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Dealing With Deadly Snakes In The Grass

Indiana Jones and I have at least one thing in common: we both hate snakes. While I don’t hate all snakes like Indy, I do have an aversion to being around poisonous ones. There are four types of poisonous snakes in North America, ranging from aggressive to shy.

Rattlesnake

The most widespread of the poisonous snakes, there are around thirty species of rattlesnake living in the U.S. These snakes range in size from eighteen inches to over seven feet in length. Rattlesnakes are the most aggressive of North America’s poisonous snakes and are characterized by the distinctive rattle at the end of their tails.

Rattlesnakes (along with copperheads and cottonmouths) are pit vipers. These snakes have a heat-sensing pit between their eyes and nostrils to help them locate their prey. Pit vipers can also be recognized by their triangular-shaped head when viewed from above.

Rattlesnake bites can inject a large amount of hemotoxic venom, meaning that it destroys red blood cells and surrounding tissue. Their bites are very serious and can be fatal to humans.

On the other hand, you can bite them back. Rattlesnake makes a good meal. It can be substituted for most other meats. Just cut off the head and skin and remove the entrails (debone if you like). The skins can also be home tanned or sold. I have seen some beautiful bows that were backed with rattlesnake skin. Understand that I don’t recommend seeking out rattlesnakes for these purposes, as you are much more likely to get bitten that way; but if you happen to kill one, there’s no reason to let it go to waste.

Cottonmouth / Water Moccasin

The cottonmouth, also called the water moccasin, is a poisonous snake located primarily in the southeast U.S. They range north to southern Indiana and Illinois and west to Texas. They have an affinity for water and are considered semi-aquatic. Adults average around three feet in length; however they can reach lengths of up to six feet.

When disturbed, the cottonmouth will usually hold its ground and not retreat. Lacking the rattles of a rattlesnake, they will coil up and open their mouths, exposing the white inside as a visual warning. Cottonmouths also have hemotoxic venom, similar to the rattlesnake, although they usually inject slightly less of it with their bite. However, cottonmouth bites tend to become gangrenous if not treated promptly.

Copperhead

Copperheads, so-called because of their coppery coloring, are another pit viper that grows to about three feet in length. Their range is the eastern U.S. up to southern New England and west through Texas. They are the shyest of the pit vipers and have the least potent hemotoxic venom. While all pit vipers are capable of a dry bite (biting without injecting venom), copperheads often give a dry warning bite.

Coral Snake

Coral snakes are a colorful relative of the cobra. They are less than four feet in length and have red, yellow, and black bands. They are also a shy snake that will retreat if given the chance and bite usually as a last resort.

Coral snake venom is a powerful neurotoxin (attacking the nerves and paralyzing), but due to how the snake delivers venom in its bite, it must hang on to pump venom into its victim. This accounts for about 60 percent of coral snake bites being dry bites. But even a small amount of coral snake venom can produce respiratory distress and fatigue for up to several months.

One other North American snake, the king snake, mimics the colors of the coral snake; however, king snakes are not venomous. The easiest way to tell the difference is to remember this rhyme: “If red touches yellow, you are a dead fellow… If red touches black, it won’t attack.” So if the red bands touch yellow bands it is the poisonous coral snake, but if the red and black bands touch, it is not. AN IMPORTANT NOTE: This is only applicable in North America, as some snakes south of the U.S. will not follow this rule.

This lightweight first aid kit is for adventures where exposure to the elements will be an issue.

Avoiding Snakes

Of the thousands of people bitten by venomous snakes every year in North America, roughly half were handling the snake in some way. So here’s your first tip: don’t handle snakes, and you’ll cut your chances of being bitten by half.

Since snakes are reptiles, they rely on their environment for heat. In the spring or fall you may find them “sunning” themselves on rock piles in quiet areas. In warm weather, snakes are more active at night. Pit vipers especially can hunt in total darkness for warm-blooded prey with their heat-sensing capability.

