Staying Safe: Hunters and Snakes

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The very mention of snakes can cause even the bravest outdoorsman to shudder in fear.  While snakes do represent a legitimate concern, snakebite is relatively rare in the US and the total number of annual deaths is a fraction of the number caused by automobile accidents, bees or lightning strikes.  (Johnson & McGarrity, 2013) (Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2013)  By learning the facts, and understanding a few basic safety principles, you can greatly reduce the odds of receiving a bite and increase your chances of avoiding serious ramifications in the event of a bite.

Seasonal Concerns
Snakes are ectothermic animals that are not active at cold temperatures.  Instead, snakes retire to burrows, dens or tree hollows when the mercury drops too low.  If the temperatures are below about 50 degrees the odds of seeing a snake above ground are very low.  Hunters seeking gobblers in the spring or fall, or predators and prairie dogs in the summer are the most likely to encounter snakes.

Species of Concern
Only two types of snake in the US are capable of delivering medically significant bites: pit vipers and elapids.  Pit vipers, which include copperheads, cottonmouths and rattlesnakes, are the chief concern for hunters and outdoorsmen.  Pit vipers have long, folding front fangs and small depressions on their faces that allow them to detect the heat given off by predators or prey.  The only elapids, relatives of the cobras and mambas of the old world, native to the United States are coral snakes, which are unlikely to bite unless handled.  Familiarize yourself with the species native to your region, and learn to recognize them quickly.

Why Do Snakes Bite?
Despite their reputation as aggressive, confrontational animals, snakes are actually quite frightened by people and not inclined to bite.  From a snake's perspective, a hunter represents a threat that they would rather avoid all together; snakes only bite to secure food or protect their life.  The vast majority of venomous snakebites result from humans deliberately interacting with venomous snakes, usually in an effort to catch or kill them.  Aside from such foolhardy cases, most bites result from humans stepping on or near venomous snakes.

Geographic Concerns
Hunters in the southern United States are at greater risk than those in the north.  Arizona, New Mexico, California, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Florida and Texas all boast five or more pit viper species, whereas Wyoming, Minnesota and Wisconsin only harbor two species each.  While southern states harbor more venomous species than northern states do, they also have more days with temperatures that are conducive to snake activity.

Understanding the Risks
Venomous snakes represent a trivial risk for the average hunter.  Snakebite is chiefly a problem for people that walk and work barefoot in tropical countries.  For the North Americans with access to modern medical facilities, deaths from venomous snakebite are exceedingly rare.  According to the University of Florida, only five or six of the 8,000 bites reported annually in the US are fatal. (University of Florida, 2012)  You are much more likely to die in an automobile accident while travelling to or from your hunting grounds than you are from a bite in the field.

What to Do If You Are Bitten
If you are one of the very few unfortunate enough to receive a bite, it is important to remain calm.  The primary goal is to get yourself to the hospital as quickly and calmly as possible.  Put some distance between yourself and the snake to ensure you do not receive further bites; but do not try to catch or kill the snake -- it is dangerous and unnecessary.  Use your cellphone to call 911 and alert them to your situation.  If you are close to your vehicle, walk to it calmly and proceed to the nearest hospital.  If you would have to walk miles to your car, it may be better to get help to come to you.  Discuss the situation with the 911 operator to make the best decision.  Do not cut the wound, attempt to suck out the venom or tie a tourniquet around the bitten extremity.  These treatments cause more harm than help. (Gregory Juckett, 2002)  According to snake expert and professor at the University of Georgia, Athens, Whit Gibbons, the best snakebite kit contains "a set of car keys, a cell phone and a companion." (Gibbons, 2011)

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