Wednesday, August 7, 2019


         My daughter Christy is a high school science and biology teacher who has worked in past years as a paid summer naturalist for the state park system.  She spends hours and hours in the outdoors, on rivers and trails throughout the Ozarks of southern Missouri and north Arkansas.

          When you spend that much time exploring, you come across some amazing things, and a month or so ago she found a copperhead like none I have ever seen.  Instead of the copper-colored hour-glass pattern down it’s back it has wavy dark brown lines.  

         Last year I wrote about a neighbor of mine who captured a copperhead in his garage and put it in an aquarium to show his 13-year-old daughter.  She went to school and told her teacher, who passed it on to a local woman conservation agent who spends weeks working as a substitute teacher while being paid as a MDC agent at the same time.

         After school she went to my neighbor’s home, entered his garage with no warrant and took the snake and the aquarium and gives him a $180 fine.  Almost a year later, he cannot get the 100-dollar aquarium back.  He thinks it may have been sold by the agent, as similar things have happened here in the past.

         Less than a mile from him as the crow flies, I kill every copperhead I find on my place.  I do that because folks visit Lightnin’ Ridge on occasion and walk my trails, and I have a Labrador I am quite fond of and I don’t want him or any hiker to be bitten.          
His intentions were better than mine would have been, as he intended to take the copperhead to the river and turn it loose after he showed it to his daughter so she would know how to recognize one.

         As for me, only copperheads and black snakes are in danger here on Lightnin' Ridge.  King snakes, hognose snakes and others are safe, even if they get in my basement. But in 25 years here on Lightnin’ Ridge I have slaughtered about 50 or so nice friendly copperheads.

         A few years ago the Missouri Department of Conservation herpetologist put out a little color pamphlet showing a close up of a copperhead and above it in large print was  “they seldom bite, they never kill.”  I couldn’t believe it!!!  As a naturalist for the National Park Service back in my twenties, I had made it a point to go out and talk to old-timers about the history of the region and I had been told of families losing children and loved ones to copperhead bites.

         I would bet that in the Ozarks of the twenties and thirties, the loss of feet and the loss of life from copperhead bites were considerable. In my interviews with old Ozarkians from that era, I was told that.  But that was in a day when there were no clinics close by.  All you had was coal oil and dead chicken meat to treat a bite. My uncle, bitten at five years of age, nearly died from a copperhead bite, unconscious for a whole night and day.  He says he lived because my grandfather incised the tooth marks and sucked out a half a cup of blood and venom within a few minutes of the time he was bitten.

         I think that MDC brochure may have cost a man his life soon after it was spread throughout park offices and visitor centers.  He was at Sam A. Baker State Park when he found a copperhead in his tent, picked it up and was bitten when he threw it out, because he didn’’t want to kill it.  A day later, disdaining a trip to see a doctor because he believed, 'they never kill', as the brochure proclaimed, he died.

         While for many years the MDC experts stated that no one in Missouri has ever died from a copperhead bite, that has all gone out the window now.  Their latest claim is that only 3 people have ever died from a copperhead bite.

         Common sense should tell you that in the wild there are no “nevers” and “always”.  Every dealing with any wild creature has an unpredictable outcome. The reason few people today are in danger as people were a hundred years ago is the anti-venin to be had at hospitals seldom more than an hour away.  But they once called venom ‘poison’.  It still is!!!

         As to the aggressiveness of a copperhead, it just depends on the individual snake, the time of year (all poisonous snakes are most dangerous during the molting of their skin) whether they have full venom glands, (after striking a mouse or chipmunk and eating it, the venom may take a while to build up again) whether it is 90 degrees or 70 degrees, and other factors such as the place and season.

          Back when I was in my early twenties I was leading a group of hikers on a Buffalo River trail when I put my foot down a good fifteen to twenty inches from a copperhead and he struck my boot.  Yes, he was aggressive and shortly thereafter he was dead.  Thank God I was out in front looking for him.  Behind me were families not wearing the thick leather boots that I had on.

          Remember that, August and September are the molting months and poison snakes are indeed more dangerous then, perhaps because molting affects their vision. In September they are often found at night on concrete, pavement or rock surfaces.  They seek the heat as the night cools that those surfaces absorb and hold during the day.

          If you let copperheads survive around places where kids or pets or people are found often, I think you lack common sense. And if there are some of you amateur naturalists or even a few book-trained herpetologists out there who want to call me and tell me I don’t know what I am talking about, just give me the address where you live and I will bring you a couple of copperheads this fall for your lawn.

You may reach me at 417 777 5227 or email  The mailing address is Box 22, Bolivar, Mo. 65613

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