Even though a 37-year-old southwest Missouri man died after being bitten on both legs by a venomous snake after wading into the James River, such deaths are relatively rare, according to the Missouri Department of Conservation.
Only two human deaths in the state have been officially attributed to venomous snakebites, according to the department’s website. The first was in 1933 by a timber rattlesnake bite, and the second happened in 1965 as a result of a copperhead bite.
Joe Jerek, a spokesman for the department, said he was also aware of two deaths in the last several years in Missouri where snakebites were contributing factors to the listed cause of death.
In the recent case, Gilbert De Leon was with his girlfriend near Nixa on Friday when he waded into the river and felt himself being bitten, according to the Springfield News-Leader.
Christian County Coroner Brad Cole said De Leon ignored his girlfriend’s pleas to go to a hospital and instead went to his Nixa home. She found him dead Saturday morning.
Cole said lab tests will take about eight weeks to get back, but he saw no signs the man died of anything other than snakebites.
Cole said it’s the first possible snakebite death he has ever seen.
Snakes in Missouri often come out of hiding before the heat of summer.
Jeff Briggler, a herpetologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation, said April and May is the most popular time for people to report seeing snakes in the state.
“This is the time of year that snakes are coming out of their wintering sites,” Briggler said.
While they will bask in the sun in late spring, snakes will become less active by day and more active at night as summer temperatures rise, he said.
According to the conservation department, there are 47 species and subspecies of snakes in Missouri, and five are venomous. Those include copperheads, cottonmouths and three types of rattlesnakes.
Jerek said copperheads are the most common venomous snakes in the state, although there’s a good chance a cottonmouth was responsible for De Leon’s bites.
The venomous snakes native to Missouri belong to the pit viper family, which has well-developed fangs and a pit between the eye and nostril on each side of the head, according to the department.
Briggler advised people to be vigilant and seek medical attention if they think they have been bitten by a snake.
“If you put it in perspective, there’s a very low chance of dying from a venomous snakebite,” Briggler said.
Jerek said most snakebites come when people try to pick up a snake. He said men between the ages of 20 and 40 are most likely to pick up a snake and be bitten.
“The best advice is to leave snakes alone,” Jerek said. “If you encounter them, give them an exit and they will readily go away.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.