“This copperhead snake was "frozen" in spot for several hours and was roughly 24 inches long and 2 inches in diameter.” 1
I felt a sting above my ankle when I stopped to snip some blackberry stems blocking the path. I leaned down to see if there was a wasp still attached to my sock and saw instead the distinctive triangular head of a poisonous snake. It was a gorgeous orange and tan copperhead, and its head was drawn tightly back to pop me again. I stepped away — not frightened, just incredulous. At least, I thought, it was just a copperhead.
I had a long hike back to the house on my rural property — uphill on meandering paths that dodged the downed treetops and thickets. I called the dogs and walked steadily as the burning sensation continued to spread from the bite. It wasn’t terribly painful... yet.
At the house, I called Dr. Dean Martin, my veterinarian. In his hands, my dogs have fared well from snakebites, and since I am much larger than they are, I hoped he might tell me I had little to worry about. Instead, he ordered me to the emergency room and tried to send someone to get me, an offer I waved off.
About 35 minutes passed from the time I was bitten until I finally walked into the small local hospital’s emergency room.
“I’ve been bitten by a copperhead snake,” I said to the lady at the counter, feeling sheepish about how uninjured I looked and felt.
Things flew into high gear. I was suddenly prone, with drips in my arm. Phone calls were made and medical history taken. By now, my face was flushing and my heart was beginning to race. After a while, I became violently ill in every way that you can imagine.
I was loaded into an ambulance for a run to a bigger city’s hospital. Between bouts of being ill, I wanted to laugh from disbelief over the wailing sirens. At the hospital, anti-nausea medications took hold, but the bitten leg eventually became a dragon. A wasp sting hurts like the dickens for a few minutes before it begins to subside, but this pain never seemed to find that turnaround. My entire leg was finally possessed by it, and there was no position that offered relief. I had waved off pain meds previously but, by mid-afternoon, I was grateful to get them.
Still, the doctors had given me hope that after a night of anti-venom, I might go home in the morning. The leg just didn’t cooperate, and 36 hours after the bite, it was a hot, red, tight monster with swelling that was moving higher by the hour. Infection from the snake’s mouth had set in, and the treatment changed to high-powered antibiotics. By Monday morning, they had kicked in, and I was able to maneuver out of the bed and hobble about.
I was bitten Friday morning, and it was Monday afternoon before I got home. I made it through the snakebite only to be nearly killed in the terrible melee of the canine welcoming party.
Since then, I have had to reevaluate my cavalier attitude toward snakes. Many times, I have recited the phrase that a person is more likely to be struck by lightning than to be bitten by a venomous snake, and that half the people bitten were “messing with them.”
Those statements are comforting, but in retrospect, I realize that they take into account urban populations and suburban dwellers who rarely stray from a sidewalk. People who venture off the beaten path — and people who garden — certainly increase their likelihood of being bitten.
I certainly wasn't “messing” with the snake that bit me, except perhaps psychologically. Who knows what goes on in a snake’s brain, but because I stopped on the path to snip the thorny vines blocking my way, I suspect the snake thought it had been spotted. I believe that had I continued walking, I would have been spared.
I always believed that snakes would warn you before striking, preferring not to waste their venom on something they couldn’t eat. After my experience, I learned that copperheads don’t usually give warning, and that copperhead bites are the most common. This is partly due to their numbers and their likelihood of being found in places frequented by humans, but it has also been found that copperheads, when tested against rattlesnakes and water moccasins, are the most likely to inflict a bite.
If bitten, do not bother to capture or kill the snake to “bring with you” to the hospital. If the physicians decide to administer anti-venom, they will use one that is effective for all three closely related snakes described above. The newer anti-venom is made from sheep, not horses, and has fewer negative side effects.
Often there is no need for anti-venom at all. The decision to use it is based upon the victim’s response to the bite. Every incident has its unique consequences determined by the envenomation and the individual’s reaction to it. Death is extremely rare, so don’t panic — but do take it seriously.
One alarming aftereffect of the snakebite is encountering the mountain of misinformation that exists about snakes.
