tiny, consisting mostly of just the police chief. The chief's wife was the dispatcher at their house. One day Ron was riding a horse near the Bear Valley Equestrian Center, and the police chief happened to be doing the same. There was a rattlesnake sunning itself on the horsetrail, and the police chief got out his gun to shoot it.

Ron clearly remembers that day: "I said 'Whoa! Put your gun away' and then I hooked the snake in the middle of its body with my boot and tossed it into the brush. He said 'Okay, you're the snake guy.'"

So Ron has been known as "The Snake Guy" ever since, and has responded to thousands of calls in the ensuing years, mostly in Bear Valley and occasionally in Stallion Springs or other surrounding areas.

Ron eventually started being assisted by other volunteers, and his team currently consists of Debbie and Craig Swarens, Mark Fox, James Papin, Steve Dunehew and Justin Bowell. They capture and relocate, on average, a whopping 250 rattlesnakes a year. There was a year during a building boom in Bear Valley where an astounding 750 rattlesnakes were relocated to safety.

The Snake Guys are licensed by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the snakes are released in remote areas, and the release sites have to be in the same type of habitat as where the snakes were captured. CDFW requires that the relocation sites be kept confidential.

One of Ron's most surprising calls came at Christmas time, when rattlesnakes are brumating (the reptile equivalent of hibernating). A Bear Valley resident had brought in a basket of firewood, and there had been a sleeping rattlesnake in there. It got warm inside the house, and the snake crawled out of the basket.

"They told me 'Just come in through the back door' and Linda and I arrived and there were two frightened guys standing up on chairs, waiting for us to get there," Ron remembers with a laugh.

Ron has had a tough time lately. His beloved wife Linda passed away last December, and Ron broke his femur and has had to have three surgeries, which have not yielded great results. His son Darin, with whom he is close, does not live nearby and is a professor at Haverford College in Pennsylvania. It's hard on a man who has always been healthy and active like Ron to walk with difficulty, but he's a trooper and he's still moving forward. And still saving snakes. If you need him or one of his team members, his phone number is (661) 203-4468.

Ron Hayton is a remarkable man who has provided an invaluable service in the Tehachapi area, both for humans and snakes, for many decades. I'm proud to be his friend, and I'm deeply grateful for his unselfish contributions. We all should be.

Keep enjoying the beauty of life in the Tehachapi Mountains.

Jon Hammond is a fourth generation Kern County resident who has photographed and written about the Tehachapi Mountains for 38 years. He lives on a farm his family started in 1921, and is a speaker of Nuwä, the Tehachapi Indian language. He can be reached at [email protected]/.