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Keep your eyes open

April 16, 2001 -- Don't invite Wayne King to a party if television's Crocodile Hunter is on the guest list.


King, the curator of herpetology -- the scientific field that studies amphibians and reptiles -- at the University of Florida's Museum of Natural History, is no fan of Steve Irwin, a.k.a. the Crocodile Hunter.


It's nothing personal, just professional: King cringes every time the high-energy, fast-talking Aussie stalks and then grabs snakes, including some of the world's most venomous. It's bad enough that the snake is terrorized, but King is convinced that sooner or later, someone will imitate Irwin's tail-grabbing antics and suffer a deadly bite.


"If they watch that idiot Irwin, they are going to try it," King says. "Irwin is telling people that they can have this fun, too. I hope his ratings go down."


King and other herpetologists know that handling snakes is no laughing matter, and certainly nothing an amateur should attempt. With somewhere between 30 and 40 venomous snakes slithering around America -- and with spring marking the unofficial start of hiking season -- most people don't have a clue about which are dangerous and which aren't, much less what to do if they're bitten.


Snakes are found almost everywhere in America. But snakes are cold blooded and favor warmer climates. The farther north you live, the fewer the snakes. So while there are six varieties of venomous snakes in Florida, New York has only two -- the timber rattlesnake and the copperhead. Perhaps the deadliest in America are the Eastern and Western diamondback rattlesnakes.


Each year, 5,000 Americans are bitten by venomous snakes, resulting in about five deaths. A surprising number of those bites, King says, are to hands and arms, which usually means the person was trying to handle the snake. And that makes sense since snakes are shy by nature. It's unusual to stumble upon one even in the most remote areas, he says.


"An awful lot of people go bird watching, hunting, camping, and hiking and never see a snake," King says.


There are several things you can do to avoid getting bitten by a snake in the wild. For starters, if you see a snake, back away and walk around it.

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