Most people don’t know how to identify a venomous snake, and thousands of innocent snakes are killed each year. Many snakes are protected by law — for example, all snakes, venomous or not, are protected in the state of Tennessee, meaning that it is only legal to kill a snake if it’s an immediate threat.
Legal issues aren’t going to prevent anyone from killing a snake if they are so inclined, but many people choose to let them be. Most snakes are shy, helpful creatures that control mice, rats, moles and voles, which are much more problematic than snakes. Generally, snakes are a gardener’s friend — but do use snake guards if you provide houses for bluebirds or other birds.
I can hear people now, muttering that the only “good” snake is a dead snake! They probably think I am crazy to still disagree, even after my painful and debilitating encounter. Most people don’t want to be put in a position where they must decide whether or not to kill a snake and, instead, choose to put their faith into snake repellents.
Save your money. These repellents, when tested in true scientific research, have been shown to absolutely not work. Snakes are completely undeterred by sulfur, lime, naphthalene (mothballs), hot pepper, king snake musk or any of the other products that repellents claim. Of course, you must understand the difference between anecdotal information and true research. Just because someone used it and didn’t encounter a snake afterward, doesn’t mean the repellent worked.
You’re not only wasting money by purchasing repellents — some of these products are actually dangerous, primarily mothballs (naphthalene). Be aware that some of the snake repellents use naphthalene in flake form. If you have used this product to protect your family or pets from snakes, you have actually put them at risk.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has classified naphthalene as a persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic (PBT) chemical. Naphthalene causes irritation to skin, eyes and respiratory tract, and it may affect the liver, kidneys, blood and central nervous system. It is especially dangerous for children or pregnant women. It is a tempting object for kids or dogs to put in their mouths, and it can easily enter the human body through inhalation or skin absorption.
Another key ingredient in some brands of mothballs is para-dichlorobenzene (PDB). According to a chemical profile listing of PDB conducted by Cornell University, PDB is has an acute (high) toxicity, and people who were exposed to PDB over a prolonged length of time developed anorexia, nausea, vomiting, weight loss, as well as death. You aren’t afraid because you are only using it outside? Naphthalene is very slow to break down and will seep into the groundwater, contributing to a poisoning of our drinking water.
So, what you can do is make your yard and home less snake friendly? Snakes are attracted to coverings, such as woodpiles, and to plentiful prey, such as populations of mice or frogs.
I still think highly of snakes, in spite of the copperhead that didn’t return the favor. It would bother me if my misfortune caused more ill will toward snakes than they warrant. Think about this: I got away with heedlessly trekking through fields and forests, creeks and ponds for over half a century, most often in sandals. I will never know how many times snakes avoided me or spared me, but I can tell you that I witnessed them doing so on several occasions.
In spite of the few days of misery and the weeks of recuperation, the worst damage to me has been psychological. I had always set forth freely to take the dogs to the creek with no thought of snakes. Now I am rarely free of the thought of snakes, and I often feel wary and apprehensive when on my rambles afield. If being bitten has made me “wiser,” I regret it. I would choose naiveté.
Opal, face swollen from snakebite. 2
Opal came close to losing her lower eyelid when the flesh became necrotic. 2
My pit bull mix, Opal, is a devoted snake hunter, though I wish she were not. Despite my best efforts to curb this behavior — I have even had to learn to not warn the other dogs with the word "snake" — she will charge forward if she hears it, eager to do battle with her hated foe. Opal will snatch up a snake, giving it a violent shaking; a frightening scene with snake body and dog ears whipping too quickly for the eye to follow, ending with the snake flying unpredictably in any given direction.
Usually she is quite effective, but Opal is aging, her reflexes slowing and her teeth growing dull. This most-recent time, I came upon her standing over a water moccasin in the creek, the snake badly injured but not vanquished. It was the first time I killed a snake, and only because I felt it could not survive its wounds. I knew Opal had been bitten – four times, once under her eye and three times on her neck just under her mouth – but she has survived many snakebites with no serious injury beyond a day or so of swelling, so I gave her the usual dose of an anti-inflammatory before leaving for work.
I was horrified when I got home to see how swollen she was, and to think how she had suffered through the day. The veterinarian told me it was not just the venom she received (four separate bites) but also the bacteria in the snake's mouth that caused her to lose big chunks of necrotic tissue below her eye and near the corner of her lips. Luckily the antibiotics kicked in and she was able to keep her lower eyelid and lip tissue.
