Colleton’s dangerous residents: Learning about snakes
by The Press and Standard | October 11, 2019 5:00 pm
Last Updated: October 9, 2019 at 11:21 am
In the last two years, Colleton County has seen an increase in venomous snakes. So has North Carolina and Georgia.
Some biologists and herpetologists contribute the increase on climate changes. Others blame it on the loss of habitat by suburban sprawl. Still others are concerned about a loss of natural predators of these harmful snakes.
Though the answers may vary, the issue is still concerning. With over 7,000 reported bites each year in the United States, venomous snakes and snake bites appear to be constantly in the news or on social media — even South Carolina legislator Chris Wooten was recently bitten by a copperhead in his front yard in Lexington.
Lt. Craig Stivender, formerly of the Walterboro City Police Department, is very familiar with Colleton County snakes. He is the one who is called whenever 911 receives a snake emergency request.
“I usually get called to remove them from people’s homes and yards,” said Stivender. “Most are non-venomous, but the others are usually copperheads.”
With this in mind, residents need to remember that South Carolina is known for four very dangerous snakes: the copperhead, rattlesnake, cottonmouth or water moccasin, and the coral snake.
Since these lethal snakes are roaming throughout the state, not only are people vulnerable, but so are our furry friends. The cases of dogs being bitten is on the rise. Morrison’s Veterinary Clinic said that on an average they treat one dog bitten each week. Other veterinarians say the same.
Scott and Tamara Dean commented that their dog was bitten five times last year and three times this year. Not only did their dog suffer, but the Deans have both been bitten in the past several years as well.
Kirk Reynolds had a similar experience last year. In the Great Swamp Sanctuary, now the Walterboro Wildlife Sanctuary, he picked up a small juvenile copperhead. Unfortunately it wriggled loose and unleashed a full load of venom into his finger. In extreme pain, he ended up with three doses of antivenom and over $30,000 in medical expenses.
“I don’t recommend the experience to anyone,” said Reynolds.
Amelia White was recently bitten at a local plantation. Robert Terrio was also bitten while trying to pull his dog away from a snake. It was at night and he had a flashlight, but in reaching to grab his dog’s collar to pull it away from the snake, he was bitten twice between his thumb and index finger. His situation quickly grew extremely critical.
After 10 vials of antivenom, doctors at MUSC could not stop the advance of venom. They were concerned that he would lose his entire arm. Terrio was rushed to surgery, and they were able to save the limb, but he remained in ICU for five days. After being sent home with a wound-vac on his arm, home health care nurses frequently came to change his bandages.
“I have never felt such pain in my life,” said Terrio. “I had to have skin grafts to close the wound and occupational therapy to be able to use my hand. I have lost some function in the hand and arm,” he added.
Snake season is from May through November, a time when people are more likely to be outside enjoying the spring, summer and fall. The snakes are also enjoying their time outside during those months with the spring and fall being mating seasons, so it stands to reason more bites will occur then.
And the biggest culprit of all is the infamous copperhead.
Dr. Craig Ward of the Colleton Medical Center believes that there has been an increase in bites in the last few years.
“There have been a lot of copperhead bites this year, but fortunately, most have been dry bites,” said Ward.
Copperheads account for more snake bites in the United States than any other snake. Although their venom is not as toxic as other snakes, their bites are extremely serious and can cause a lot of damage to the body.
The copperhead species can climb trees, but typically they enjoy coming out at night and hiding in dark areas as well as on the limbs of bushes and shrubs. In the daylight hours, they are perfectly camouflaged with their coppery gray coloring, hiding in plain site among leaf debris, pine straw, mulch and shrubbery. They are the best camouflaged of all snake species.
Lt. Stivender believes that more snakes are being seen because there are more people in the snake’s habitat.
“Snakes must stay warm, so they will go wherever they need to in order to find heat. In the Walterboro Wildlife Sanctuary, the asphalt walkways draw heat and the snakes enjoy sunning themselves there and staying warm,” he added.
Most copperheads average about 2-3 feet in length, though some can grow longer. They do not attack first. Their only goal when someone or something is near is to protect themselves. They’re not aggressive. A snake is only going to bite if it feels threatened in some way. It will often slap its tail on the ground to scare away predators. Rarely has a death been reported due to a copperhead bite.
If there is a death attributed to a snake bite, it is usually attributed to the rattlesnake.
The eastern diamondback, pigmy and the more common timber rattlesnake have the most toxic venom of all the snakes in South Carolina. These reptiles can grow from one foot, like the pigmy, to six feet or more in length and can weigh over 10 pounds, like the eastern diamondback and timber. The largest rattlesnake ever recorded weighed in at 20 pounds.
The rattlesnake’s habitat is diminishing, so they are rarely seen. They stay mainly in forests and swamps. They also give an advance warning to predators with their loud rattling. However, sometimes they attack without making noise.
Their rattles are segments of keratin located at the end of the snake’s tail. The buzzing sound occurs those segments hit against each other. Each time a rattlesnake sheds its skin it adds another segment.
Cold-blooded snakes do hibernate, but rattlesnakes are known to move around during extended warm periods during winter months, especially if they hide up in a stump or other location that can be warmed easily by sunshine.
Cottonmouths or water moccasins are another species of venomous snake that live here in and around water. They display the white-colored tissue in their mouths when threatened. They grow 3-4 feet long.
Unlike other snakes who will flee if given the opportunity, cottonmouths are aggressive and will coil, drum their tails against the ground and show their white mouths. They will also swim up to boats or people, vibrating their tails on the water surface and strike several times before retreating. They have even been known to attack under water.
Because they are cold-blooded and spend so much time in the water, they frequently need to bask in the sun for warmth. They are just as dangerous on land, and people need to be cautious near lakes, rivers, and streams.
A beautiful, but deadly snake, is the coral snake. Even more rare than the rattlesnake, the coral snake has short fangs and delivers a relatively small amount of venom, but that venom is unusual in that is a neurotoxin, which means that it paralyzes nerves attached to vital organs. The heart and lungs will immediately shut down.
These snakes can grow up to two feet long and can be confused with the scarlet king snake. The coral snake can be recognized by the famous rhyme, “red on yellow will kill a fellow; red on black, it’s all right, Jack.” These snakes are unusual in that their heads are round, unlike the arrow-shaped heads of the other venomous snakes. They also live in pine areas and prefer sandy soils.
The symptoms of the coral snake bite are anxiety, blurred vision, sickness, salivating, sleepiness, and sweating.
Some symptoms of other venomous snake bites are two puncture wounds, bruising, serious pain, leaking from the bite mark, swelling within five minutes, vomiting and weakness.
1. Do not try and pick up a snake. You stand a good chance of being bitten if you try to pick it up or move it out of the way. Snakes can leap forward their entire body length to strike. Keep your distance and leave the snake alone.
2. Do not put your feet or hands where you cannot see them when you are outside. Keep a careful lookout for camouflaged snakes.
3. Always wear loose long pants, shoes or boots when walking near or in the woods.
4. Walk around logs; do not step over them. Snakes feed along logs.
5. Use a flashlight if out at night and be careful where you step.
6. Clean the yard debris and firewood piles. Trim bushes and don’t use pine straw. Pine straw is the mulch that provides the best camouflage for snakes.
7. Keep children close to you and dogs leashed.
8. Do not camp near swamps, streams or waterways.
9. Be careful about snake deterrent products. None of these will completely keep snakes away.
If you are bitten by a snake
1. Stay calm and be prepared to get to a hospital.
2. Some bites are dry bites, meaning that no venom has been injected into the victim. If it’s a venomous bite and starts to swell or blister immediately, remove items like shoes, watches and rings.
3. Never apply ice or heat to a snake bite. Wounds should be washed out with warm water.
4. Wrap the wound loosely.
5. Do not make cuts into a person’s skin to suck out the venom.
6. Do not drink alcohol or caffeine.
7. Do not apply any medications or take aspirin.
8. Antivenom should be given by IV within four hours of the bite, but it can be administered up to 24 hours.
9. Do not pick up a dead snake. Even a dead snake can bite.
Educate yourself and children about venomous snakes in your area and remain cautious.