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News Clippings

By Maria Elena Fernandez
Washington Post
Saturday, July 11, 1998

No Bark, But Big, Big Bite

Va. Man Wounded By Copperhead Fred Platten had a close and painful encounter with a copperhead snake this week near the Department of Housing and Urban Development in Southwest Washington. 

When the 18-inch pit viper sank its fangs into a knuckle, his left hand swelled within minutes -- and felt like it had been dipped in boiling water. "It was just an immediate seering pain," Platten, 31, a Lotus Notes developer for Caci International, said yesterday from his bed at George Washington University Medical Center. "My finger felt like it was on fire. Then the burn started seeping down into my hand." 

Platten is the sixth person bitten by a copperhead in the region this year. He was bitten Tuesday morning a block away from the HUD building at Seventh and D streets SW while helping a parking lot attendant capture the snake. Another man was bitten Thursday night at Hemlock Overlook Regional Park in Fairfax County. He was released yesterday from Inova Fairfax Hospital, which declined to identify him. Last year, the National Capital Poison Center recorded 10 cases of copperheads biting humans. In 1996, nine people were bitten. "At this point, I don't have any reason to believe that we are facing a greater incidence than usual," said Toby Litovitz, director of the poison center. "We are not generating anything like a public health alert." But for Platten, of Oakton, encountering the copperhead -- which normally shies away from urban centers and prefers wooded areas -- was a health crisis. 

Describing his efforts to capture the brown, slippery reptile, Platten said he held the snake while the parking attendant, who had first seen it, tried to place the snake in a plastic bag. "I had it pinned and when I lifted it up into the bag, it wiggled itself loose and just sank its fangs on my knuckle," said Platten, who had to shake his left hand twice before the snake released its grip. The snake's venom traveled up Platten's left arm, to his shoulder, and then to parts of his chest. At the hospital yesterday, his left arm was still swollen and partly bruised, and the venom was still visible in the red markings on his body. Jim Monsma, who handles snake calls for the Washington Humane Society, said copperheads are the only venomous snakes in the area. They are considered docile and reclusive -- and only bite when provoked. Their bites rarely prove fatal. "It is not going to chase you," Monsma said. "If you step on it or put your hands on it, you will get bitten." Platten will probably be released from the hospital this weekend, and will suffer no long-term complications from the bite, officials said. Normally, patients with copperhead bites experience swelling along the bite, on extremities, and may have some tissue damage. "His left arm got so, so big, we were comparing it to people's thighs," said Platten's sister, Mert Cook. "It was just painful to watch." 

When Platten arrived at the hospital, doctors scrambled to figure out what type of snake had bitten him. Platten had thought it was a boa constrictor, but when he identified the culprit with the help of Internet pictures, Robert Rosenthal, one of the doctors in the emergency room, determined it was a copperhead. "We decided then to administer five vials of antivenom, which is dangerous stuff," Rosenthal said. "It can give reactions, such as fevers, chills, rashes, joint aches or kidney problems. But in his case, it was necessary." Platten, who suffered no reactions from his medications, hopes the public will learn from his mistake. "You stay away from it," Platten said. " 'Oooh, a snake, pick it up!' That's what a 3-year-old would do. It definitely goes to show you that you should not do idiotic things." 

Recognizing the Copperhead Copperheads are characterized by the "new penny" copper color of their heads and by the hourglass-shaped crossbands on their bodies. Habitat: Most copperheads prefer to live in dry, wooded areas. Only two of the five species are found east of the Mississippi River. 

Size: 24 to 36 inches long.
Lifespan: Oldest recorded copperhead was 30 years old. Only 5 percent live beyond 8 years. 
Diet: Primary food is mice; will also consume birds, frogs and small rodents.
Fangs: Large, hollow fangs at the front of the mouth are connected to the bones of the upper jaw and palate so that they are folded against the roof of the mouth when the mouth is closed and are automatically brought forward when the mouth is open. 
Venom: Copperhead's poison helps to immobilize the animal so the snake can swallow its prey whole. A bite from a copperhead is not usually fatal for a person. It can cause shortness of breath, blurred vision and tissue damage that, in some cases, can result in gangrene.

Copperhead snake bites to humans in the Washington area by year*: 1998 6 1997 10 1996 9 1995 22 1994 17 1993 11 *Includes the District, Montgomery and Prince George's counties and Northern Virginia. 

SOURCES: The National Capital Poison Center; Ohio Division of Wildlife --

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