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IN Press: Woman most likely bitten by copperhead

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Posted by W von Papinešu on May 05, 2003 at 06:23:45:

PALLADIUM-ITEM (Richmond, Indiana) 04 May 03 Woman most likely bitten by copperhead (Don Fasnacht, and Pam Tharp)
Liberty: Everyone's convinced now that a poisonous snake - probably a copperhead - bit a woman at the Quakertown State Recreational Area south of here April 25.
But everyone was surprised - the bitten, the biter, the rangers in the park and Gary Breitenbach, a visiting professor of biology at Earlham College who specializes in herpetology, which is the study of amphibians, i.e. snakes.
"I've been looking for one (a copperhead) in Fayette County for decades," Breitenbach said.
There have never been any confirmed sightings of venomous snakes in Union or Wayne counties.
"We know they exist in Franklin County," Breitenbach said. He helped find a copperhead there "maybe 20 years ago."
It's not inconceivable copperheads could live in southern Union County and Fayette County, Breitenbach said.
"The habitat is such, we wouldn't be shocked to find them," Breitenbach said. "The southern parts of the counties are within the imagined range of copperheads."
But everything still is speculative.
No one saw the snake that bit Jamie M. White, a 30-year-old Richmond woman who was mushroom hunting with her husband and a friend. There's no way to be absolutely certain what kind of snake it was, said Indiana Conservation Officer Bill Beville, DNR spokesman.
The victim was treated at hospitals and released.
Blood tests from the victim show the snake most likely was a copperhead, Beville said.
"These are not the kind of snakes where you die in 30 seconds," Beville said. "My father-in-law's beagle was bit on the ear by a copperhead and the ear swelled up for a few days, and that was it. (The dog) is a lot smaller than a person."
"If the blood tests confirmed it was snake venom," Breitenbach said, "then it would be copperhead venom. It's the only thing that would be here.
"But what we lack is a smoking gun"
Breitenbach talked with the victim. "Her symptoms are entirely consistent with a copperhead bite," he said.
If a person has to be bitten by a poisonous snake, a copperhead might be the best choice.
"We often don't treat copperhead bites," Dr. Brent Furbee, medical director of the Indiana Poison Control Center, said.
The victim is kept quiet and under observation.
"If the swelling progresses, we might treat them," Furbee said.
The antivenin, or anti-venom serum, used to treat snakebite can be a dangerous as the bite itself. It can cause allergic reactions that can be fatal.
For adults, a copperhead bite rarely is fatal. The last death caused by a copperhead in Indiana was sometime in the mid-1800s.
The Quakertown victim is recovering. She suffered from severe swelling and vomiting, according to a DNR news release.
Reid Hospital, where she was taken, does not routinely keep antivenin on its pharmacy shelves. Snakebites are not expected here and the antivenin is expensive -- an estimated $8,000 for enough to "stabilize" the patient. Plus, it is quickly available from the Indiana Poison Control Center.
This case doesn't indicate snakebite cases will become more common here.
Snakebites are so rare that the DNR doesn't keep a record of them, Beville said. This is the first snake bite in District 9's 11-county area during Beville's 18 years as a conservation officer, he said.
Furbee said, "If we see more than five snakebites a year, it's a heavy year. And half of the snakebites we see are people who keep snakes."
"There's no reason not to go mushroom hunting or enjoy the outdoors," he said. "People usually get bit when they're either trying to catch a snake or kill it. If you leave them alone, they will likely leave you alone."
Snakes do bite in the wild, but "If you see a snake, leave it alone," Breitenbach said. "Walk around them."
"I think she was so close to the snake she probably almost stepped on it," Beville said. "When they are threatened, snakes have only two defenses: they'll run or they'll strike."
Snakes can only strike at half its body length, so you need to be pretty close before they can even reach you, Beville said.
Breitenbach went out to Quakertown on Friday looking for the culprit. He couldn't find anything.
"I tromped around, but it's overgrown out there," Breitenbach said. He'll go back.
He doesn't think the incident indicates a sudden influx of pit vipers here. The snake might have been part of an isolated pocket.
Even if it isn't, copperheads aren't an aggressive threat.
"They're rather mild mannered," Breitenbach said. "They're not pugnacious."
Indiana has four kinds of venomous snakes, all on the endangered species list. Only copperheads and timber rattlers might be seen in this section of the state, he said.
Beville said he has seen timber rattlers in the Hoosier National Forest in south-central Indiana.

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