Almost all of us who have spent time in Texas's great outdoors have had startling encounters with snakes: catching a brief glimpse of a quickly disappearing tail in a flower bed, or coming across a snake lying in our path. Texas is a snakey state; the southern portion especially is home to plenty of these slithering creatures, including several species that are potentially dangerous to people. Houston and its surrounding area are home to copperheads, coral snakes, cottonmouths and even rattlesnakes, creating the possibility of an unfortunate encounter between humans and venomous reptiles. So what should a person do to decrease his or her chances of being bitten, and what steps should be taken if one is? Let's take a look.
4. Know What's Out There
Texas is home to 15 species and subspecies of snakes that are potentially dangerous to humans. We've written about those before, and it's a good idea for all Texans to be familiar with the snakes that they're likely to stumble across wherever they live or spend recreational time. I was surprised to find that rattlesnakes live in Harris County and Fort Bend, but apparently they do. I've never seen one here, but after asking around, I discovered that several friends of mine had, including one person who came across a small rattler in his Spring Branch yard a few years ago. Almost everyone seems to know that cottonmouths and copperheads are plentiful in and around Houston, and coral snakes aren't uncommon either; they just tend to be reclusive and aren't out in the open as often. But anyone living in or around Houston is likely to come across a venomous snake occasionally. They're out there, so what's a person to do to minimize his or her chances of a dangerous encounter with one?
3. Avoid Creating Ideal Homes for Them
Seeing snakes in the wild can be exciting to many folks, but most of us would prefer to keep our yards serpent-free, especially when children or pets might be at risk. The easiest way to dissuade snakes from taking up residence in a yard is to keep your lawn mowed and free from yard waste. Tall grass makes snakes harder to spot, and it also is attractive to mice and other tasty prey animals. In the hot summer months, snakes like to coil up in cool shaded areas, so stacks of firewood, piles of leaves or compost, or other brush can make for an ideal spot for them to hide.
Flowerbeds and other landscaping features such as bushes or shrubs are also places where snakes might like to hang out, especially if they've become overgrown, so be cautious when working in those areas. Much better to poke an overgrown bush with a rake or similar tool than get one's hands closer and discover a copperhead is hiding there.
Proximity to water can also be a challenge for people who want to avoid snakes, because some of our scaly friends enjoy being around it, and Houston has a lot of bayous. We also get heavy rain often enough, and allowing water to pool up in a yard can be an invitation to certain types of snakes. If you live near a bayou, there's not much that can be done about that, but filling in any areas of a yard that tend to hold water will make it less attractive to cottonmouths and others, as well as mosquitos.
2. Don't Intentionally Grab a Snake
This sounds like a no-brainer, but a person who sees a snake and then reaches out to grab it is asking for trouble. Sure, some people are real herpetologists, or have so much experience handling venomous snakes that they can be considered experts at it. But the vast majority of us would probably be better off not grabbing a snake because we saw some yahoo on cable television or the Internet do it. Many bites from coral snakes are caused by people trying to handle them, because the snake would rather stay clear of us; since they're a relative of cobras, the neurotoxin their venom contains is extremely dangerous. Cottonmouths have a reputation for being aggressive and badly tempered, and while that's probably not entirely warranted, why grab one and find out the hard way? Judging from the number of "grabbing a snake" videos on YouTube, plenty of people try, despite the risks involved.
1. Know What to Do — and Not to Do — If You Are Bitten
Let's say the worst has happened, and someone gets bit by one of the venomous snakes that live around Houston. What now?
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Most of the older techniques for administering snakebite-specific first aid have turned out to be ineffective or detrimental to the health of a victim. According to this article from Texas Parks & Wildlife, tourniquets, incision and suction, and other field methods for dealing with snakebites can make things worse. So what's the best course of action? The answer is simple: Get to a hospital as fast as possible, and call ahead to tell them you're coming.
Unless a person is more than an hour away from a hospital, that's the best plan. Calling ahead allows the hospital staff to prepare for an incoming snakebite victim, and to consult with experts if necessary. If a bite occurs more than an hour from medical help, the same basic rules apply, but some first-aid measures before arrival might be desirable. The Texas Parks & Wildlife article has good advice for people in that position. It also has guidelines that most authorities agree on for any victim of a snakebite:
- Reassure the victim; keep him warm, quiet and comfortable.
- Remove rings and other constricting items.
- Loosely immobilize the injured part in a functional position and attempt to keep this part of the body just below heart level.
- Quickly transport the victim to a medical facility.
The good news is that it's incredibly rare for people to die from snakebites in the United States, and Texans have a larger chance of death from a lightning strike. With a little common sense and caution, it's possible to avoid troublesome encounters with our native snake population.