Venomous snakes are more prevalent in DFW this year

Ken Slay was shutting down for the night Sunday and went out to close his garage door when he noticed that something wasn't quite right.

"As I was pulling it down ... well, it didn't want to go down," said Slay, who lives in Providence Village, about 10 miles east of Denton. "There was something caught in between the flats."

Turns out it was a copperhead -- "probably 4 to 5 feet long."

"I went around to the other side of the garage door and killed it," Slay said. "He was a pretty healthy looking boy."

With temperatures in the 70s and 80s following a wet winter and spring, venomous snakes are making their presence known across North Texas: in flower beds, woodpiles, parks and golf courses.

And with more snakes have come more snakebites.

Cook Children's Medical Center in Fort Worth said it admitted five snakebite victims in April, compared with 17 in all of 2011. Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Fort Worth reported five snakebite victims this spring.

One was 4-year-old Savannah Holding, who was bitten by a baby rattlesnake April 23 at her grandparents' home in Clay County.

Savannah fainted before she could tell her parents that she had been bitten, but once her father rinsed off the blood, he knew what had happened.

"I saw two puncture wounds and immediately thought snakes," Wesley Holding said. "I went back into the playhouse and saw the baby rattlesnake."

Paramedics rushed Savannah to a hospital in Wichita Falls, where she was given antivenin before being transferred to Cook Children's. She has recovered.

Christi Thornhill, a trauma nurse practitioner at Cook Children's, said the victim's age and size, the amount of venom and the age of the snake all affect how a patient will react.

"The immature snake releases all their venom when they strike," she said "The mature snake will size up their prey and release the amount of venom needed to bring it down."

While bites from venomous snakes in Texas are rarely fatal -- one to two deaths a year -- they are usually extremely painful and cause serious tissue damage. Rattlesnake and copperhead bites are the most common in Texas.

Steering clear

Bites can be avoided. Most snakes avoid humans if they can, and most venomous snakes are nocturnal, experts said.

"Most people, if they were bitten on the foot, were wearing flip-flops, and most of the people who were bitten on the hand were gardening," said David Smith, trauma director at Texas Health Harris Methodist. "If you're going to be gardening, wear gloves and don't blindly reach under bushes."

Pets -- namely dogs and cats -- are also frequent bite victims because they like to engage snakes.

David Whillock of Colleyville is one of the handful of humans who has been bitten this year.

He reached into the wrong place in late March, and a copperhead bit his right hand.

"On a pain scale of 1-10, it was a 32," Whillock said Monday. "I reached into a hose box and I could feel the pain going all the way up my right arm."

Whillock was treated with antivenin and spent three days in hospitals in Grapevine and Fort Worth.

His right pinkie is still purple from the bite, and he goes regularly to physical therapy.

Whillock and his wife, Cathleen, have declared war on the snakes.

"I use to carry an iPad and would use it to identify a snake when I found one outside," Cathleen said. "I carry a shovel now." She said they have since seen two more copperheads.

In Grapevine, Carol Gorzney said she often sees garden snakes in her yard. But this spring, after cleaning an area, "we saw two copperheads. Saw two, killed two."

Gorzney said the sightings have changed her approach to yardwork. Where she used to work barefoot and with bare hands, she recently "had on double gloves and boots. I was prepared."

Snake weather

The biggest reason for the resurgence of snakes has been the weather. This spring has been a perfect storm for snakes, experts say.

"We're coming off a very dry year, and they like rain and humid conditions," said Jonathan Campell, a biology professor at the University of Texas at Arlington. "The rains that we've had recently tend to be conducive to snake activity."

But even though they are active now, snake activity should fall off as the temperatures rise, said David Nelson, clinical director of Texas A&M University's emergency and critical care services in College Station.

Until then North Texans can expect a few more close encounters.

Jason Heitschmidt, general manager at Waterchase Golf Club in east Fort Worth, said his golf superintendent has seen a lot more snakes this year.

"We've seen our fair share, more than we're accustomed to seeing," said Heitschmidt, whose course has been home to coyotes, ducks and feral hogs over the years. "You can add snakes to the list of unwanted critters out here."

Metro editor Lee Willliams contributed to this report.

Domingo Ramirez Jr., 817-390-7763 Twitter: @mingoramirezjr