I know that all snakebites must be taken seriously and treated as soon as possible. This encounter could have ended with dire consequences. Opal is doing fine now, and in spite of her close call, still enthusiastically hunts for snakes at the creek.
Opal, fully recovered, but still hunting snakes. 2
Is it illegal to kill a snake?
Although many people may not be aware of this, the fact is that in many states it IS illegal to kill a snake. So you may want to think twice before you grab that shovel!
According the website of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources most snakes in Alabama are not covered under any regulation. However:
It shall be unlawful to take, capture, kill, or attempt to take, capture or kill, possess, sell, trade for anything of monetary value, or offer to sell or trade for anything of monetary value, the following nongame herp species (or any parts or reproductive products of such species) without a scientific collection permit or written permit from the Commissioner, Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, which shall specifically state what the permittee may do with regard to following species: (220-2-.96)
Eastern Indigo snake (Drymarchon couperi) 3
Black Pine Snake
Eastern Coachwhip Snake
Eastern Indigo Snake
Florida Pine Snake
Gulf Salt Marsh Snake
Southern Hognose Snake
From the Auburn’s School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences:
“There is one Alabama snake on the endangered species list. The eastern indigo snake is the longest native snake in the United States and uses the burrows of gopher tortoises and armadillos to lay its eggs. It is punishable by law to capture or kill this animal. They are rare, so if you see one, you should notify a conservation officer or wildlife biologist at the Alabama Cooperative Extension or the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.”
All of these protected species are non-venomous and harmless. Regardless, you are within your rights to defend yourself against any animal that is actually attacking you and potentially causing harm to you.
From the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission:
All native snakes, including venomous snakes, are protected by law and are illegal to kill unless they ‘pose reasonable threat or endangerment to persons or property’ on your private property, according to the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission wildlife code. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission enforces regulations that prohibit killing nongame species, including snakes, except under limited circumstances.
Evidence indicates some snake species are declining due to habitat destruction and human activities. The Arkansas Wildlife Action Plan (wildlifearkansas.com) identifies seven snake ‘species of concern’ because of declining numbers, including two venomous species, the western diamondback rattlesnake and the Texas coral snake.
Source: Herps of Arkansas, "Herps of Arkansas." Last modified June 26, 2012. Accessed September 12, 2012. herpsofarkansas.com
Eastern coral snake (Micrurus fulvius) 4
Eastern diamondback rattlesnake (Crotalus adamanteus) 5
Loss of habitat and declining numbers landed two venomous snake species on N.C.’s endangered species list in 2001. Two additional venomous and four nonvenomous species are classified as N.C. “species of Special Concern” for the same reasons. These designations make it illegal to collect the snakes without a permit. Killing them is allowed only when they pose a clear and imminent threat to health and safety. All plants and animals are protected within the boundaries of national and state parks, as well as in some other nature preserves and sanctuaries.
Eight of the North Carolina’s 37 snake species receive protection under the state’s endangered wildlife law:
• Eastern diamondback rattlesnake
• Eastern coral snake
• Timber rattlesnake
• Pigmy rattlesnake
• Southern hognose snake
• Pine snake
• Carolina water snake
• Outer Banks kingsnake
Source: Braswell, Alvin. "NC Snake FAQ." . North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences , n.d. Web. sites.naturalsciences.org
In South Carolina, killing, harming, or harassing any mammal, bird, reptile, or amphibian, except by permit issued by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources for designated Game Management Areas is unlawful (Title 51 – Parks, Recreation and Tourism, Chap. 3, State Parks, Sec. 51-3-145 (B)).
Despite the relatively low level of danger posed by venomous snakes many people consider their fear justification for killing snakes. In Georgia it is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a $1,000 fine and a year in jail to possess or kill many of nongame wildlife species, including non-venomous snakes (O.C.G.A. §27-1-28).
Southern hognose snake (Heterodon simus) 3
The southern hognose snake and eastern indigo snake have additional legal protection as imperiled species.
