by Whit Gibbons

September 9, 2002

Two people I know were bitten by venomous snakes last month, one by a black-tailed rattlesnake and one by a copperhead. The rattlesnake bite was to a woman in Arizona who inadvertently stepped on the snake while she was walking along a trail. The copperhead bite was to a friend who had picked the animal up as part of his research program.

The rattlesnake bite was exceptional because it was legitimate, to a female, and serious enough to require prolonged medical attention, including hospital time and eventual physical therapy. A legitimate snakebite occurs when a person unintentionally and unknowingly provokes a venomous snake. In the United States the odds of being struck by lightning or being hit by a minivan are far greater than the odds of receiving a serious legitimate snakebite.

The copperhead bite was more typical of U.S. venomous snakebites: an illegitimate one to the hand of a male in his mid20s, and requiring minimal medical attention. When someone sees a snake and then tries to catch, kill, or otherwise interact with it, the bite is illegitimate. Hospital records show that many, perhaps most, snakebite victims got too close in an attempt to kill the snake or actually picked up the animal. In such instances, the blame does not lie with the snake. The simple fact is that most U.S. snakebites are to the hands or arms of young adult males. Apparently some snakes are easily annoyed by testosterone.

Copperheads often bite people legitimately, when the person is unaware of the snake's presence. But copperhead venom is less potent than that of most other species, and a bite usually causes minimal damage to the victim. One theory is that the snake is only trying to startle or frighten away the person and not really trying to cause serious venom damage. U.S. snakes as a group are highly overrated as a human threat. Only 7 of more than 50 eastern snake species are venomous; the rest are harmless. Copperheads and the two small rattlesnakes (massasauga and pygmy) rarely if ever deliver lethal bites to humans. The large rattlesnakes, cottonmouth, and coral snake can be potentially perilous, but only on rare occasions.

Venom of the coral snake, a cobra relative, can kill an adult human if enough venom is injected. But coral snakes are small, rare, and unlikely to bite a person unless they are picked up. A person has a minuscule chance of receiving an accidental bite from a coral snake. More people have died falling off bridges than from coral snake bites. Perhaps the greatest danger is to children who might pick up a brightly colored red, yellow, and black snake.

Children should be taught never to pick up any snake without supervision by a knowledgeable adult. They should also be taught that snakes only bite humans in self?defense and that all snakes deserve our respect. Children should learn that many snakes will strike out and even bite when cornered, but they do not come looking for us.

This time of year, as in the spring, a word needs to be said in behalf of snakes, one of the most fascinating, yet maligned, components of our native wildlife. Most people today have an awareness and concern about the welfare of our wildlife. Part of that process needs to include accepting snakes as a vital ingredient of natural environments. Although spring is the best time to see most snakes, all species are actually most common in the fall. Some snakes lay eggs and some give live births, but either way, young snakes appear in late summer and early autumn.

Snakes are a natural part of the world; therefore, snakebite is a possible--though highly improbable--hazard if you venture outdoors. You need not touch snakes, keep them as pets, or even look at them if it makes you uncomfortable. You should, however, accept their right to exist in the natural world. Like other wildlife, snakes should be allowed to live in peace in their native habitat.

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