Social distancing. Self-isolation. Sheltering in place. Going for a walk has never felt better or been more needed, but walking Lake Houston’s parks and greenbelts brings residents closer to nature’s critters.
— Kingwood ER Hospital doc, parks expert offer advice —
Several Tribune readers reported snakes on the greenbelt and one reader saw what he described as “ … a huge copperhead just sitting on the greenbelt walkway …”
“Spring and autumn are the optimal times to encounter snakes although it’s possible to encounter anytime,” said Martin de Vore, administrative assistant in the Harris County Precinct 4 Parks Department. “During the heat of the summer, they’re most likely encountered when it is cooler in early morning or after sunset.”
De Vore is the go-to guy to discuss snakes in Lake Houston. His title in Commissioner Jack Cagle’s Parks Department doesn’t begin to describe de Vore’s extensive experience in herpetology, the study of amphibians and reptiles — including snakes.
Texas is home to more than 115 different species and subspecies of snakes, according to Texas Parks and Wildlife, but “only” 15 are dangerous to humans.
“It’s possible to see snakes on patios, in garages or even inside homes,” de Vore said. He suggests eliminating piles of trash or logs that house snakes.
Like a good herpetologist, he underscores all the good things about snakes.
“They control pests such as mice, rats and other carriers of deadly diseases,” de Vore said. “They’re good friends to your garden because they control the mammals that decimate them.”
The “good snakes” which are not poisonous include water snakes and garter and ribbon snakes. The venomous or poisonous snakes along Lake Houston, according to de Vore, are the northern cottonmouth, commonly known as a water moccasin, the eastern copperhead, western pygmy rattlesnake, timber rattlesnake, Texas coral snake and, depending on what part of Lake Houston you live in, the western diamondback rattlesnake.
How can we know if the snake we see on a park pathway is venomous?
“Copperheads, cottonmouths and rattlesnakes generally have wide bodies with a triangular-shaped head,” de Vore said, “and, of course, rattlesnakes have rattles. The Texas coral snake has a colorful pattern of red and yellow bands encircling the body.”
In identifying the Texas coral snake, de Vore encourages us to remember an old children’s nursery rhyme.
“Red touch yellow, kill a fellow. Red touch black, venom lack,” he said. “It’s a bit simplistic but holds true for coral snakes north of Mexico.”
And what should a person do if they come across a snake?
“Simply walk away,” de Vore advises. “Do not attempt to catch or try to kill it. That’s the source of many snakebites. If you’re bitten, attempt to kill it and take it to the hospital for identification. Be aware, though, there have been reports of dead snake fangs poking the person handling it due to muscle reflexes. This actually happened to me once, but the fang didn’t penetrate.”
If bitten, de Vore says seek medical help at a hospital emergency center.
Chris Hummel knows all about snakebites. He’s personally treated two snakebite patients at Kingwood Emergency Hospital where he is emergency department medical director.
“Both patients were rapidly triaged, treated and ultimately transferred to a facility with the antivenin, the medication used to treat certain snake bites,” said Dr. Hummel, a native of Michigan who graduated from medical school at Michigan State University and completed his residency in emergency medicine.
Of the 7,000 snakebites reported annually in the United States, Hummel says half are “dry,” meaning the snake does not inject venom into the victim.
“On average, one to two people in Texas die each year from venomous snake bites,” he said.
So, if you have a snake bite, seek medical attention by going to an emergency center, calling 911, or the Texas Poison Center at 800-222-1222, Hummel said.
“If someone with a snakebite comes to the Kingwood Emergency Hospital, we follow our snake bite protocol,” Dr. Hummel explains. “We obtain a history including time of bite, location, pre-hospital treatment and attempt to identify the snake species. We start an IV, obtain labs which help guide our therapy.”
If the snake can be identified, Kingwood ER Hospital arranges for transfer to a hospital with the antivenin, coordinating the care with a Houston toxicologist and the Texas Poison Center.
As a final reminder about snakes, de Vore said, compared to other animal species, the danger from snakes is minimal. “While not true in Precinct 4 parks, many more injuries around the country have come from feral pigs, aggressive dogs, fire ants and wasps.
“Snakes are a necessary part of the environment. Just about anything you can think of would be more likely to harm you than a snake,” he says. “The best way to be safe when enjoying a walk is to avoid them whenever possible. Leave them alone.”