A few weeks ago Jay Picou went home during his lunch hour. He threw a Lean Cuisine in the microwave, then finished up his laundry, moving a load from the washer into the dryer.
There was something waiting for him in the bottom of the washing machine, a little black something coiled around his clean, wet socks: a dead snake.
“I’m hand-washing everything from now on,” said Picou, a nursing student at Johnson County Community College.
It was the second snake that had found its way into his Lenexa apartment. The other one met an even more undignified end: Picou sucked it up with a vacuum cleaner.
The snakes posed no bigger threat than scaring the bejabbers out of Picou. But close encounters of the biting kind are on the rise in the Kansas City area.
The University of Kansas Hospital’s Poison Control Center fielded a record 62 calls last summer regarding possible snakebites, and this year “we’ve seen a little burst in the last month or so,” center director Stephen Thornton said.
Responding to the increase, Thornton and his colleagues have created a “snakebite center,” a hospitalwide standardized approach for treating snakebites as they would any other trauma.
Thornton is not surprised to see more interaction between humans and snakes around here. As people build homes farther out into “more areas that used to be wild areas, we have more people coming into contact with snakes, and a certain percentage of those contacts end up with bites,” he said.
The good news: Most snakebites are not fatal. By many estimates, fewer than 50 people die from venomous snakebites in the United States each year.
In fact, the last documented snake-related death in Missouri was from a copperhead bite in 1965, according to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.
“We understand the pathology a little better … and we have a very effective treatment in the anti-venom,” Thornton said.
And snakes just don’t like to waste their venom on people. About 25 percent of all bites are “dry,” which means the snake doesn’t inject any venom at all.
“It’s really fairly simple,” said Larry Rizzo, a biologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation. “The reason venomous snakes have venom is to procure food. They are well aware that we are not a food item. They’re not going to swallow us. So that means that when they bite us, they are doing it for defensive purposes.”
Indeed. Most bites happen when people are trying to catch or kill a snake.
“The more common thing is someone is messing with one they shouldn’t,” Rizzo said. “Either they don’t know it’s a venomous snake, or they’re trying to hot dog, or they’re trying to kill it and … they get bit.”
The typical snakebite victim is a dude, between the ages of 17 and 27 — and he has probably been drinking.
There’s no stopping stupid. But here’s what you need to know this snake season, which runs through October.
The two to watch for
Only two venomous snakes native to Missouri and Kansas are found in the Kansas City area: the timber rattlesnake and copperhead.
The timber rattler is usually tan or yellowish-tan with dark brown markings along its back that look like splotches near its neck and bands near the tail. A rust-colored stripe runs down its back.
The copperhead — Missouri’s most widely found venomous snake and the least toxic — varies in color from gray to light brown or pinkish tan. Distinctive brown markings on its back look like a chevron.
They both have elliptical pupils, like a cat’s.
Both snakes are found on rocky, wooded hillsides, sometimes along the edge of a meadow or a field.
Development taking place in western and southern Johnson County is moving people into areas that are natural habitats for snakes, said Dan Lekie, a wildlife expert with the Johnson County K-State Research and Extension in Olathe.
The same thing is happening on the Missouri side of the state line, where some newer communities in eastern Jackson County have gone up near existing rattlesnake dens.
“If there’s any positive about these two snakes, they’re both pretty docile unless they get backed into a corner,” Lekie said.
Don’t freak out
Every list of what-to-do-if-you-get-bitten advice begins with two words: Remain calm.
(Yeah, like that’s going to happen.)
“What I try to tell people is that snakebites from rattlesnakes, copperheads, yes, they’re a big deal,” Thornton said. “But we have a very effective treatment for them. If you get to a hospital, you’re going to be treated. You’re going to be all right.”
So stay calm, and don’t go jumping all over the place. Moving around a lot can increase blood flow and spread the venom, if there was any in the bite to begin with.
Also, try to isolate the part of the body that sustained the bite. Make a sling, for instance, for the arm.
Do not apply a tourniquet.
“That doesn’t help and can lead to other problems because they put them on too tight,” Thornton said.
Get thee to the hospital
Rizzo knew one herpetologist who used to demonstrate the best first-aid kit for a snakebite by reaching into his pocket and pulling out his car keys.
If you get bit, get to the nearest doctor or hospital quickly. Even though it might be a dry bite, “people should assume that they need to be evaluated,” Thornton said.
Skip the movie antics
How many times have we seen this in the movies? Someone gets bitten by a snake, and a buddy grabs a knife, slices open the wound and tries to suck the venom out.
Don’t. Do. It.
It doesn’t work, and you could infect the area with all that sucking or slice into tendons by cutting on hands and feet. Old-school snakebite kits came with razor blades and suction cups. The experts say: Throw them out.
People have a lot of weird ideas about snakebites.
Pack it with ice? It doesn’t help.
Gunpowder? Don’t sprinkle it on a bite.
“For a brief period that was a big deal,” Thornton said. “Because snake venom has a lot of protein, they thought if you ran electricity through it, you could neutralize the protein. They were attaching themselves to car batteries.”
Leave the snake alone
Don’t try to capture or kill the snake.
The doctor doesn’t need to know what bit you because if it’s determined that the bite was venomous, your treatment will be the same regardless of the type of snake. Anti-venom is one-size-fits-all.
“That should be the last of their worries,” Thornton said. “We’ve had cases where they tried to catch the snake, but we have ways of sort of figuring it out.”
Snakes creep you out? Here’s how to avoid getting bitten by one, with advice from the Missouri Department of Conservation.
If possible, delay outdoor work until snakes are inactive from November through March.
Wear boots and heavy trousers when working or hiking in areas where snakes live.
Wear a heavy, long-sleeve shirt and leather gloves when you must work with your hands around rock piles or other snake habitats.
Use a pole, rake, stick, etc. to probe snake-prone areas before starting work.
Work or hike with other people in case you need help in an emergency.