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Stark rise in bites by poisonous snakes in Dixie

Stark rise in bites by poisonous snakes in Dixie

 

The typical cost of a rattlesnake bite on an adult is from $125,000 to $225,000.  A rattlesnake bite on a child can run up to $2.6 million.

The Southeastern Regional Poison Control Center in Atlanta announced today that so far in 2017, there has been a 50% increase in bites by poisonous snakes in the Southeastern United States over last year.  That is particularly concerning because there was a record number of poisonous snake bites here in 2016.   By far,  the biggest increase has been bites by Copperhead Snakes . . . also called Highland Moccasins.  Atlanta area hospitals treated two Copperhead bites in January 2017.  This is unheard of, since Copperheads normally hibernate in the winter.

What really has forest rangers, doctors and biologists concerned is that an increasing percentage of rattlesnakes have non-functioning rattles or else don’t rattle them prior to making a strike.  Scientists believe that this is the result of un-natural selection.  Rattlesnakes that rattle to warn humans are much more likely to be killed by humans.

POOF put this news in the humor column to get featured attention, but it is no laughing matter.   One vile of Copperhead, Water Moccasin or Rattlesnake anti-venom is $20,000 these days in the United States.  It was $14,000 a vile in 2015.  Coral Snake anti-venom is now $30,000 to $40,000 a vial.  Treatment for the bite by a poisonous pit viper requires around 5-6 vials of anti-venom for an adult . . . many more for a child.  Add in all the fees that hospitals throw into bills these days and you have a situation that will instantly bankrupt a family, who does not have the best of heath insurance.

Fifteen years ago, the price charged by hospitals for a vial of anti-venom averaged about $100 a bottle.  It is still that price in Mexico for anti-venom manufactured in the United States.   Why the grotesque difference in the cost of a snake bite in the United States and Mexico?   One gets a lot of double-talk from the drug industry and federal administrators, but obviously “something” happened between 2000 and 2017. 

During the George W. Bush Administration, federal regulations were changed for the manufacture and pricing of drugs charged to hospital patients.   Now there is only one company in the United States, BTG, licensed to manufacture an anti-venom for American pit vipers.  The product is called Cro-Fab.   

After introduction of Cro-Fab in 2001,  BTG began acquiring all the labs, which were its competition and then steadily raising the price of Cro-Fab to pay for those corporate acquisitions. BTG produces a very effective anti-venom, but it also now has a monopoly.

Why the stark increase in snake bites?

Scientists are not certain why the aggressiveness of poisonous snakes in Dixie has paralleled the inflation in the coast of Cro-Fab.  X-Files “believers” think that the investors in BTG, who are making phenomenal profits, have spread a virus over the United States via passenger jet contrails, which makes poisonous snakes mean-spirited.   The United States has become so corrupt in recent years, anything seems possible . . . but this conspiracy theory would be difficult to prove.

Much more down-to-earth is the theory by biologists that the drastic decline in the number of frogs and toads has made poisonous snakes hungry.  There was very little rainfall in the Southeast from August to late November 2016.  That would have reduced the populations of mice, frogs, toads, lizards and chipmunks.  They theorize that the snakes were ill-tempered because they were hungry.

The problem with that theory is that this spring the Southeast is receiving plenty of rainfall.  There should be fewer snake bites, if lack of food was the cause of snake aggression.  However, the opposite situation has occurred.  Attacks by poisonous snakes have skyrocketed this spring.

How to reduce the chances of being bit

I learned an important lesson about hiking in the woods at age 11.  There were 16 of us Boy Scouts from Troop 26 in Gainesville, GA . . . hiking the Appalachian Trail for two weeks.  We were having a grand ole time, yapping away as we were climbing Blood Mountain.  The three guys in front of me did not notice the Timber Rattler on the trail and it was NOT rattling.   When it became my turn to not notice the snake, it struck at my boots.  Back then all hiking boots were thick leather so the fangs did not reach my skin.  Close call . . . but a lesson was learned.

Over the past seven years I have noticed that Copperheads are increasingly aggressive, whereas they used to be not aggressive at all.  I have also seen several rattlesnakes that didn’t rattle.  That really spooked me. In April of 2015 a copperhead bit my female herd dog on the throat while we were walking across a section of grass at a nearby resort that needed mowing.  In the good ole days, copperheads would never be in such areas that were frequented by humans.

