Frequently, and without fear, I tromp through the woods and wetlands of South Georgia, and I never really worry about venomous snakes. More people are killed by falling tree limbs each year than snakes, and in the greatest of ironies, the place in the United States where most people die of snakebite, the American Southwest, there are fewer trees limbs to fall upon their unsuspecting victims. Of course, you might want to think this is a misleading stat, but when it gets right down to it getting bit by a snake takes some effort, getting killed by that bite takes some doing in its own right, and really, even those who do get bit, very rarely die.
Let me make one thing perfectly clear; snakebite is an incredibly painful and infinitely nasty thing to survive. Venom is actually a digestive juice designed to break down the body of a prey animal so the snake can more readily break the body down into its nutrients. Nothing about being bit by a venomous reptile is enjoyable, pleasant, or for that matter, something you will enjoy. But you aren’t going to die. You’ll just wish you were.
So what are your odds of being bitten by a hot snake? There are four classes of people who are bitten above the average; those trying to kill snakes, those trying to catch snakes, those who have been drinking to excess, and for some reason, people with tattoos get bitten sixty-five percent more often than those without. If you aren’t out there trying to kill the poor harmless rattlesnakes, and you aren’t silly enough to be trying to catch them, and you don’t drink with rattlesnakes, and you aren’t tattooed, really, why bother being afraid of snakes at all?
Elbow called me one night and told me there was a rattlesnake in her yard. I checked the wine bottle and there was more missing from it than I liked, but it’s only two and a half miles from there to here, so away I went. Now, this is hot on the heels of there being a truly large rattlesnake in Elbow’s yard. She called 911 but the first guy they sent was afraid of snakes and would get out of the car when he saw how big the snake was. It was too close to the house to be shot at and everyone be safe, so they had to dispatch someone else to dispatch the snake, and I was not happy. “Call me next time, please, and I will relocate the snake.” So she did and there I was on the way to catch a rattlesnake and the wine told me everything would be just grape.
Now, when someone calls me and tells me there’s a rattlesnake in their yard, I envision something that is going to create some excitement. You’ve seen rattlesnakes before, and in Western movies the snake is always coiled, ready to strike, and never trying to get away. Most rattlesnakes will stand their ground, unless they get the idea you’re trying to herd them, and then some of them get the hint and move. Cottonmouths are a little different. I’ve got a field book who offers this advice, “Never handle a live one” and that is the only snake they say this about, even though more people are killed by rattlesnakes. I think the Cottonmouth gets a bad rap simple because if it is going to be killed it rather go down fighting than running. I stepped on a big one last June and by all rights, I ought to have a pair of holes in me that weren’t there in the beginning, but it let me go, and I let it go, too.
I drifted away from the rattlesnake, didn’t I?
Such as it was, the rattlesnake was all of about six inches long. Honestly, it was less than a year old, barely had a button for a rattle, and looked terrified. I’ve caught six foot long rattlesnakes, decades ago, barehanded, so this wasn’t anything new or dangerous. The plan was to open the snake bag, used a glove hand to slap the snake into the bag, and damn. Bastard bit me. Rarely, very rarely, so rare in fact I have only seen it happen twice, a snake will strike not out but up and this one went up and grabbed me by the thumb. I walked over to the floodlight to see if I was hit, if I was hit, how bad, and in the meantime, Elbow was losing her mind. I felt the snake’s fangs sink into the glove but I had no idea if it got flesh and if it did, how much. I squeezed the hell out of the thumb. No blood. I held it under the light, glanced over to see if the snake had moved, and it was still there smirking, and squeezed again, no blood. Merciless hell! Elbow was still losing her mind, and it did occur to me that if I had been bit, I would have been infinitely better off driving myself to the hospital, and likely her too. I squeezed my thumb and it looked like it might have sustained some pressure damage from too much squeezing but otherwise.
I used a stick to herd the tiny snake into the bag, and tossed it into the bed of my truck. I knew someone who let a six foot long Coachwhip Snake loose in their car and it took a lawn chair, thirteen beers, three eight track tapes and a joint before the snake slithered out of the car. I’m not about to keep a live rattlesnake in the cab of my truck. The next day I turned it loose in the woods, and I never saw it again.
Most people won’t go to any trouble at all to keep a venomous reptile alive, and most will do much to kill one. But I think nature is worth the risk, even when it doesn’t go your way. Even when you lose, if you’ve done something that in some small way helps things in the long run, it is still worth it. But damn, snake bite is nasty.