Although a Trafford man was bit by a snake in Fayette County early Thursday morning, a local herpetologist said close encounters with reptiles are rare.
Chad Heasley, 39, was riding an all-terrain vehicle through the woods with friends when his vehicle got stuck in mud. State police said he went to get some rocks to help elevate his tires and a snake bit him. He was flown to Highlands Hospital and Health Center in Connellsville. A report on his condition was not immediately available.
Ken Stairs of Somerset, a field biologist, said trails go through scenic areas of high mountains where snakes live. Police had not confirmed what kind of snake bit Heasley, but there are copperheads and rattlesnakes in the woods near Connellsville, Stairs said.
“They are secretive and they like to go undetected and unmolested,” he said. “If you step on one or try to pick it up, you will get bit. The snake feels threatened.”
Snakes are often found around rocks or beside logs.
“Never be afraid to hike, but wear boots or sturdy shoes, not flip-flops,” he said. “Look carefully before sitting on the ground and don’t put your fingers on ledges without looking carefully. Step up on logs and look around the side before stepping over it. A snake may be lying on the ground near the log waiting for a chipmunk. Stay on the trail.”
It isn’t true that snakes travel in pairs. Adults that are hunting will be alone. Gestating females will be in groups — he once saw 46 together at a boulder. It isn’t true that snakes can strike a great distance. They can only strike about half of their body length or a little longer if they are on a rock. Their body length isn’t as long as people think, either.
“Snakes aren’t going to chase anybody,” he said. “They are looking for an escape route. Noise wakes them. If you hear a rattle, stop, look for the snake and sidestep around him.”
Ninety-five percent of snakes are nonpoisonous, Stairs said. Those bites are similar to scratches. Someone who is bitten by a poisonous snake can be treated in most hospitals and should be fine if he doesn’t have any underlying medical problems. It isn’t true that physicians need to know what type of snake bit you before starting treatment, he said. The medication is the same.
“Don’t take the snake to the hospital with you — it causes trauma in the ER,” Stairs said. “Thirty percent of bites are dry bites. Out in the southwest you may be further away from medical facilities and the snakes are bigger and have a higher toxicity. There a snake bite is more dangerous.”
Stairs was bitten by a snake once. He had wild-caught a western diamondback rattlesnake in Texas and brought it back with him. He was measuring the snake and it bit him on the thumb.
“It didn’t like being handled,” he said. “I spent seven days in the hospital.”
Venomous snake bites can cause tissue and nerve death. If you are bitten by a rattlesnake or copperhead snake, immobilize the limb at or above the heart if possible. If you are bit on the hand or arm, put your arm across your stomach and hold it there. If you have a cell phone with you, call 911.
“Remain calm — I know it’s hard, but keep your heart rate from going up,” Stairs said. “Get to the nearest medical facility as soon as you can, but don’t run. That raises the heart rate. If you are bit on the hand, remove any rings you’re wearing because your hand will swell. If you have a constricting band — not a tourniquet — put it above the bite. Don’t drink alcohol or take medications.”
The new antivenin serum is sheep blood based and has fewer side effects than the older one that was horse blood based.
About five years ago, he asked the state Health Department how many people in Pennsylvania died of bites from indigenous snakes. There were no deaths for 10 years prior to that.
Stairs and three other men are catching large male rattlesnakes and copperheads on a mountain in Bedford County where wind turbines are to be placed. Two-inch-long transmitters will be implanted in the snakes to track them to dens. The dens will be mapped so the wind turbines don’t break up the dens. The snakes will be caught again in the spring to remove the implants.
Dave Fox, Somerset County 911 coordinator, said people who hike on the trails or through woods need to be aware of where they are. They’ve had problems before with people having a medical emergency on the trail and because they are calling on an older cell phone or the tree canopy was interfering with reception, the 911 center couldn’t pinpoint their location.
“We asked one person where he parked his car so we’d have a starting point, and he replied ‘In a lot with a sign with a big P on it,’” he said. “You need to be aware of which trail you are on and where you went in. Try to know what direction you walked and about how far you walked. If you have a GPS that can be used while walking and a cell phone, take them along. Some people leave the main trail and are on footpaths. That causes problems. Never go alone. It’s like hunting season: You’re safer if you go in numbers. If you do go alone, tell somebody where you are going. People should also wear proper clothing in case they are stranded outside at night. Carry matches to start a fire. Take any survival gear you have.”