Last spring, an elderly lady living near me, almost died from a Copperhead bite.  She was merely picking green beans in her garden and the snake was hiding behind a bean bush, waiting for a field mouse to come by.  Unfortunately,  she had not kept her rows of beans weeded so the snake was completely concealed before biting her on the wrist.   She started passing out before she realized that she needed to go to the hospital.  Living alone, it took awhile for her neighbors to realize that something was amiss.

In response, I have radically changed my outdoor recreation patterns during the period between the last frost and the first frost.   I do all of my daily hiking on unpaved country lanes or logging trails.  I don’t go into dense vegetation . . .  the woods around here are essentially temperate jungles . . . and definitely do not explore remote stone ruins in the warm months.  Both Copperheads and Timber Rattlers love stacks of stone.  

Here are some other basic, common sense rules to follow:

  • Never put your hand or your foot anywhere that you can’t see it or what’s around it.
  • Always look on the back side of a dead log before stepping over it.
  • Keep your lawn mowed and your garden free of dense weeds.
  • Never go into a crawl space under the house without a bright flashlight, which fully illuminates all of the surface of the crawl space.
  • Keep your house and yard free of mice and rats.  All snakes will be attracted to locations with large rodent populations.
  • Never hike during warm weather on paths that are bordered by dense foliage or tall grass.
  • Continually scan the hiking path ahead and both sides while on a hike.  One lapse of attention could cost you a bundle of money at the hospital and possibly your life.

Doctors now believe that snake bite kits are ineffective.   They say that one should head to the hospital as soon as possible, when bit by a poisonous snake, but unfortunately, that is not always possible.

It’s a jungle out there, folks!

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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history. Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.

14 Comments

  1. csmoke@webound.com'

    having lived previously in the Arizona desert, I encountered several rattlesnakes. I have never heard one rattle. I stepped within 6″ of one coiled and it did not move…. I only saw it after I had taken a couple more steps past. I think a lot had to do with my behavior of not appearing a threat and they let me walk by. the poisonous snakes kill with their venom (most often for food) and I have heard or read that a strike (hit) takes about 1/2 of their venom supply…….so, if they are hungry, they are not as likely to waste a shot on someone too large to eat.
    I never experienced any “angry” snakes,.. they get that way (defensive) when someone bothers them first. the only aggressive snakes (except politicians) that I have encountered was cotton mouth water snakes coming at the canoe on floats and they tried to come into the canoe. a 26″ to 29″ rattler makes a really nice hatband, but I think the feds do not like that now.

    Reply
    • Yes, Richard B. Water Moccasins have always been aggressive. When I was six years old and paddling a pirot (flat bottom canoe) through the Okefenokee Swamp, a big Cottonmouth climbed up into the boat. Being a typically dumb and fearless six year old, I cut its head off with a bowie knife, not realizing what a terrible risk I was taking.

      In the past, I never knew Copperheads to be aggressive, but they certainly are now. Most people don’t know that Copperheads (Highland Moccasins) and Cottonmouths (Water Moccasins) are so closely related that they can interbreed. Both species bear their young alive. They do not lay eggs. it could be that what we are seeing now are crossbred Copperheads.

      By golly that Copperhead that bit my dog on the throat came after her. We were walking slowly. He or she speeded up to catch up to her head and bite her.

      Reply
  2. Iwg42@hotmail.com'

    Hey Richard,
    As a child we went to the Ross Allen Serpitorium (snake house) in Flordia. That place was CREEPY!! The main attraction was one of the handlers showing and milking all the poisonous snakes of the SE. They had a display of snake bite pictures that was terrible. After seeing that display I swore I would never get bitten by any poisonous
    snakes. So far,I have managed to keep that from happening by following the “Boy Scout rules” you posted above. Also having a good walking stick helps.
    Thanks for the info

    Reply
  3. adamfreeman1861@gmail.com'

    Another good practice to decrease the poisonous snakes in your neighborhood is to encourage the presence of Black Snakes and King Snakes. Teach your children and grand-children to never bother them and to stay away from the “pretty” snakes that don’t run from you.

    Reply
    • Absolutely Adam! I get so angry when I see people trying to kill Black Racers and King Snakes. King Snakes actually hunt poisonous snakes and eat them.

