Feature Archive

Snakes Not So Charming in the Wild

Keep your eyes open

By Bob Calandra
WebMD Feature

April 16, 2001 -- Don't invite Wayne King to a party if television's Crocodile Hunter is on the guest list.

King, the curator of herpetology -- the scientific field that studies amphibians and reptiles -- at the University of Florida's Museum of Natural History, is no fan of Steve Irwin, a.k.a. the Crocodile Hunter.

It's nothing personal, just professional: King cringes every time the high-energy, fast-talking Aussie stalks and then grabs snakes, including some of the world's most venomous. It's bad enough that the snake is terrorized, but King is convinced that sooner or later, someone will imitate Irwin's tail-grabbing antics and suffer a deadly bite.

"If they watch that idiot Irwin, they are going to try it," King says. "Irwin is telling people that they can have this fun, too. I hope his ratings go down."

King and other herpetologists know that handling snakes is no laughing matter, and certainly nothing an amateur should attempt. With somewhere between 30 and 40 venomous snakes slithering around America -- and with spring marking the unofficial start of hiking season -- most people don't have a clue about which are dangerous and which aren't, much less what to do if they're bitten.

Snakes are found almost everywhere in America. But snakes are cold blooded and favor warmer climates. The farther north you live, the fewer the snakes. So while there are six varieties of venomous snakes in Florida, New York has only two -- the timber rattlesnake and the copperhead. Perhaps the deadliest in America are the Eastern and Western diamondback rattlesnakes.

Each year, 5,000 Americans are bitten by venomous snakes, resulting in about five deaths. A surprising number of those bites, King says, are to hands and arms, which usually means the person was trying to handle the snake. And that makes sense since snakes are shy by nature. It's unusual to stumble upon one even in the most remote areas, he says.

"An awful lot of people go bird watching, hunting, camping, and hiking and never see a snake," King says.

There are several things you can do to avoid getting bitten by a snake in the wild. For starters, if you see a snake, back away and walk around it.

"Snakes will not pursue you and are not aggressive unless they feel cornered," King says. "If you find them at the base of a rock face where they can't back up, they may seem aggressive. But given a chance, almost every snake will flee and get away."

When you're out in nature, keep your eyes open and watch where you're walking. Don't step across a rock or fallen tree limb, because you can't see what's on the other side. Instead, step on the rock and then over.

"Snakes, harmless or venomous, hide under things where they have shelter," King says. "They don't like being stepped on by people or deer, so they tend to lie under the edge of logs or rocks."

If you live in an area with snakes, King suggests learning to identify the venomous from non-venomous species. And forget the myth that all venomous snakes have triangle-shaped heads or oval, cat-like eyes.

"Coral snakes don't," he points out. "There simply is no other way of doing it than getting familiar with the snakes."

The University of Florida Museum of Natural History has put together an online field guide (www.flmnh.ufl.edu/natsci/herpetology/fl-guide/onlineguide.htm) of the state's snakes. "We put in a key to identify snakes, and it is written for the layman," he says.

If you see a snake and can't identify it, don't handle it, King warns. If you do and are bitten, try to kill the snake and bring it to the hospital for identification. If the snake is poisonous, your prognosis and therapy will depend on the type of snake.

"Obviously, don't get bitten twice more trying to find the snake," says Craig S. Kitchens, MD, a professor of medicine at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

A hematologist, Kitchens has been treating snakebites in Florida for 20 years. He sees between 30 and 40 victims a year. From that he has learned that the vast majority of snakebites are the result of someone poking, teasing, or cornering a snake.

"Snakes don't fall out of trees and bite your behind," he says.

Nor does Kitchens feel that people hiking or camping in the wilderness need worry about snakebites. He's often asked to provide snakebite kits for people planning to walk the Appalachian Trail.

"I tell them you don't need a snakebite kit," he says. "Just don't mess with snakes."

But if a snake does bite you, Kitchens recommends forgoing field remedies like ice, tourniquets, or the cut-and-suck method made famous in movies. It's not that they don't work. It's just that if not done properly, he says, they can cause more harm than good. Instead, head for the nearest hospital.

"Antivenom works pretty damn good," Kitchens says. "Usually you walk away with [no injury] at all. Most people bitten repair pretty well."

Antivenom ideally should be administered within six hours after a bite, and no more than 12 hours. But most snakebite victims don't receive antivenom, Kitchen says. In fact, only 40% of those bitten by venomous snakes are given the serum. That's because most snake venom isn't that toxic.

For instance, Kitchens says, pygmy rattlesnake or copperhead bites aren't usually treated.

But antivenom is a lifesaver for the 10-15% of the people bitten by the highly toxic Eastern or Western diamondbacks. Still, the traditional horse-blood antivenom serum has its drawbacks.

"You can have an allergic reaction to the horse blood" used to make the antivenom, Kitchens says. "With horse-blood antivenom, 10% of the people will have an allergic reaction with hives, swelling, or shortness of breath."

The FDA recently approved a new sheep-blood-based antivenom, which Kitchens says he believes will be easier to use and significantly safer.

Bob Calandra is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in several magazines, including People and Life. He lives in Glenside, Penn.

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