Don't try coddling those 'cuddly' cottonmouths

Woody snaps back at letter writer
Aug 20, 2014
Even a harmless green snake can be aggressive when disturbed.



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.


Ray M

Larry Woody,

There are so many factual errors in this article that it's hard to decide where to begin. I'll start by ignoring the photo that accompanies the article, which shows an Opheodrys, a species that has nothing whatsoever to do with the article.

1. While I should be reassured that Google is your authority of choice, the snake in the toilet was in fact a Pantherophis - a rat snake - positively MISIDENTIFIED by animal-control officials, who are not herpetologists.

2. The letter writer was correct in stating that there is no danger from venomous snakes if you leave them alone. Despite the popularity myths and urban legends to the contrary, they will not under any circumstances pursue a person for the purpose of biting them. Such behavior has never been observed in snakes of any species. Africanized bees, yes. Snakes, no.

The counter-example you give is of someone "who lost the use of a finger after being bitten by a copperhead." What point you were trying to make with this anecdote is unclear, except to reinforce the letter-writer's point. You "suppose the letter-writer would say the kid was asking for it." And the letter writer was correct.

3. Referring to a distant now irrelevant past, you state, "Back then, the bite of a venomous snake could be fatal." Today, we have excellent medical available in the US. Less than 1/10th of 1% of snakes bites in the US are fatal. Knock off the fear mongering nonsense.

4. You also state that "The letter-writer was also mistaken when he suggested that cottonmouths are not aggressive." Please, produce some evidence in support of this nonsensical claim. Yes, it is a myth that is widely believed, but it is also complete fiction. Rather, ask herpetologists who have spent hundreds of hours in the field with cottonmouths, and you will learn that they in fact are quite placid animals and can be observed safely without any risk whatsoever to a reasonably careful observer.

Larry, it's too bad that this journalism thing isn't working out for you. Better luck in your next career.

Chris Law

I can't believe I actually sat down and read this garbage. For starters, I expect this kind of crap (and yes that's exactly what it is...crap) from a right wing source. Did you interview "The Turtleman" (aka Turtlemoron) for this garbage?

The snake was indeed accurately ID'd as a harmless rat snake. Just because an animal control agent opens his mouth, doesn't mean what's coming out of it is accurate. In this particular case, he was entirely wrong. These people are not trained on proper ID of snakes and other reptiles. A few here and there might have some experience, but it's not a requirement of their job. In this particular case, he was talking out of his rear end...just like you are in this post.

The most dangerous snake is the one not seen. If you can see a snake, you can stay safe from it. You are MUCH larger than a snake (including a venomous one) is and thus a physical confrontation with you is NOT in their best interest...and they know it. As such, they will avoid confrontations at all cost as they cannot eat you and thus it is a huge risk to the snake.

In the wild, everything wants to eat snakes. Birds of prey, mammals, other snakes, turtles, and alligators (where they occur, of course). People, while in most cases not wanting to eat them, will kill snakes onsite without ever even bothering to try to research what they are. Therefore, snakes hide in a variety of places to avoid being seen. Accidental bites occur when people place their hands in areas they can't see, as it's a potential location for snakes to hide from predators. Suddenly a hand makes its way into their hiding spot and startles them...which results in them defending themselves.

90% of snakebites directly result from those who have tried to capture or kill the snake. Had they simply backed away and left it alone, the snake would have gone its own way and it would have never been an issue. Of course, in cases where the snake was actually venomous...physically attacking the snake is a sure-fire way of getting the snake to strike back in defense. When they land that bite, it's also a sure way to ensure that they actually deliver a dose of venom with it. A significant percentage of venomous snake bites that occur are often "dry", meaning they don't deliver venom with it at all. This usually means that the snake was trying to give you a chance to walk away. Further agitation of the snake will likely result in the snake delivering a fully venomous bite.

Wasting venom on defense is the last thing they want, simply because it can mean they have less to secure a meal later. They do NOT want to bite us. They simply want to be left alone. I feel it is sad that anyone would try to paint such a negative picture of these animals when it's a reputation they do not deserve and is only fueled by nonsense, fear and ignorance.

Chris Mallery

Like Ray, I am not sure why there is an image of a harmless Rough Green Snake accompanying this article. The image being discussed is the one accompanying the following article:

And, this image clearly depicts a Rat Snake in a toilet and a Rat Snake being held by an officer...No Cottonmouths there.

Whereas, I do not recommend sitting on or attempting to get bit by snakes because these actions are stressful for the snakes, I assure you that one could sit on many Rat Snakes, like the one in the image, and get bit by them many many times with little or no concern for one's own safety.

I have been in the field and observed dozens of Cottonmouths, even approaching them closely and cautiously capturing them on occasion, and I am yet to see one act remotely aggressive; sometimes, they will become defensive when seriously harassed. I am yet to be attacked by or sustain a bite from a Cottonmouth.

I have also captured and I have sustained bites by dozens of Rat Snakes (as well as probably hundreds of non-venomous water snakes, which are more frequently mistaken for Cottonmouths) and I am no worse off for it. For better or worse, I handle Rat Snakes with confidence and impunity, and allow them to bite at their will, and I capture darn near every Rat Snake I come across, with absolute confidence in my identification skills.

If I couldn't identify a Cottonmouth and a Rat Snake with absolute confidence, even by only seeing small parts of them as they seek refuge, I would certainly be in trouble by now. Be assured that the letter writer can sit on as many snakes as he or she likes that look like the one depicted in the toilet story, and will never sustain a medically relevant bite.


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