      Reply
  4. Iwg42@hotmail.com'

    Hey Richard,
    I called a cousin if mine that works at the UGA research station near Griffin and ask him about the increase in the venomous snake population. According to the biologist at the research station, a disease or virus has hit the non-venmous snakes hard the last few years. There population is down and they are not sure how much. The king snakes have been hit hard according to the biologist.
    That could be why there are so many copperhead around, nothing to eat them.
    Thanks

    Reply
    • Wayne, that could well be the answer. The virus may not kill the Copperheads, but alters their personality. I have NEVER seen Copperheads act aggressive until about three years ago. They are going after people like Water Moccasins always did.

      Reply
        • I think it has a lot to do with it. The snakes are starving because of the fungus and are attacking anything in sight. I am NOT going into the deep woods behind my cabin this year until after the leaves fall. I have already seen a Copperhead in daylight hunting for food.

          Reply
  5. anadalv@yahoo.com'

    Hi Richard,
    When I worked at the Wild Animal Park in Pine Mountain, we had a professional snake handler (15+ years experience) tell me that a DC electrical charge neutralizes hemotoxin in snake venom – copperhead, water moccassin, ect. Unfortunately, the eastern diamondback is a dual venom snake, so you have to neutralize the hemo and the nuero toxins. About 2 weeks after telling me this, he had replaced an eastern diamondback in his snake show (it was stalking him in the pit) with a new snake that bit him during its second showing. No one could find the keys to the park’s truck that was parked 30 feet away from the snake pit, so they had to do the DC electrical shock with the riding lawnmower – a total of 5 times. Hemotoxin neutralized, but two of our animal handlers had to rush him to the hospital and carry him in due to the neurotoxin. His lips were turning blue, he was having difficulty breathing, walking and focusing his eyes.

    He recovered, didn’t loose his finger or hand, and was back to work about 2 weeks later. His doctor was amazed, because even with the antivenom, most patients suffer tissue necrosis that reults in partial of full amputations of extremeties. His doctor wrote a paper about the use of DC electric shock for snake bite treaatment and how snake handlers had been using that for over 20 years as an effective treatment. I’m not sure that his paper ever got published due to the nature of the business of medicine.

    Long Cane Creek in Troup County has a long history of being very snake with many deaths in the area from water moccasin snake bites. The Morrison family had owned a farm near there for generations, and when I asked Mrs. Morrison how she didn’t have a snake problem on her property, her responce was”my goats”. Apparently, generations of the family had been rotating a herd of goats mixed in with the horses and cattle through the pastures that surronded the property to keep the brush and weeds under control and to kill any snakes that tried to make it to the out buildings or barn. According to her, goats will kill a snake in a heart beat, and snakes fear goats. I’m not 100% sure on how true that is, but she said they never had a problem on the property.

    Reply
    • I started the second licensed goat cheese creamery in the nation . . . eventually building up a very large herd. Never saw a snake on the farm after we got goats. They also ate up all the poison ivy and poison oak. When I drank their milk, I became immune to poison ivy.

      Reply
      • anadalv@yahoo.com'

        OMG that is so good to know. I used to get poison ivy from ex-hubby’s clothes, all over my arms because he did construction and was immune.
        Thanks for the tip

        Reply
  6. Dbrewtonjr@gmail.com'

    I used to kill poisonous snakes up until about 20 years ago. I had a close encounter with a 6 foot Ga water mocassin. I was walking through tall marsh grass in a freshwater swamp to get minnows for my aquarium. I saw what I thought was a piece of paper on the TOP of the grass (the grass was crotch high). I almost picked it up when I saw it was the inside of the snakes mouth (pure white-as bright as a a cotton ball). It was as big as my fist and was within a foot of my crotch-directly in front of me. I told my wife to retrieve our pistol from the truck and toss it to me. The snake and I did not move for a good 2 minutes while she got the pistol to me. I placed the barrel of the gun within 6 inches of its mouth and slowly pulled the hammer back (.22 single action). The snake started to slowly close its mouth, turned away and layed down facing away from me. We watched it crawl to the water and disappear into the swamp. This was the largest moccasin I had ever seen. It could have struck me and no doubt I would have died due to being 2 hrs from the nearest hospital. Not to mention the location of the bite. I feel I owe my life to all snakes and had not harmed any since. A truly spiritual experience for me. I have stepped (accidentally) near many copper heads and rattlers since then without being bitten – we spend much time hiking and wilderness camping. I am a true believer in a higher power because of this one incident – I have been blessed. I am so glad I did not pull the trigger back then.

    Reply
    • David, You are a braver man than me. I wouldn’t dream of walking into swamp water in South Georgia between frosts. I was in a boat at age 6 and the Cottonmouth was coming after me.

      Reply

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