Southern Delaware is no stranger to wildlife. There are thousands of varieties of birds, mammals, insects and sea creatures found in the waters, marshes, fields and woods of Sussex County. But perhaps one variety sparks more fear among humans than any other.
According to Jim White, the associate director for Land and Biodiversity Management at the Delaware Nature Society, Sussex County is home to 14 species of snakes. Of those 14, the only type that is venomous is the copperhead, found mostly in western Sussex County, not usually near the beach. But there are exceptions to that rule, with at least one local man bitten by a copperhead recently.
“Typically, people see more snakes in the spring and the fall than they do in the summer,” White said. In the summer, he said, snakes often become nocturnal, and in the winter, they hibernate.
Snakes have different diets, he said, but many eat insects, fish, frogs, small mammals and even some birds. They like to hang around where they can find food sources, such old buildings.
“Farmers used to actually like black rat snakes around because they control rodents,” he noted.
White said the most common snake to encounter in wet areas is the northern water snake, whose brown coloring often makes people mistake it for a venomous copperhead.
“If you’re boating or fishing, that’s a common snake to encounter on the banks,” he said.
In wooded areas, such as the trails in the Cape Henlopen State Park, the black racer snake is very common. White said they are often between 4 and 5 feet long, all black, and move very quickly across the earthen floor.
Richard Julian, manager of the Nature Center at the park, said black rat snakes and hog snakes are also common at the park, and most people mistake the hog snake for a venomous snake because of its large head.
Copperheads, on the other hand, are generally around 2 feet long, although some have been found that were up to 42 inches long. White said they are rare, but people do report several in Sussex County each year. He mentioned Roxanna, Dagsboro and Seaford as areas where there have been copperhead sightings.
“They’re relatively docile snakes,” he said, explaining that the large majority of bites occur because a person tries to pick the snake up.
In his 35 years dealing with snakes, he said, he has never seen one attack without being provoked, though perhaps not intentionally.
“If they feel threatened, they strike,” he said.
Dagsboro resident Neil Brosnahan learned firsthand what getting bit by a snake feels like. At the beginning of May, while walking near a home in Bethany Beach, he felt something he said “felt like a bee sting” on the calf of one of his legs. When he looked down and moved to try to brush the offender away, he saw what he believed was copperhead.
He looked the snake up online, and decided to wait it out and see what happened. After several days of increasing pain, he finally went to a doctor, who confirmed it was a venomous snakebite and gave Brosnahan antibiotics to combat a secondary infection.
“It’s been the worse pain I’ve ever experienced,” he said.
After several more days, he went to the Wound Center, and he continues to go there for weekly surgeries to remove flesh that has died, or become necrotic, thanks to the snake’s venom.
“I have another two weeks of doing this and then they’re going to reevaluate it,” he said.
Brosnahan said the homeowner has had a wildlife trapper from the Delmar area out to look for the snake several times, but they haven’t found it.
White said finding a copperhead as far east as Bethany Beach is very unusual, and Brosnahan said he is paying a lot more attention to where he walks now.
And while the copperhead is the only venomous snake known to live in the area, that doesn’t mean other snakes won’t bite. White said most will, if threatened, and especially if handled by humans.
If a snakebite should occur, White encourages the victim and bystanders to try to identify the snake. If it is venomous, telling medical professionals that information can help with patient care. He said sometimes anti-venom will be administered but, often, the patient just has to wait it out. Copperhead bites, while serious, are not usually life-threatening.
If the bite is from a non-venomous snake, like the multiple bites White has suffered, he always recommends cleaning the bite thoroughly and applying an antibiotic, because infection can occur.
“It doesn’t hurt that bad,” he added.
Julian and White both agreed that snakes are best left alone.
“Most snakes are doing some good in someone’s back yard,” Julian said, explaining that people should feel free to observe them, from a distance. If they feel a snake is a threat to someone or something, like a child or pet, he said, they should contact the Department of Fish and Wildlife or a local state park.
Brosnahan said he has his own recommendations for dealing with snakes.
“I would stay away from them, as far as possible,” he said.
White said if someone really wants to get rid of a non-venomous snake, there is safe way to do it.
“Put on a coat and a pair of gloves, and you can handle any snake but a copperhead that way,” he said.
After picking up the snake, which will probably turn and bite the glove, he said, the snake should be placed in a pillowcase, which should then be tied securely. The snake should then be taken to a natural habitat to be released.
Julian said snakes should never be killed simply because they’re snakes.
“As humans, we tend to be afraid of things we don’t know,” White said. “Snakes have had a negative connotation since the get-go.”
White also asked the public to send pictures of any snake sightings to him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, because they then can be identified and logged to better track snakes across the state.