Snakebitten! Hikers Treated after Venomous Encounters

Hudson Highlands home to rattlesnakes and copperheads

By Michael Turton

In early June, poisonous snakes thought to be northern copperheads bit two hikers in separate incidents on trails in the Hudson Highlands.

Jesse Jaycox, a biologist with the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, said the first victim, a male in his 20s, was bitten while hiking the Appalachian Trail near Canopus Lake in Fahnestock State Park. He was flown by helicopter to NYC Health + Hospitals/Jacobi in the Bronx for treatment.

The second victim, also a male, was bitten while hiking at Breakneck Ridge in Hudson Highlands State Park and treated at Vassar Brothers Medical Center in Poughkeepsie.

And it isn’t just hikers who should to be wary.

Last September, 13-year-old Colin August was bitten by a copperhead while he and a friend searched for crickets as part of a school science project near his home in Garrison. His father, Todd, took Colin to New York-Presbyterian Hudson Valley Hospital in Peekskill; from there, he was transferred to NYC Health + Hospital/Jacobi by ambulance. He spent three days in the pediatric intensive care unit there and received two doses of antivenin as part of his treatment, said his mother, Kym.

Snakebite Do’s and Don’ts

The Do’s

Learn to identify local poisonous snakes:
Timber Rattlesnakes are variable in color, ranging from yellow to black overall. Dark brown or black cross-bands are present along the length of the body. The tail has a rattle.

Timber rattlesnake (Photo by John White)

Copperheads are orange-red to grayish-brown in color with a distinctively colored orange to reddish head. The head is not patterned. The body has a series of brown hourglass-shaped cross-bands along its length. Bands are wider at the sides than at the top.

Northern copperhead (Photo by John White)

Pay close attention to your surroundings.
Stay on marked trails.
Keep pets leashed; avoid any snakes they encounter.
Call 911 right away if a bite occurs.
Most bites are to the limbs; keep the affected area level with the heart.
Remove tight-fitting clothing in the wound area.

The Don’ts

Do not try to suck out the venom.
Do not cut out flesh around the bite.
Do not apply tourniquets, ice water or electric shocks.
Do not use commercial snakebite kits that suggest making lacerations in the area of the bite, applying suction or tourniquets.
Do not kill the snake or move closer to it to take an identifying photograph.

According to the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, only three of the 17 snakes native to New York state are poisonous: the northern copperhead and timber rattlesnake, found mainly in the lower Hudson Valley and the Catskills and the massasauga rattlesnake, found in the Syracuse-Rochester area.

Jaycox said no statistics are available but that snake bites in recent decades have been rare. He added that the cool wet weather followed by warm sunny days at the time of the June incidents might have caused snakes to be more active.

Eric Lind, director of the Audubon Center and Sanctuary in Garrison, agreed, saying that although copperheads are occasionally seen locally, bites are “highly uncommon.” He said copperheads are more numerous and widespread than timber rattlers and are more likely to be encountered.

Black rat snake (Photo by John White)

Misidentification can cause people to panic, sometimes resulting in injury or death for the snake, even though it may be harmless. Lind said that milk, northern water and young black rat snakes, all found in the Highlands, have skin patterns similar to those of copperheads.

He encourages people to be aware of the species and their appearance. “Take the time to learn about [snakes] and any accompanying risk,” he said. “Never try to handle a snake of any kind. Common sense and preparation can go a long way toward prevention.”

Northern water snake (Photo by John White)

Jaycox said that mistaken identity accounts for the majority of venomous snake reports, in part because some non-venomous species vibrate their tails rapidly when alarmed and are incorrectly identified as rattlesnakes.

NYC Health + Hospitals/Jacobi is a leading center for treatment of poisonous snakebites in the northeastern United States. Dr. Joshua Silverberg, associate director of the Snakebite Treatment Team there, said the antivenin CroFab is typically used in treating bites from copperheads and timber rattlesnakes, both of which are classified as pit vipers.

Eastern milk snake (Photo by John White)

When someone is bitten by an exotic species, Silverberg said, the nearby Bronx Zoo, which has an extensive collection of exotic poisonous snakes, provides antivenin. The hospital is not allowed to stock antivenin for exotic species.

The Upstate New York Poison Center makes antivenin available to a number of hospitals in the 54 counties over which it has jurisdiction, including Putnam and Dutchess.

The SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry advises that while bites from venomous snakes native to the Hudson Valley rarely prove fatal to healthy adults, medical attention should always be sought immediately. It describes bites from non-venomous snakes as “generally inconsequential” but recommends that victims ensure that they have an up-to-date tetanus shot.

Photos © John White / Virginia Herpetological Society. Used with permission.

10 Responses to "Snakebitten! Hikers Treated after Venomous Encounters"

  1. Lori Moss
    Lori Moss   July 7, 2017 at 2:22 pm

    Excellent article. Thank you!

  2. Mary Fris
    Mary Fris   July 7, 2017 at 4:34 pm

    They’re aggressive if you get too close.

  3. Frank Haggerty   July 7, 2017 at 4:44 pm

    All wild animals are to be treated with a judicious level of respect, particularly if it is their habitat one is invading.

    There does appear to be an increase in the wildlife population this year, particularly for predators of mice, rabbits, and the like. I saw a bobcat and two 5-foot-long black rat snakes earlier this year, as well as what I believe was a full-grown spotted turtle — all of these were firsts, at least for me. Other than the bobcat these sightings all happened in a single hike.

    Yes these large black snakes are quite startling the first you see them, which can be at a distance of only about six feet. They were encountered as they lay quietly and still right across the middle of the hiking trail, waiting for something edible to come along.

    Population dynamics being what it is, I would not be surprised to hear reports of invasions of human habitats by some of these types of animals later this summer if and as their food supplies start to run low.

  4. Teri Waivada   July 7, 2017 at 6:36 pm

    The issue of snake bite treatment has puzzled me for many years. Why do we have to helicopter to NYC for treatment? Can’t we keep a supply at Hudson Valley Hospital Center. Does Vassar have antivenin?

  5. Mark Sullivan
    Mark Sullivan   July 7, 2017 at 7:23 pm

    Pretty strange. Wish I could find the post where someone claimed copperheads were not poisonous. Which is it? I was always lead to believe they were.

    • Walter Barrett
      Walter Barrett   July 7, 2017 at 10:35 pm

      Copperheads definitely are poisonous.

      • mm
        Site Editor   July 8, 2017 at 7:18 pm

        Copperheads are venomous, because they have to bite you. You have to bite or touch a poisonous animal. There is a good explanation at Smithsonianmag.com. Our story should have used the word “venomous” when referring to copperheads and rattlers, although anyone who has been bitten by a copperhead probably isn’t interested in the difference.

  6. Lance Pahucki
    Lance Pahucki   July 7, 2017 at 8:14 pm

    Careful out there, hikers!

  7. Carolyn Bachan   July 9, 2017 at 8:05 am

    Attention hikers: If one of those snakes offers you an apple — don’t take it!

  8. Andrew Dade   July 11, 2017 at 8:10 pm

    For the last year I’ve been yelling into the wind about this. Why isn’t there an emergency room in the Village? Can any politician answer this question? Or does anyone really care?