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Snakes Not So Charming in the Wild

Keep your eyes open

continued...

 

"Snakes, harmless or venomous, hide under things where they have shelter," King says. "They don't like being stepped on by people or deer, so they tend to lie under the edge of logs or rocks."

 

If you live in an area with snakes, King suggests learning to identify the venomous from non-venomous species. And forget the myth that all venomous snakes have triangle-shaped heads or oval, cat-like eyes.

 

"Coral snakes don't," he points out. "There simply is no other way of doing it than getting familiar with the snakes."

 

The University of Florida Museum of Natural History has put together an online field guide (www.flmnh.ufl.edu/natsci/herpetology/fl-guide/onlineguide.htm) of the state's snakes. "We put in a key to identify snakes, and it is written for the layman," he says.

 

If you see a snake and can't identify it, don't handle it, King warns. If you do and are bitten, try to kill the snake and bring it to the hospital for identification. If the snake is poisonous, your prognosis and therapy will depend on the type of snake.

 

"Obviously, don't get bitten twice more trying to find the snake," says Craig S. Kitchens, MD, a professor of medicine at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

 

A hematologist, Kitchens has been treating snakebites in Florida for 20 years. He sees between 30 and 40 victims a year. From that he has learned that the vast majority of snakebites are the result of someone poking, teasing, or cornering a snake.

 

"Snakes don't fall out of trees and bite your behind," he says.

 

Nor does Kitchens feel that people hiking or camping in the wilderness need worry about snakebites. He's often asked to provide snakebite kits for people planning to walk the Appalachian Trail.

 

"I tell them you don't need a snakebite kit," he says. "Just don't mess with snakes."

 

But if a snake does bite you, Kitchens recommends forgoing field remedies like ice, tourniquets, or the cut-and-suck method made famous in movies. It's not that they don't work. It's just that if not done properly, he says, they can cause more harm than good. Instead, head for the nearest hospital.

 

"Antivenom works pretty damn good," Kitchens says. "Usually you walk away with [no injury] at all. Most people bitten repair pretty well."

 

Antivenom ideally should be administered within six hours after a bite, and no more than 12 hours. But most snakebite victims don't receive antivenom, Kitchen says. In fact, only 40% of those bitten by venomous snakes are given the serum. That's because most snake venom isn't that toxic.

 

For instance, Kitchens says, pygmy rattlesnake or copperhead bites aren't usually treated.

 

But antivenom is a lifesaver for the 10-15% of the people bitten by the highly toxic Eastern or Western diamondbacks. Still, the traditional horse-blood antivenom serum has its drawbacks.

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