Living with Virginia’s snakes — by letting the myths lie
Few local creatures (except perhaps the eastern mountain lion) are shrouded in more myth and fantasy than snakes. In casual conversation here in Rappahannock County, you might hear that someone saw a water moccasin by the river or be subjected to a tale of a copperhead killing someone, or you might even be convinced that black snakes are known to breed with venomous snakes. But you will hear none of these stories if you speak to the experts.
“A black snake breeding with a copperhead or timber rattler would be like breeding a dog with a cat,” Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries’ (VDGIF) terrestrial wildlife biologist Susan Watson explained. First of all, she said, the eastern black racer and eastern rat snake (two often-confused and harmless native snakes) lay eggs, while the region’s two venomous species of pit-viper give birth to live young.
She added that there hasn’t been a single recorded human in Virginia death linked to a copperhead bite.
Watson said she fields several calls a day that confirm her opinion that snakes are widely misunderstood by their neighbors: humans. She’s often told matter-of-factly about sightings of eastern cottonmouth (aka water moccasin) in northern Virginia, but she said that folks are typically confusing the poisonous tidewater pit-viper with the harmless common water snake, which is prevalent in regional waterways.
“All snakes are our friends; they have an important place in our ecosystem,” Watson explained, noting that the VDGIF classifies snakes as nongame species and are therefore illegal to kill – even the poisonous ones. “They control pest populations, preventing disease-carrying rodents from infesting areas, and small snakes like garden snakes eat pest insect species like grubs and other bugs . . . Killing a snake ultimately hurts your local ecosystem.”
Copperheads play a pivotal role in controlling rodent populations, according to information from the Virginia Herpetological Society (VHS), the state’s leading source on snakes. “Without copperheads and other rodent-eating snakes there would be a drastic increase in crop/food damage and rodent-spread diseases,” the VHS website (virginiaherpetologicalsociety.com) states. “While copperheads are venomous, they are very placid snakes that only bite if stepped on or otherwise threatened. If you see a copperhead, leave it alone and rest assured it will do its best to avoid you.”
But say you’re out gardening and find a copperhead in your garden? Watson’s advice on the subject only addressed preventing snake presence near humans. She says to keep yards and gardens cleared of brush piles and tall grass, which attracts most snakes’ main food source, mice and other rodents.
“If there’s a venomous snake in your garden, find someone to move it for you – or just leave it alone and it will move along eventually,” volunteer wildlife rehabilitator Amo Merritt of Boston said Wednesday, noting that snakes just follow the urine trails of mice and won’t come around if there aren’t any good spots to find mice. “If there’s no food source, they won’t be there.”
Enter Alex Ramey of Slate Mills, resident snake wrangler known to friends and neighbors as the guy to call about a snake in your yard. Two weeks ago, Ramey removed a yearling copperhead from a family friends’ garden in Castleton – using a badminton racket, then carrying it in a terrarium to an undisclosed and hard-to-reach area of the Shenandoah National Park and releasing it into a large pile of fallen trees.
The 22-year-old county native said he sees more copperheads than rattlesnakes, suspecting that it’s because timber rattlesnakes prefer rocky mountainous habitat, while copperheads thrive wherever there’s food (and are found in every county in the state). The two timber rattlers Ramey’s seen in the past few years have been located on rocky hiking trails, one on Sperryville’s Oventop Mountain in 2009; the other, the largest he’s ever seen, was about three feet long and coiled right in the middle of the White Oak Canyon hiking trail in Madison. He used a long stick to move both snakes from the trail.
Though he’s never been bitten by a poisonous snake, Ramey said he’s been bitten by just about every other harmless snake found in the county – drawling, in cheerful “Forrest Gump” style, through a list that included the rat snake, black racer, watersnake, garter snake, barn snake, kingsnake and queensnake. As a boy, he admits to having had a bit of an obsession with inspecting the strange creatures, even taking on a few as pets for a month or so at a time before releasing them.
Chris Bird, owner of Horseshoe Hollow Farm on Fodderstack Road, was bit by a copperhead in 1972. He said he had used a forked stick to immobilize the copperhead before reaching down with his hand to grab it just behind the head. The snake was able to contort enough to penetrate the last joint of his index finger with a single fang. By the time he got to the hospital, there wasn’t much to be done, and the end of his finger is permanently bent and free of feeling.
Bird says his father Lee, however, almost died in 1987 after being bit on the same property by a copperhead. But, Bird explained, it wasn’t the bite that nearly killed him – it was the antivenom used to treat the bite. Seven to 10 days after the bite, Lee experienced a severe allergic reaction called “serum sickness.”
“There’s nothing worth picking up a poisonous snake,” Bird said, “and I would think long and hard about taking the antivenom if you do happen to get bitten.”
Rappahannock’s emergency medical services coordinator Richie Burke said that there are typically about three to four emergency calls about venomous snake bites per year, though there haven’t been any yet this year. And so far, he hasn’t heard of any deaths in the county related to snake bites, but noted that it is much more common for dogs in the hollows to get bitten by snakes than people.
Small animal veterinarian Kim Cole of Rose Hill Veterinary said that so far this year, nine dogs have been treated for venomous snake bites, which is on pace for the typical 20 to 30 cases the clinic sees every summer “snake season.” Since only about 25 percent of snake-bite cases are witnessed by the pet owner, Cole said, a dog will come back with a swollen face or front leg marked by discoloration at the spot of swelling and two puncture wounds.
The wounds are typically located on the face or front legs because the dog is likely trying to kill or attack the snake. She noted that in 90 percent of venomous bite cases, even the small dogs like Jack Russell terriers recover fully with a regimen of antibiotics and anti-inflammatory drugs.
Bruce Jones and his wife Susan, who maintain an eight-acre native plant sanctuary on their Long Mountain property, do everything they can to encourage black snakes and other non venomous snakes – since the harmless snakes control pesky rodent populations which damage their delicate plants.
Ramey agrees, noting that black racers, black rat snakes and kingsnakes eat just about everything, and keep poisonous snakes away by competing for prey.
Watson said that snakes are solitary feeders, so they choose to distance themselves from fellow snakes during the feeding season, though they are known to hibernate together. Without snakes, Watson said, there would be infestations of disease-carrying rodents that could make life miserable for humans. She noted that if you don’t want venomous snakes around, the eastern kingsnake is your friend, since they specialize in eating snakes.
Here’s a related letter to the editor.
“There is such a mystique about snakes,” Jones said. “Having moved out here from the city decades ago, it was a common refrain that ‘the only good snake is a dead snake,’ but I’ve found that that isn’t the case. Humans seem to have this mindset that we have to control nature, and you just can’t do it. If you work to eliminate one thing you perceive as a problem, it always seems to create some new and unforeseen problem that could be a lot worse. Life is a big balance.”
For more information about snakes in our area, visit virginiaherpetologicalsociety.com. There you will find a wealth of pictures, species descriptions and common misconceptions.