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Experts warn Virginia's venomous snakes are out and about

Some scientists think the widespread human fear of snakes dates back to our distant past -- when our primate predecessors were living in trees to escape predators. The only thing that could easily kill you up there was a serpent. Here and now, however, poisonous snakes are rare according to Alex Wehrung at the Wildlife Center of Virginia.

Copperheads are the most common of three venomous snakes in Virginia. They are not aggressive, but experts say surprise encounters can lead to dangerous bites.
Copperheads are the most common of three venomous snakes in Virginia. They are not aggressive, but experts say surprise encounters can lead to dangerous bites.

“There are 30 species of snakes that live in Virginia," he says. "Out of all of those only three are venomous – rattlesnakes, cotton mouths and copperheads. Rattlesnakes tend to live in the mountainous areas of the state, including the Shenandoah Valley. Cottonmouths are found largely in aquatic environments, so rivers, creeks, streams and lakes, whereas copperheads are easily the most widely distributed species.

And the center’s president, Ed Clark, says none of Virginia’s snakes are likely to inflict a fatal bite.

”Around the world there are snakes that they say if you’re bitten by them go sit in the shade, because there’s no reason to die in the sun, but the truth is that our snakes are not considered deadly snakes. They can cause quite an injury. It can hurt like crazy. It can actually do nerve and tissue damage, but the number of people who die by snake bite is just miniscule compared, for example, to the number of people who die from bee stings or falling in their bathtub for that matter.”

Dr. Chris Hostege, who heads the Blue Ridge Poison Center, adds that where you are bitten is a factor in how damaging a snake bite can be.

“We’ve had, for example, a teenager who was handling a snake, which he shouldn’t have been doing. He kind of wrapped it around his neck, showing his friends he was cool, and then got bitten in the neck.”

And, he says, what you do after being bitten can make matters worse.

“Cutting or sucking or putting tourniquets on are all dangerous things to do, and none of them help.”

Instead, he advises a quick trip to an emergency room for a shot of anti-venom that can keep the poison from doing further damage.

Better yet, avoid contact with snakes in the first place. Again, the Wildlife Center’s Alex Wehrung.

“Most of the reported bites occur from accidental or surprise encounters in concealed spaces – brush piles, stacks of firewood, rock piles, crevices beneath porches. Just be aware of your surroundings. Don’t stick your hands in places that you can’t see. If you’re hiking on a trail be very aware of where you’re placing your feet.”

Holstege notes that copperheads and cottonmouths – also known as water moccasins – are often found at the base of trees, on the banks of rivers, lakes or streams.

“And when you go to grab the roots, for example if you are in a canoe, you want to make sure where you’re putting your hand there is not a snake there.”

The experts also agree it’s unwise to walk around barefoot. Wear boots if you’re hiking, and carry a flashlight at night. Don’t store food in your garage where it can attract rodents which, in turn, attract snakes, and Wehrung suggests learning to identify the poisonous kinds.

“Venomous snakes tend to have triangular-shaped heads to accommodate the venom glands behind their eyes. Non-venomous snakes have round pupils. Venomous snakes have pupils that look like a cat’s eye – that elliptical shape.”

Whatever it looks like, keep in mind that in Virginia it’s illegal to kill a snake. Again, Ed Clark.

“It is not legal to kill them unless they present an imminent danger to human health or safety or to your family and pets.”

The law also bars you from moving a snake from your property, but, the Wildlife Center says you can hire someone who’s licensed to capture critters.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief