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Avoiding Snake Encounters

venomous snakesOf the roughly 20 species of snakes found in West Virginia, only two species are venomous: the Timber Rattlesnake and the Northern Copperhead.

The Northern Copperhead boasts hourglass-like banding patterns on its body and a copper-colored head.

The most distinguishing feature of the Timber Rattlesnake is the rattler on its tail, and dark chevron shaped bands along the length of its body. There are other telltale signs to distinguish if a snake is venomous. An arrowhead-shaped head is one characteristic of a venomous snake; vertical, elliptical pupils – rather than the round pupils of nonvenomous snakes – are another.

If you come across a snake, it’s best to leave it alone. However, if you must examine it, do so from a safe distance. Snakes can only strike about one third to one half of their body length, but use common sense when inspecting a snake.

If you don’t get close enough to look at the pupil shape, check for deep holes, sometimes referred to as pits, located directly beneath each eye.

“Pits are an identifying feature of whether or not a snake is dangerous,” explains West Virginia University Extension Service’s Wildlife Specialist Sheldon Owen. “Nonvenomous snakes won’t have them.”

While West Virginia’s venomous snakes typically prefer to hang out in densely forested areas, they have been known to dwell in other places.

“Snakes like to find cover. If you have brush piles, debris, or any tin or metal lying out in your yard, that may attract snakes,” said Owen. “Also be alert around old barns or any old structures.”

Signs of a snake inside the home include snakeskin, snake droppings (characterized by hair and bone contents), or strange noises in the walls or vents. Also be alert for snakes if you have a mouse infestation as snakes prey on mice and small mammals.

If you suspect a snake is living in your home, contact your local animal control center or the local division of natural resources.

To avoid snakes when hiking, Owen suggests using a walking stick to hit any brush that you’re walking through and wearing boots and long pants.

When crossing a log, step on the log first and then step over it. This avoids startling the snake.

If rock climbing, be aware of where you put your hands. Rocks provide great thermal environments for cold-blooded snakes.

Also, campers should avoid setting up camp around brush, as snakes tend to dwell under the cover of leaves and thickets.

If you ever encounter an aggravated snake, back away and try to find a route around the snake. Never try to pick up, capture or step on a snake. That may provoke it to strike.

“Most often, snakes only strike if they feel threatened or cornered,” said Owen. “Use a long stick to try to shoo it away; if you give them an out, they’re going to take it.”

Agitated Timber Rattlesnakes make a rattling sound as a warning. While copperheads don’t have a rattler, they still may “rattle” as an indicator of aggravation by hitting their tail off of leaves and debris.

“If a snake ever bites you, try to remain calm,” Owen advised. “An increased heart rate will cause the venom to spread faster. “

Always practice caution and call 911 if you think you’ve been bitten by a snake.

Venomous snakebites will be accompanied by swelling, intense pain and discoloration. Seek medical attention immediately and refrain from lifting the wound above your head.

Never try to cut the skin or suck the venom out with your mouth. These practices do not work and should not be attempted. If in the woods, hike to the closest inhabited area to seek help. If left untreated, depending on the individual reaction, snakebites can be fatal.

For more information on snakes and proper procedure for snakebites, visit www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/snakes.


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