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How to Deal with Poisonous Snakes

By James and Terry Hyde, R.N., B.S.N.

Of all the New England states, Maine is the only one without venomous snakes. In the remainder of the region, there are only two species of such snakes, and encounters are as rare as hens’ teeth.

The snakes involved are, Timber Rattlesnakes and Copperheads and the chances of encountering either are virtually non-existent. This is about what to do if you do encounter either.

While there are venomous snakes here, New England isn’t anything like the wild wild West where rattlesnakes proliferate in large numbers and people wind up getting bitten with enough frequency to encourage everyone to walk with care and with high boots when they’re hiking amongst the cactus in a desert environment.

In New England, the sum total of the two species of venomous snakes number only in the hundreds, bites are virtually unheard of, and death from a bite even rarer, although if bitten by a venomous snake you need to get to a hospital as fast as possible. In Massachusetts only one person has died from a venomous snakebite, and that was well over two hundred years ago. Still, speed os of the essence in getting treatment.

Both species are very shy, and one—the timber rattler, which rattles its tail—warns you if you’re getting too close for comfort. There are all kinds of snakes in the region that do their best to appear tough and mimic the poisonous snakes, but none of them have venom.

As with other forest-dwelling creatures, snakes are more than happy to stay out of your way, and neither species is aggressive. Getting bitten more often than not involves someone stepping on a snake or picking it up. Their bite is almost exclusively the result of their feeling threatened.

The way to tell the difference between venomous snakes from non-venomous species in New England is the shape of the head. Venomous snakes tend to have arrowhead shaped heads, whereas non-venomous snakes tend to be streamlined.


  Female copperhead with three newborn snakes.

The more common snakes have adopted the rattlesnake’s warning method and will vibrate their tails to appear as if they’re rattlers. The hognose snake will put on quite a display if it feels threatened. It will writhe around, sometimes vomit, lie on its back and play dead until it feels it’s out of danger. While it can be a scary performance, the hognose isn’t venomous, but its bite can hurt and get infected.

Both of the poisonous species are excellent at blending in with the forest floor. That’s why just keeping an eye on where you’re headed is smart. But their numbers are so diminished that they are protected animals, and attempts to increase their numbers are not meeting with the success hoped for. In the final analysis, you’re not likely to encounter a venomous snake, but keep a wary eye on the forest floor anyway.

Should you be bitten by one, the area around the bite should be cleaned with soap and water and medical attention sought right away. If it’s possible to capture the snake without being bitten again, obviously, it can help a physician determine whether or not it’s poisonous, and if so, which species it is should he or she need to administer antivenin.

While the non-venomous snakes obviously carry no venom, their bites can be painful and prone to infection, so if you get bitten by a non-venomous species, clean the area around the wound with soap and water and have the bite mark looked at by a doctor. If you haven’t had a tetanus booster, it’s advisable to get one, along with antibiotics. If the bite area begins to redden, gets warm, becomes painful or swells, you’ll need to be seen by a doctor again for treatment.

In short, the chances of your encountering, much less being bitten by, either a Timber Rattlesnake or a Copperhead are virtually non-existent.

The smart thing to do is avoid all snakes. Just pass by or let them pass by. It’s never a good idea to pick up a snake unless you’re a herpetologist or someone trained in the proper way of handling snakes and you know what you’re doing.

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