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Don't try coddling those 'cuddly' cottonmouths

Larry Woody, Outdoors Writer • Dec 17, 2015 at 7:01 PM

An irate letter-writer got in a dither over a recent column about a cottonmouth being found in a toilet, and some close encounters I've had with venomous snakes over the years.

He said the cottonmouth-in-toilet story is an urban legend, and that he knows for a fact -- somehow --  that the snake in question was a harmless rat snake and not a venomous cottonmouth.

He better Google-check his info before he sits down on a similar "rat snake."

The construction worker's name is Willie Harris. He discovered the snake in a toilet in a home in Hueytown, Ala., on July 7, and it was positively identified as a cottonmouth by animal-control officials who came to collect it.

As noted in the column, it is against the law to harm any species of snake in Tennessee, but a TWRA official tells me there is an unwritten exception if the snake presents an obvious danger.

Just as the letter-writer was wrong about the cottonmouth in the toilet, he is also erroneous when he says there is no danger from venomous snakes if you leave them alone and don't bother them. The problem is, the snake doesn't always get the word.

An example I gave in the column was a boyhood buddy who lost the use of a finger after being bitten by a copperhead. My buddy "bothered" the snake by picking up a stump under which the snake was coiled.

Back in the spring a kid "bothered" a copperhead as he climbed on some rocks near the Hiwassee River and got bitten. I suppose the letter-writer would say the kid was asking for it.

As for killing a venomous snake: many of our ancestors grew up in an era -- and in areas -- in which it was advisable to dispatch deadly creatures. In remote areas, with no mode of transportation except walking or riding horseback or in a wagon, getting a snakebite victim to a doctor for medical treatment wasn't easy. Back then, the bite of a venomous snake could be fatal.

If someone discovered a rattlesnake in the barn, in the garden, or coiled under the porch step, they killed it. End of story. They couldn't afford to take a chance on leaving the snake for someone -- perhaps a child -- to step on and get bitten.

The same concern applied to livestock. A family that depended on a horse or cow for its livelihood couldn't afford to risk losing it to a snakebite.

The letter-writer was also mistaken when he suggested that cottonmouths are not aggressive. Just about everybody who's spent much time in swampy areas has had an encounter with a cottonmouth, and many times the snake will aggressively stand its ground or even attack. And, as I wrote, there have been instances of rattlesnakes and copperheads likewise being aggressive in human encounters.

It's true that most venomous snakes will retreat if they have the chance. Most, but not all. And the one that doesn't can kill you.

The point of the column was to remind folks to be alert and careful when they're outdoors. It didn't suggest killing any and every snake that's encountered. The letter-writer was wrong about that, just as he was wrong about every other point he tried to make.

He's especially wrong about the wisdom of coddling a cottonmouth -- and if he's not careful, he could be dead wrong.

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