Source: Lavender, Rick. Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Accessed September 12, 2012. georgiawildlife.com
Keeping native non-venomous snakes as pets also is illegal without the proper permits (call the DNR Special Permits Office at 770-761-3044 for info on obtaining exhibition permits for educational purposes). Venomous snakes, although beneficial, are not protected since they may pose a threat to humans. Be sure you know which 6 of the 41 species of snakes in Georgia are venomous. If possible, simply leave venomous snakes alone; you don’t need to kill them just because it’s legal.
Source: May, Linda. GA Dept. of Natural Resources – Wildlife Resources Division, "Snakes of Georga." Accessed September 12, 2012. georgiawildlife.org (PDF)
Copperbelly water snake (Nerodia erythrogaster neglecta) 3
It is illegal to harm or possess the copperbelly water snake in Kentucky. Populations are protected by the Habitat Conservation Agreement. This agreement is between Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois and helps to protect this snake’s remaining habitat. This agreement has prevented the need to add the copperbelly water snake to the federal list of threatened and endangered species.
Source: A.W.A.K.E. All Wild About Kentucky's Environment, kentuckyawake.org.
Most snakes in Kentucky are not protected by state law. You should obtain a collecting permit from the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources before attempting to catch and keep a snake. Some snakes are quite rare (Kirtland’s snake, copperbelly water snake, northern pine snake, and scarlet snake) and are being reviewed for the federal government’s endangered and threatened wildlife list. The state lists several other species as endangered, threatened, or rare. These include the eastern coachwhip, green water snake, broad-banded water snake, pygmy rattlesnake, western and eastern ribbon snake, western mud snake, and scarlet king snake.
Source: Barnes, Thomas G. University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, "Snakes: Information for Kentucky Homeowners." ca.uky.edu.
According to Jeff Boundy, Herpetologist with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries:
"Anyone killing a snake in Louisiana must possess a basic fishing license. No species are protected."
You must have a basic fishing license to collect and/or possess native reptiles & amphibians in Louisiana. Natural habitats such as stumps or logs may not be destroyed while searching for animals. Removal of nesting or nest-tending animals is prohibited. Cost is $9.50 annually for residents. For non-residents it is $5 for one day, $15 for 4 days or $60 annually. (Class 1 violation)
Source: "Louisiana State Laws for Reptiles & Amphibians." The Louisiana Gulf Coast Herpetological Society, n.d. Web. lgchs.org (PDF)
According to Rick Hamrick, Small Game Program Leader for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks:
"Venomous [snakes] are not illegal to kill when posing an imminent threat. Non-Venomous [snakes] are not illegal to kill as long as it is on your own property and/or you possess a small game hunting license."
From Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries & Parks
Public Notice 3201:
Any resident who takes or possesses nongame wildlife must hold a valid Resident Small Game Hunting/Freshwater Fishing License.
(a) However, a person who does not hold a valid Resident Small Game Hunting/Freshwater Fishing License may kill a venomous snake if that snake presents a reasonable danger to human life, or may kill a nonvenomous snake on lands in which the record title is vested in such person or on lands which contain the principal residence of such person. A snake or the parts of a snake killed under such circumstances by a person who does not hold a valid Resident Small Game Hunting/Freshwater Fishing License must be disposed of or left to decompose naturally and it or its parts may not enter commercial trade nor be retained in possession.
Rainbow snake (Farancia erytrogramma) 3
But, it is illegal when in violation of the Endangered Species Act:
The following endangered species are ... protected: black bear, Florida panther, gray bat, Indiana bat, all sea turtles, gopher tortoise, sawback turtles (black-knobbed, ringed, yellow-blotched), black pine snake, eastern indigo snake, rainbow snake and the southern hognose snake.
Source: "General Hunting Regulations & Requirements." Mississippi Wildlife, Fisheries & Parks, n.d. Web. mdwfp.com
Penalties for violating provisions of the Nongame and Endangered Species Act include fines between $2000 and $5000 and/or imprisonment for up to one year.
Source: "Endangered Species of Mississippi." . Mississippi Museum of Natural Science, n.d. Web. museum.mdwfp.com (PDF).
