Adult copperhead (Photo courtesy Paul Settler, Virginia Herpetological Society)
Some of our neighbors are getting back in action after a winter hiatus.
That would be snakes, including ribbon snakes, garter snakes, rat snakes and water snakes, according to John Kleopfer, a herpetologist with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries in Charles City County.
The snakes cited by Kleopfer are nonpoisonous and harmless or, more accurately, beneficial to the environment. He’s seen reports so far this year of activity in one poisonous snake variety, cottonmouths (water moccasins) around Colonial Heights.
And what do you do if you come across a moccasin? Take the same action as you would in an encounter with any snake, says Kleopfer, and leave it alone.
“Contrary to folklore and popular belief, their aggressiveness is grossly over-exaggerated and they do not chase people,” he says in an email. “In the past 20 years or more, I only know of one person bitten by a cottonmouth, and he was a graduate student researching them. He was bitten through the bag in which he was carrying the snake.”
Snake season won’t be in full swing locally until May or June, but now is a great time to build awareness of snakes.
For starters, most of the snakes you’ll come across are nonpoisonous. There are only three types of poisonous snakes in Virginia: rattlesnakes, water moccasins and copperheads, the most common of the three.
Copperheads are the least dangerous, but the bite can be extremely painful, says S. Rutherfoord Rose, director of the Virginia Poison Center. About 50 to 75 percent of snake bite calls to the poison center concerned possible bites by copperheads.
Fortunately, snake bites are uncommon and deaths are rare. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 7,000 to 8,000 Americans sustain poisonous snake bites each year in the United States. That’s a rate of about one in every 37,500 Americans, according to the University of Florida’s Department of Wildlife Ecology & Conservation Lab. There are about six fatalities each year from snake bite in this country, and less than 15 in Virginia over a 30-year period. A Chesterfield County resident, 70-year-old Jack Redmond, died from complications from a snake bite in 2015, according to reports. He had collected exotic animals, including venomous snakes.
The severity of the poisoning depends on the dose of the venom, says Rose. About a quarter of the time, none is injected. Factors such as when the snake last fed and how threatened the snake felt (they bite in self-defense) can affect the amount of venom produced. “It can go anywhere from a dry bite to one that we would label severe,” says Rose.
Copperhead habitat spans the commonwealth. You’ll find timber rattlesnakes mostly in the mountains in the west and cane break rattlesnakes in and around Virginia Beach.
You’ll find moccasins south of the Appomattox River, though Rose notes one case of a person who was bit in his car by a moccasin that apparently had somehow gotten into his car near the Swift Creek Reservoir in Chesterfield County.
The Virginia Herpetological Society has a comprehensive guide to the state’s snakes here.
Snakes abound in Central Virginia. You can encounter snakes walking in the woods, in your yard, on the porch or even, rarely, in your house.
Don’t be afraid, though: Just be aware. Since snakebites of humans are a self-defense mechanism, you need to be alert and take precautions. If you’re gardening, or just out and about, make your presence known, says Rose. Be aware of where you place your hands: Never reach into a pile of logs or under your tool shed; stick a stick in their first. Watch where you step, too.
“Snakes don’t want to encounter us,” says Rose.
But if you do come across one, keep your distance, as they can strike about half the length of their body, says Paul Settler, a member of the herpetological society and a biology professor at Liberty University in Lynchburg. Walk around them.
If you are bitten, don’t panic. Remember that the vast majority of snakes are nonpoisonous. Don’t try to capture it, but take a photo of it if possible, a good reason to have your cellphone handy.
Cellphones also come in handy so you can call poison control. Screeners there can help you determine whether you need to head home or to an ER by asking you about symptoms and other pertinent information such as your medical history and allergies. Here are more guidelines from the CDC.
Should you kill a snake? Generally, no. Snakes kill vermin such as mice and are in turn part of the food chain for other species. Kleopfer notes that in eating mice, snakes are helping to control the spread of Lyme disease, which is carried by ticks that live on the mice. It’s generally illegal to kill snakes in Virginia, unless they’re an imminent threat or if it is damaging property.
So, go about your business, have fun, but be sensible outdoors. The snakes want nothing to do with you.
“There is no other group of animals that has more folklore and misinformation about them,” says Kleopfer. "In the United States, you are more likely to be killed by horse than a snake. So get outside and enjoy the outdoors. And if you happen to encounter a snake, just keep a safe distance and leave it alone.”