Resident spots copperhead
Snake specialists are warning area residents to watch where they reach, step - and even sit - as venomous snake season is in full swing.
There has been more than one snake sighting in Leavenworth County already this year, not the least of which came earlier this spring at the home of Jennifer and Bill Loechler, who live about four miles north of Tonganoxie on 219th Street.
Bill Loechler was locking up the backdoor of his house for the night Saturday, May 24 when he looked down and saw a two-foot-long brown, banded snake coiled on the cement steps leading to the couple's home.
Loechler recognized the creature - a copperhead - but wanted to be sure.
Before grabbing a piece of wooden trim to pin the snake's head down, Loechler grabbed his wife Jennifer to come take a look and snap a picture.
Sure enough, upon further review by Joe Collins, director of The Center for North American Herpetology in Lawrence, the snake was positively identified as a copperhead, one of the few poisonous snakes indigenous to northeast Kansas.
When Bill Loechler tried to corral the venomous viper, it fell from the couple's 20-foot-high stoop, and the Loechlers have not seen it since.
According to Collins and Rafe Brown, a herpetologist at Kansas University's Natural History Museum, copperheads, which along with various species of rattlesnakes, are the most common poisonous snakes in the area, are not generally dangerous.
But, Brown said, "If you step on one unknown, it will bite."
"Most of the bites in Kansas occur from people walking around at night with no shoes on," Collins explained but added that, like most venomous snakes, they rarely attack humans unprovoked.
"They look at human beings like something out of Jurassic Park," he said.
The reptiles' ideal habitat is under rocks on wooded hillsides like those across Leavenworth and Jefferson counties.
During the hot, summer months of June, July and August, copperheads come out mostly at night, when they hunt mainly for rodents and other small mammals using heat-sensitive thermal pits to sense body heat emitted from their prey against a cool, nighttime background.
Collins said copperheads can be identified by dark, hour-glass-shaped brown bands against a lighter, copper-colored body.
And like most poisonous snakes in North America, Brown said they have a broad, almost triangular head to accommodate enlarged jaws and venom glands.
They range from New England to Florida and can be found as far west as the eastern third of Kansas.
The largest copperhead ever caught was around 40 inches long, Collins said, also noting that females rarely reach more than two feet.
Expert knows of snake bites
Although, according to Collins, in the state of Kansas since 1950, no one has died as a direct result of a copperhead bite, the former KU herpetology acknowledged that plenty of snakebites do occur each year.
Collins, in fact, said he has been bitten four times by venomous snakes - including one copperhead - since beginning study of the reptiles roughly 40 years ago.
"You're going to wish you were dead (if bitten)," Collins said, "Because it hurts like no get-out."
His advice for someone bitten by a copperhead?
Stay calm and limit physical movement.
"The very first thing to do is to get in a vehicle and go to the nearest medical facility," Collins said.
Brown said people should not adhere to popular anecdotal wisdom like sucking out the venom or cutting open a wound unless extremely secluded while "hiking in the woods" for instance, as those methods usually lead to worse infections.
An affected person could experience anything from discomfort and discoloration around the wound to dramatic swelling, extreme nausea and possible hemorrhaging.
At a hospital, medical workers will immediately stabilize a victim, fill the patient with liquids to reduce pain and swelling and might administer the antivenin (or antivenom) CroFab as an intravenous drip if deemed necessary, Collins said.
In ordinary circumstances, a victim should be out of the hospital within three days, he added.
In worst-case scenarios, a person could lose a finger, toe or a "chunk" of skin because of tissue destruction, caused by a necrotic element in a copperhead's venom.
Once is enough
While many people would do their best to avoid venomous snakes, Collins goes out of his way to find them.
When he heard of the Loechlers' recent chance encounter with a copperhead, Collins said, "Some people just get lucky. I spend my life looking for (snakes)."
For Jennifer Loechler, though, a lifetime spent without seeing any more copperheads on her back stoop would be just fine.
She said she welcomes the black snakes that she and her husband find on their 22-acre property, because - like snakes of the venomous variety - they keep mice away, without posing any real danger to her or her husband.
"I respect snakes," Jennifer Loechler said. "I don't like them, but I respect them."
Collins encouraged anyone who has questions about or needs help identifying a venomous snake to call (785) 749-3467 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.