Most snakes like cover of some sort. Tall grass, leaves, rocks, and piles of lumber are all good places for snakes to hide. When working in these types of areas, be sure to wear boots, long pants, and leather gloves to give yourself a bit of protection.

A walking stick is a great help for poking, prodding, and generally stirring up the places you plan on putting your feet while walking through the woods. This can oust a snake before you step too close and get bitten. When collecting firewood, always kick the wood over before grabbing it, since snakes like to coil up under sticks and logs.

Above all, pay attention to where you are placing your feet when you are walking. Step on top of logs and rocks instead of over them. Of the 50 percent of people bitten that weren’t actually handling the snakes, most were bitten because they stepped on or grabbed the snake without seeing it.

If you must capture a snake, the best way is to pin its head to the ground with a stout forked stick and then cut the head off.

What To Do If You Are Bitten

First and foremost, seek medical attention. If you are alone or far from medical help, call 911. Many people, especially the ones who are bitten while handling snakes, wait to seek medical help until the pain drives them to it. By then, tissue damage is already done. However, with prompt medical attention and modern anti-venom, snakebites are very rarely fatal.

The only things you should try to do are rinse the bite with water and try to keep the wound below the heart, if possible. In addition, try to memorize what the snake looked like for identification purposes—this will help medical personnel give you the correct anti-venom. You may have heard other tips from old-timers, but it is best to simply seek help and leave the rest to a doctor.

Again, remember that time is of the essence when treating a snakebite. The longer you wait, the more debilitating the effects of the venom. I have a doctor friend who just returned from a wound care seminar, so I asked him a hypothetical question: Say you have a snakebite victim bitten on the lower leg. You are five miles from your vehicle, and the victim goes into shock. What do you do? His answer? “Treat the shock and worry about the snake bite after the victim is stabilized.”

This makes sense when you know that most trauma victims die of shock before they get the chance to die of their wounds. So if you have someone going into shock with a snakebite on their leg or foot, have them lie down and raise their feet, even though that puts the bite above the heart. The main thing is to not cause any more trauma to the victim and get them treated as soon as possible.

What NOT To Do If Bitten

While doing some reading in a backwoodsman book from the turn of the twentieth century, I came across this advice: treat a venomous snakebite by burning out the wound with a hot iron. Ouch! Definitely DO NOT do that! Most of the snakebite treatments you have heard about in folklore will actually cause more harm than good.

  • Do not apply heat or cold to the bite.
  • Do not apply electric shock to the victim.
  • Do not apply a tourniquet.
  • Do not drink alcoholic or caffeinated beverages.
  • Do not cut into the wound to try to drain it.
  • Do not use your mouth to “suck out” any poison. (This will put many germs into the wound.)

The jury is still out on snakebite suction devices. The CDC claims they have no effect on the bite, while the National Library of Medicine tells you to use one if you have it. In this case, the decision is yours.

Dealing with venomous snakes is mostly common sense. Watch where you are going, and don’t mess with them on purpose. If you follow these two pieces of advice, you should do well in avoiding snakes in the grass.

©2013 Off the Grid News

© 2008-2014 Off The Grid News

8 comments

  1. Try a little history for this as well— Nelson Lee in Three Years Among the Comanches. A poultice from the meat of the snake that bit him. A man that was riding with him swopped down killed the snake. The man skinned the snake and used the meat as a poultice to draw out the venom. Check out what he records happened to the meat. Then read the rest of the story. Or Captain John H. Rogers, Texas Ranger by Paul N. Spellman. Young Mr. Rogers was out building a fence and was bitten by a rattlesnake. He used his Momma’s chicken as a poultice. Then in my own family, my grandmother was bitten as a child (3 years old) right at the time of WW1. The ride into town was about 3 days and doctors were few and far between. Great- Grandma Teckla applied charcoal from the lye bucket to the bite wound. 3 days later the doctor showed up. He patted Teckla on the shoulder and told her what a good job she was doing. He gave her some Laudim (opium) to keep Grandma quite. Grandma lived to be 89 years old and did not have much of a scar.

