TAMPA — It’s hard to know what Austin Hatfield was thinking when he went to sleep with a cottonmouth snake in his bed his last weekend.
But the 18-year-old probably didn’t expect to be bitten on the lip after the snake slithered out of the pillowcase where Hatfield was keeping it.
Cottonmouths, also known as water moccasins, have an undeserved reputation of being especially aggressive snakes, experts say. They typically won’t bite a human unless they feel threatened, but they will defend themselves, injecting their attackers with a venom that can be deadly without proper medical treatment.
Hatfield was rushed to Tampa General Hospital, which treats numerous snake bites each year, said Dr. Alfred Aleguas, managing director of the hospital’s Poison Center.
“Basically, if you don’t fool around with it, it’s not going to bite you,” Aleguas said.
Cottonmouths are named for the white insides of their mouths, which they will display if threatened. They are a member of the viper family and typically live in the swampy areas near rivers and lakes, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. They are dark-colored and are usually between 2 and 4 feet long. They have a broad, triangular head and a deep pit in the middle of their face.
Like all reptiles, they become more active as the weather gets warmer, said conservation commission spokesman Gary Morse.
“I would describe them as a little bit more nervous than some of the other snakes,” Morse said. “They get more defensive a little more quickly.”
The wildlife agency is still investigating Hatfield’s case, Morse said. The teen is expected to make a full recovery, but because Hatfield didn’t have the state license required to handle the venomous snake, he could face charges.
It’s not uncommon for the state to investigate cases like Hatfield’s, but it doesn’t happen often.
“On occasion, we get someone who has possessed a snake illegally and then there’s some sort of issue with it,” Morse said.
They don’t make great pets, experts said.
“Trapper Guy” David Lueck, who owns a trapping business and helps people get rid of poisonous snakes and other pests, has a couple tips for people who may cross paths with cottonmouths now that the weather is getting warm and rainy.
The snakes usually stick to their habitats in swampy areas but occasionally will venture out if heavy rains create flooding in residential areas, he said.
“First and foremost, don’t kiss them,” he said.
The snakes have a “horrible” reputation for being aggressive, attacking humans for no reason or even chasing them if a person runs from them, Lueck said. But he has caught hundreds of cottonmouths over the years and said he has never been attacked by one.
A cottonmouth might get defensive when cornered, he said, but he has never seen one give chase.
“Just turn around and walk away from it and you’ll be fine,” Lueck said. “They actually are much more afraid of you than you are of them.”
Most of the snake bites treated at Tampa General are from pygmy rattlesnakes, not cottonmouths, Aleguas said.
A high percentage of the cottonmouth bites doctors at the hospital do treat are “dry bites,” Aleguas said. The snakes — particularly older, mature ones — can control whether they inject venom or not. Most of the time, Aleguas said, they bite just to get someone to back away from them and don’t inject venom.
If someone is bitten, they should seek immediate medical attention. Left untreated, a bite can be fatal, Aleguas said.
The doctors will observe the symptoms for several hours to determine whether venom was injected, Aleguas said. If there is no venom, all the patient will experience is localized swelling and some pain. If venom was injected, there will be severe pain and swelling and a blood test will show that the venom has affected the clotting ability of the person’s cells.
In those cases, the patient is injected with several doses of antivenin and could remain in the hospital for several days.
“It can be a very expensive experience,” he said.
The best way to avoid water moccasins — and their fangs — is to simply be aware of your surroundings, experts said.
“It’s just kind of living in Florida,” Lueck said. “You just have to watch where you step.”