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Snakes Alive

Friday, March 20, 2009

Snakes Alive

(Submitted by Louise Eads DeHart)

As a child growing up in the 1930’s, I was cautioned, “Don’t you go down there.” “You’ll get on a snake.” I can still hear my grandma say those exact words. Inviting as “down there” (the little creek containing crawdads) appeared to me, I paid heed to my grandma. “Gettin” on a snake meant that a copperhead or a rattlesnake could bite you. This occurrence was indeed an awful event, for a rattle snake bite could be fatal to a child, even fatal to an adult. Copper heads are not as venomous, but a child is seriously wounded if bitten and the pain is frightful.

Calling a doctor quickly was not an option, for there was one telephone in our community located in a home at least five miles away from my grandma’s house. Serums for snakebite were developed but rarely available when needed. I read recently in the Missouri conservation magazine that serum is not usually given for a copper head bite, because doctors have discovered that the treatment might cause the patient more problems than the bite.

If I had been bitten in the 1930’s, my grandma would have soaked the wound in coal oil (kerosene) or turpentine and sent my brother to tell my parents. My dad and mother would have cared for me in the best way that they knew; that is, a flax seed poultice applied to the wound. As an alternative, they might have used a piece of fat, cured bacon as an agent to draw out the poison. Dad would probably have ridden a horse to town to see a doctor. I am not sure that anyone would have tried the unusual remedy of using a chicken as a poultice. A dear neighbor, Mrs. Marie Eads, now long deceased, told me how her parents treated her when a copperhead bit her. She thought that she was about five years old (1911) when she stepped on a copperhead. She was barefooted and was bitten on the side of her foot. Her dad killed a chicken, cut it open and wrapped its warm insides around her injured foot. She said that the warmth of the chicken was soothing and that it acted as a poultice. She further said that the chicken’s flesh turned green as it drew out the poison. She was happy to report that she was healing within a few days. She said that she did get very ill and had a temperature, but her life was never in danger. She said, “Thanks to that chicken.”

Today, there are probably plenty of copperheads near my house. Last summer, I knew that one of them was under my back porch, for I could see about one foot of its protruding tail. I made my little dog, Bubbles, come into the house, for she was eager to investigate. I would like to say that Bubbles is smart, but I can’t attest to that, for she recently tangled with a skunk. After it sprayed her, she was ready to attack it a second time. ‘Possums, skunks, and coyotes as well as snakes roam freely around my house, and I no longer will allow her to stay outside overnight. Also, she needed assistance after the encounter with the skunk. I soothed her and bathed her in tomato juice, an effective skunk odor neutralizer. I then wrapped her in a towel to ward off a chill.

I was surprised that she wanted to attack the copperhead, for she was bitten September 27, 2003, by something venomous. I assume that it was a copperhead. She needed lots of assistance then and we visited Dr. Loyal Henderson, our local veterinarian, that first night. After that first visit, I took her to see Dr. Henderson, for my beloved husband, Ray DeHart, was killed by his tractor two days after Bubbles was bitten. Dr. Henderson assured me that my little dog would recover and prescribed pain medication and an antibiotic. Poor little Bubbles lay quietly for about one week sicker than a dog ought to be. The wound to her flank enlarged to the size of a bread plate and one could see muscle and connective tissue. It was an awful injury, but it did heal and the fur grew again. She limped for a long time, but was able to recover fully. It is possible that she did not realize that the animal under the back porch was of the type that caused her great harm three years earlier.

I know personally that at least one copperhead was not aggressive. I had carelessly discarded a piece of plastic webbing, the kind used to throw over a peach tree to protect the fruit from birds. One day I noticed a copperhead hopelessly entangled in this plastic mesh. I thought that it was not sporting to kill this animal when it was defenseless. I picked up this pile of plastic and copperhead, and then used manicure scissors to cut each strand of plastic that was embedded in the snakes’ scales. The strands were under its scales in several places, for each time it rolled to free itself, it had become more hopelessly snared. I carried the snake and its entrapping material to the edge of our yard, and the last part of the snake still caught was its head. I held it up high to enable its weight to free the head when I cut the last strand. As I had planned the snake hit the ground, crawling away from me as fast as it could wriggle.

Two other stories about copperheads around my house are unusual. I parked the car in the drive in front of our house to unload two bags of groceries, in the fall of 1994. As I approached the front door I noticed what appeared to be a small limb standing up straight. I walked within two feet of it, continued into the house and set the groceries on the counter. My thoughts returned to that strange appearing limb, and I opened the front door to get a better view. To my surprise I noticed that this upright “limb” was actually two entwined copperheads. I always had a camera available, but I was totally engrossed in this unusual sight and did not think about a camera. I later read that very few humans have seen this ritual snake dance and some say that there are no published photographs. One snake stood about three feet high and the second one was only about one-half that size.

This event was spectacular but more copperhead display was uncovered the following spring. We had fashioned a nearly perfect snake hatchery, for we left a wooden pallet lying on the ground, weighted it down with bags of sand and covered the sand with waterproof black paper. The sand was to be used the following spring in cement mixtures. When we uncovered the pile and raised the pallet, we discovered eleven colorful swirls about six inches in diameter. In addition two copperheads were coiled, one about twice the size of the second. I then realized that the unusual swirls were baby copper heads. They looked similar to morel mushrooms, but larger and flatter, nestling in indentations in the ground. None of the snakes were moving, for it was still too cold for them to stir. I hated for my husband to kill any of them, but he said, “We can’t have thirteen copperheads within five feet of our side walk.” I didn’t tell him about the one copperhead that I rescued. Because my little dog suffered greatly from snakebite, I can’t decide whether one should kill every copperhead that tries to hide in the tall grass or raise its family under a pallet, near my house. Others will have to decide. – Louise Eads DeHart

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