  2. I love the story about the charcoal from the lye bucket! We make our lye this way.

  3. I have a question about raising the bite above the heart. The first sentence regarding states to rinse the wound and try to keep wound above the heart. But then when discussing going into shock it was more important to raise the feet even though it would put it above the heart.

    I think the first should be NOT to raise above the heart as that would expedite the venom getting to the heart faster in the bloodstream. We were always taught that.

    Thanks for the information. I don’t know many that like snakes but they are God’s creatures and have their place.

    • Off The Grid Editor

      Thanks for your comments about keeping the bite below the heart– you are correct. When bitten by a snake, you always want to try to keep the bite below the heart to slow the spread of the venom. I apologize for our editing mistake– it has been corrected.

  4. In addition to not helping, the old suggestion of cutting and sucking out the venom is dangerous for the ‘sucker’. If you have the least irritation, scratches or cavity, in your mouth you can get the venom in your blood syatem.
    This, sucking by mouth, was recanted years ago. The snake bite kit is not very effective as the venom only requires a small amount to kill or mame.
    The bite should remain BELOW THE HEART if at all possible.
    Field treatment is to raise the legs above the heart. Try raising the unbitten leg first to see if that helps, if not, raise the other also (assuming a leg was bitten).
    Treated like this shock subsides fairly quickly.
    The other treatment for shock is to keep the person warm. Don’t cover them if it is warm out. Covering them in warmer temperatures can over heat them and therefore stress the body.
    Very important for you and them to remain calm since excitement raises the heart rate and speeds the dispersal of the venom.
    Most times a tourniquet is not recommended because blood not reaching the limb can cause the flesh to die requiring amputation. Only a medical person should try this!
    As you said, just being careful is the best way NOT to get bitten in the first place.
    My dad said, as far as I know, all snakes are poisionous. Don’t touch any of them!
    (True story) A friend had a common ‘green snake’ fall out of a tree on her neck. Scared the snake as bad as it did her. The snake bit her neck. A green snake is non-poisonous, but she was allergic to something in the snake’s bite. She ended up in the hospital because her neck swelled up so big she couldn’t breath.
    I agree treat ALL snakes and spiders as poisonous. The safest thing to do!

  5. I once encountered a Black Racer in my back yard as a 10 year old in central Texas, where all kids were taught to be ever vigilant for snakes, scorpions, and wasps. I had seen many rattlers (and a few Corals), but this one made no noise, was completely black in color, and was extremely fast moving. It actually charged me until my dog distracted it, causing it to move away.
    It was not until many years later that I read they are non-poisonous, but quite agressive when disturbed, and are not at all shy about biting…. all things I did not know at the time. I have to tell you that after trying to out manouever it, unsuccessfully, I was ready to climb anything handy, real quick.
    Even though I have never encountered one since, I will never forget the amazing speed of that snake.

  6. Another thing to remember is that with the rattlesnakes, the baby ones are more deadly than the adults. What I mean by that is that they are young and don’t know how to regulate their venom, so when they bite, they release ALL of their venom. The adult ones will either give a “dry bite” or inject some of their venom. I was bitten by a baby rattler on my finger when I was 12 years old. A friend was with me and we were a few houses down. She freaked out and said we should run back. DON’T RUN!!!! If you’ve been bitten, slow down the circulation to the area if possible (in my case, it was a finger, so I used my other hand to squeeze the bottom of the bitten finger so that the poison wouldn’t spread). I remained calm and walked slowly back to the house where we got help. My dad’s cousin had a shocker, so I did receive some electrical shocks on my finger to stop the poison. (This was 12 years ago…we didn’t know…) Then we went to the hospital so I could be treated. Long story short…..DON’T PLAY WITH SNAKES!!!!!!! :)

  7. We have all of the deadly snakes here. I relocate rattlesnakes without much difficulty… the larger they are, the more docile. Unless one’s about to strike, I’ll catch it with an improvised snake stick (loop of hay string on the end of a stick) let the snake crawl through, lift it up and lay it in a trash can, lid it, and relocate to a wild area (preferably a year old pine plantation).

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