It shall be unlawful to engage in any commercial activities involving any species or subspecies, if more than one exists, of reptiles or amphibians collected from the wild that are indigenous to or whose range extends into the State of Oklahoma, except for provisions for rattlesnakes, ...
Any person while in the act of taking or attempting to take reptiles and amphibians or possessing reptiles or amphibians must first possess:
(A) A resident or nonresident hunting license, unless otherwise exempt, for land dwelling reptiles or amphibians…
(B) A resident or nonresident fishing license, unless otherwise exempt, for water dwelling reptiles or amphibians…
Nothing … shall prohibit the control of reptiles other than those listed as endangered or threatened, by landowners, lessees, or occupants of such land when such reptiles are creating a nuisance.
Source: Oklahoma Secretary of State, oar.state.ok.us.
Any person hunting, pursuing, trapping, harassing, catching, killing, taking, or attempting to take in any manner any species of rattlesnake during an organized rattlesnake hunting event or festival must have a rattlesnake permit, unless exempt.
Persons with a valid hunting license are exempt from the rattlesnake permit. Permits are available online at wildlifedepartment.com, by calling (405) 521-3852, or on-site at selected rattlesnake round-up festivals.
The following reptiles are legal to harvest from March 1 – June 30, only with no daily limit: prairie rattlesnake, western diamondback rattlesnake, timber rattlesnake and massasauga.
There is a statewide closed season on the following reptiles: Texas horned lizard, desert side-blotched lizard, checkered whiptail, American alligator, western chicken turtle, map turtle, wandering garter snake, gulf crayfish snake, alligator snapping turtle, earless lizard and roundtail horned lizard. All other reptiles, excluding rattlesnakes, have a year-round season. The limit is six (6) per day or in possession for each species.
Source: Oklahoma Hunting, The Official Oklahoma Hunting Guide, "Reptile & Amphibian." eregulations.com
In Tennessee, it is illegal to harm, kill, remove from the wild, or possess native snakes taken from the wild without the proper permits.
Please help the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) to protect our native snakes. Do not remove snakes from the wild or release snakes that have been captive into the wild.
Source: Tennessee Herpetological Society, "Snakes of Tennessee." tennsnakes.org
Under Virginia law, snakes are classified as a non-game species and are afforded protection under non-game regulations. While killing snakes is not a permitted activity, they can be taken (along with certain other species of wildlife) when classified as a "Nuisance species" (29.1-100); when found committing or about to commit depredation upon agricultural or property damage, or when concentrated in numbers and manners to constitute a health hazard or other nuisance. For example, if a blacksnake is found in your chicken coop, you have the legal right to kill it; or if a copperhead is found in your garage, you have the legal right to kill it. Basically what this means is that, for example, if a snake crawls into a chicken coop or into someone’s house, the individual is allowed to take some action to protect livestock or family.
The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF), along with many other governmental, nongovernmental agencies and private citizens, has worked diligently to dispel the belief that "the only good snake is a dead snake." Snakes play a valuable role in nature and help control insects and rodents that damage crops and carry diseases harmful to humans. Millions of dollars in crop damage is avoided every year as a result of the free pest control service that many snakes provide. In order to help citizens better understand the ecological value of snakes and identify snakes in their areas, the Department has developed "A Guide to the Snakes of Virginia". This publication covers many interesting facts regarding Virginia's snakes including their contributions to the ecosystem. This publication is available for purchase at huntfishva.com.
Canebrake Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) 3
Source: VA Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, "Snakes Alive! Leave Snakes Alone." Last modified 6/21/12. dgif.virginia.gov
Note: There are 30 species of snakes found in Virginia, but the canebrake rattlesnake is the only snake listed by the DGIF as endangered or threatened in the Commonwealth.
Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, "Virginia's Wildlife Species Profile." dgif.virginia.gov (PDF)
1 - Photo & caption by Robert LaPierre II
2 - Photos by Carol Reese
3 - Photo in Public Domain
4 - Photo by Norman Benton
5 - Photo by Edward J Wozniak D.V.M. Ph. D, in Public Domain
Expanded from State-by-State Gardening September 2012 article by Carol Reese.
Carol Reese is an Ornamental Horticulture Specialist at Western District University of Tennessee Extension Service.