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.
1 - Photo & caption by Robert LaPierre II
2 - Photos by Carol Reese
Expanded from an article by Carol Reese that ran in a print edition of State-by-State Gardening September 2012.
Posted September 2012
Carol Reese is an Ornamental Horticulture Specialist at Western District University of Tennessee Extension Service.