Summer is the season of the snake. Michigan is home to eighteen species, including ouronly venomous snake, the eastern massasauga rattlesnake. If bitten here’s what to do…
A snake bit you! Might be a rattler! Well my friend, time’s a wasting! Grab a knife and make deep slashes across your wounds. Try to avoid arteries! Now quickly, pour whiskey on the cuts and suck out the poison. Then take a swing for yourself. Next, twist a tourniquet down as tight as you can and just for good measure hook jumper cables from the truck battery to your chest and crank’er up real good to let that jolt of electricity break down the remaining venom in your body. (Kidding!)
Snake bite in Michigan is not the sensational event media often makes it out to be. More often than not the chopped up with a shovel creature turns out to be a non-venomous species, not our reclusive little swamp rattler. And even if it turns out to be a rattlesnake, foolish folk cures and tall tale treatments (such as my first paragraph of dangerous nonsense) pose more risk to you than venom. Fact of the matter is clear: You face more danger from deer smacking your car, domestic dog bites, bee stings, falling tree limb and lightning strikes than you will from a snake bite. And don’t forget that venomous snake bites can be dry bites, meaning no venom is injected so the “cure” appears to work. Likewise, many folk therapies thrive because the snake was not properly identified and was non-venomous. Do yourself and the emergency room a favor and toss any thoughts you still harbor about cutting, slashing, sucking, tourniquets, ice, heat and electricity.
And then there is a strange fact out there that is common knowledge among experienced emergency room doctors but speaks volumes about why snake bites occur: The victim’s clinical profile. Odds are if you arrive in the emergency room with a venomous snake bite you are an intoxicated white male between the ages of 16 and 35 and the bite occurred on your dominant hand while intentionally interacting with the snake. Translation: You did something really, really, really dumb as in, “Hey Joe, Watch this!”
Summer Is Snake Time
Summer is the season of the snake. Michigan is home to eighteen species, including our only venomous snake, the eastern massasauga rattlesnake, a true pit viper, a species that emerges from its underground hibernacula – often a water filled crayfish burrow – during the warm days of spring. (Note: Massasaugas are not found in the Upper Peninsula) From now until late fall, massasaugas use the heat-seeking “pit” located between the eyes and the nostrils to locate warm blooded prey. We are not on the menu. Mice and voles are. Massasaugas are shy and well camouflaged and try to remain hidden until we pass. Sometimes they will rattle a warning at our approach. Sometimes not.
Northern water snakes, eastern hognose snakes and eastern milk snakes are frequently misidentified as rattlesnakes. Eastern milk snakes and fox snakes can also vibrate their tails in dry leaves producing a rattle like sound. It is not my intent to give definitive identifying characteristics in this serpentine ramble on outdoor safety, but with that said rattlesnakes, unlike all other native Michigan snakes, have an elliptical or cat-like slit appearance to their pupils. Other Michigan native snakes have round shaped pupils. (Florida’s venomous coral snake also has round pupils) And if you understand scale patterns, rattlers have single scales (not double) just distal to the anal plate on the ventral side. Inspection of rattler anal plate is easier said than done.
Teeth and Fangs
Snake bites should never be ignored. Even non venomous snake bites can cause infection. Most non-venomous snakes leave multiple rows of tiny teeth marks. Pit vipers tend to leave a classic paired puncture, but not always.
The fangs of the massasauga are hollow and function in much the same manner as a hypodermic needle to conduct the venom from the special glands that produce it to the body of its prey-or tormentor. According to the Michigan DNR about 30 percent of rattler bites are dry: no venom injected.
Herpetologist Jim Harding of Michigan State University adds, “Rattlesnakes don’t wake up in the morning and go looking for people to bite. They just like their privacy. The massasauga has virulent venom, but it’s a small snake and does not inject much in a bite; its fangs are short and do not typically penetrate deeply.” (He also cautioned me to avoid giving medical advice. And he’s correct. If you have doubts or concerns on positive identification and what to do in the event of a bite, use common sense and consult your physician.)
