What to do if bitten:
• Positively identify the snake if at all possible. Take a picture of it with your camera phone if possible. Harmless snakes may bite people in self-defense and their bites rarely require treatment.
• Call for help or get to a medical facility as quickly as possible. If a friend or relative is transporting you, call the facility to let them know you are coming.
• Try to remain calm and alert those around you that you may experience shock.
• Do NOT use a tourniquet, try to suck out the venom, or make cuts near the wound.
• Only accept antivenin after you have been tested to determine whether you are allergic to the antivenin, even if it is from a physician.
Labor Day marks a two-year anniversary for Douglas County resident Mary Lynn Stuart but unfortunately an unpleasant one. The holiday was the day Stuart was bitten by a venomous snake known as a copperhead while pulling weeds in her garden.
“I had worked outside all day that day and then came in to take a shower,” Stuart recalls. Keen to the presence of snakes in the area, Stuart was performing her gardening chores as usual, wearing rubber boots and gloves.
After the shower, Stuart went back out, sans protective gear, just to pick up tools.
“Then a few weeds got the best of me and I started working again,” she says. “I was reaching under a shrub, a barberry in fact, pulling weeds, and wham, it got me.”
Stuart describes the snake’s bite as feeling like a thousand razor blades penetrating her skin, followed by a sensation that her hand and arm were going to explode. She had six puncture wounds on her left hand courtesy of the copperhead.
Copperheads are one of three species of venomous snakes that inhabit northeast Kansas. Adult copperheads vary in color from gray to light brown with patterns of dark gray or brown crossbands. Immature copperheads are similarly patterned, but have green or yellow tails. They are known to reach up to forty inches long in Kansas.
Stuart was familiar with copperheads because she had seen them before in her garden. The rocky terrain near her home in the southwest part of the county is just the habitat copperheads prefer. Despite the risk, though, Stuart wholeheartedly believes in not killing snakes unnecessarily.
“Jim and I have been scooping up snakes and returning them to the woods since 1975,” Stuart says, referring to her husband.
Stuart now uses a child’s rake to lift the foliage of plants before reaching under for weeds or to move mulch.
“Don’t put your hands under things you can’t see under!” she advises.
She also recommends gloves and rubber boots for extra protection.
“I was always led to believe that snakes were aggressive, but they really aren’t,” Stuart notes. “Really, really, they are just trying to hide.”
She also notes that the copperheads lived in the area long before she and her neighbors built their houses.
After the bite, Stuart walked to a nearby neighbor’s and asked them to call 911. She was treated with antivenin and after more than a year regained all feeling in her hand.
Stuart notes that another downside to being bitten by the copperhead was the expense. Her treatment included two and half days in an intensive care unit, six very expensive vials of antivenin (at the time they were about six thousand dollars apiece), and physical therapy after release from the hospital.
From experience, Stuart believes copperheads are more active in the fall. Since they bear young from August to October, she may very well be correct.
The timber rattlesnake and massasauga are the only venomous snakes found in northeast Kansas besides the copperhead. Timber rattlesnakes are characterized by the pattern of dark bands or chevrons down the back and their rattle. They can be more than five feet long. Massasauga are a type of rattlesnake with smaller brown or gray blotches down the back and can reach thirty-three inches long.