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The month of March has two notable dates related to snakes. The first is St. Patrick’s Day, March 17. Legend has it that the fifth-century bishop rid Ireland of its snakes. A nice legacy some might think—except the island is too cold and isolated ever to have had snakes of any kind. The other important date, the first day of spring, soon follows, bringing with it the annual renewal of life. In the United States reptiles begin emerging from winter dormancy in springtime. Below is a refresher course about this fascinating group of top predators.

Most snakes will not harm humans. Your chances of receiving a serious bite from an encounter with a snake are extremely low. The average American never even sees a snake from one year to the next. Hunters, bird-watchers and hikers walk past many more snakes than they notice. Nonetheless, most southeastern states have more than 30 different kinds of native snakes—underground, in rock piles or perfectly camouflaged on a carpet of dead leaves. Only six species of southeastern snakes are venomous.

The presence of snakes heralds a healthy environment. We need not fear any snake if we recognize that most snakebites are avoidable and we follow certain basic safety procedures. People who spend a lot of time outdoors in natural habitats as well as in many suburban areas where a few venomous snakes persist should consider the following:

  1. Know your local snakes. If you are concerned about the possibility of snakebite, check reliable websites or consult a field guide to learn which venomous snakes live in your area and what they look like. The six venomous species in the Southeast are cottonmouth, copperhead and coral snake, plus three rattlesnakes, canebrake aka timber rattlesnake (which are the same species), pygmy and eastern diamondback.


  1. Use common sense. If you see a snake, observe it from a distance. Do not disturb it. Do not try to catch it. Many people are bitten while trying to kill a snake when they could simply have observed it then walked away. If you are in an area where venomous species occur, watch where you step and be careful where you put your hands outdoors. Rock ledges and fallen logs are prime hangouts for snakes.


  1. Dress properly. When walking through swamps or thick vegetation, many people like the protection offered by long pants and high-topped boots or even snake leggings. Most leather boots are too thick for snake fangs to penetrate.


  1. Keep your car keys and cell phone handy. Having access to a vehicle to transport a snakebite victim to an emergency care facility and a cell phone to call ahead are smart precautions to take. Of course, such forethought would be helpful in any emergency.


  1. In the unlikely event you or someone with you gets bitten by a snake, physicians now advise against potentially harmful old-school first-aid techniques. No cutting. No tourniquet. No freezing. No stun gun. Instead, get the victim to a hospital or walk-in clinic as quickly as possible.

Venomous snakebites in the U.S. are rare. And many of those bites occur when someone picks up a snake. Again: do not disturb the snake. Numerous variables determine whether a bite is insignificant or serious. Some bites occur because the victim did not see the snake until too late to avoid it. Half or more of those are “dry bites,” meaning no venom was injected. The potency and the amount of venom injected depend on the snake. For example, an eastern diamondback has more potent venom and can deliver a much higher dose than a copperhead can. However, a rattlesnake is less likely to strike a person than is a copperhead.

Most snakebites can be avoided. Take a few simple precautions then go enjoy the outdoors. And rather than hope for a St. Patrick to rid the world of serpents, learn to appreciate all of Mother Nature’s offerings—even the snakes.

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Like most U.S. snakes, the colorful scarlet snake is completely harmless to humans. Photo courtesy Parker Gibbons.