Forget for a moment the clinical profile of the intoxicated male. Every now and then massasaugas strike well-behaved humans. It can happen backpacking, hunting, camping, fishing, or even being over curious or careless in a park or woodland or in a suburban neighborhood in snake habitat. A few miles from my house is a road called Rattlesnake Lane, a private gravel road leading up from a swampy area to a dry wooded upland. It is an aptly named road. Oakland County is something of a ground zero for massasauga rattlesnakes. Most larger public parks in the county post educational advisory signs on the presence of the massasauga.
Non-Venomous Snake Bite First Aid
If you are bit by a garter snake you were going to show the grand kids, or that northern water snake did not appreciate being kicked off the fishing dock, treat the resulting bite like any puncture wound. Wash it well. Apply antibiotic cream. Don’t ignore the bite, infection can set it.
Massasauga Bite: You kneel down to see why your dog is barking near a sun-soaked log. And as you kneel the well camouflaged snake you did not notice rattles and strikes. If it looks like a rattlesnake and left punctures and you have pain and rapid swelling and bruising it probably was a rattlesnake bite. You may also have a metallic taste in your mouth and tingling at the bite site and in your mouth. But signs and symptoms can be confusing because of our fear instinct. “It got Me!”
You may suddenly feel nauseous with a racing heart beat and become clammy and light-headed. That too could be from venom injected or it could be from your feeling of doom, despair and panic. Don’t despair and certainly don’t panic.
No tourniquets! No Cutting! No Ice! No suction! Although some literature still advocates its use, most medical professionals experienced in wilderness medicine agree that the long used Sawyer Extraction Pump is falling out of favor and may actually cause harm.
Remember: No recorded fatalities from Massasauga bites in Michigan or Ontario in the last 50 years. Remove watches, bracelets, rings and piercings and tight fitting clothes. Wash the wound. Cover with a sterile dry dressing. Place a simple non-constricting splint on the affected limb to limit motion. Do not run out of the woods. Walk calmly to reach treatment and notify EMS if possible where you will be reaching a roadway.
If you have a pen, mark the location of the swelling spread every ten minutes. Your primary goal is safe, yet rapid transport to a hospital, not a walk in clinic. Once in the hospital ER staff will evaluate the puncture site and your signs and symptoms and monitor your vital signs and decide if antivenom or other treatment is needed. You are going to live. But if you do not want the ER staff to kill you, do not walk into the hospital with a live snake in a bag. If it can be done safely, photograph the snake in the field. Good field identification helps in clinical decision making. Most doctors are not skilled in snake I.D. and none want a loose snake in the ER. And sadly, some are unaware that Michigan even has rattlesnakes.
Man’s Best Friend: If it was your dog that was bitten, your dog needs immediate veterinarian attention. Watch for signs of swelling, pain and discomfort as you head for the clinic. Do not let the dog walk and do not apply ice, tourniquets or suction. If a small dog such as terrier is bitten on the face it can be a serious situation with the venom infringing on the dog’s respiratory functions.
Staying Safe, the Law and Health Research: If you see a massasauga, do not disturb it. Stop, turn and walk the opposite direction keeping in mind that massasaugas are secretive animals that tend to avoid places occupied by people. And don’t forget the massasauga is protected by law and is listed as a Species of Special Concern making it unlawful to kill, take or trap.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is currently evaluating the Great Lakes population of massasaugas to see if it should be listed as a threatened species recognizing that there is a medical value to humans in our only venomous snake beyond the intrinsic value of accepting all snakes as vital role players in our natural environment. According to the U.S.F.W. Eastern Massasauga Fact Sheet “Rattlesnake venom is being explored for human medical use including treatments for arthritis, MS and polio. Rattlesnake venom also has anti-coagulant properties that stay localized, unlike Coumadin and some other anti-coagulants that are currently used to prevent strokes and heart attacks.”
Jonathan Schechter is a naturalist/paramedic and a member of the Wilderness Medical Society certified in Advanced Wilderness Life Support. firstname.lastname@example.org