Sunday, May 26, 2013
By KEN ALLEN
In the "Field & Stream" August 2012 issue, Keith McCafferty wrote about the skyrocketing cost of antivenin to treat venomous snakebites in Montana hospitals, and the price for a trip to the emergency room absolutely flabbergasted me.
Let's just say that if the victim has no health insurance or a low-paying job, medical care for such a mishap may take a lifetime to pay off -- $35,000 to $100,000. Antivenin varies from hospital to hospital in Montana, explaining the discrepancy, and that state is no anomaly.
Unfortunately, excruciating pain and fear of dying -- the latter improbable but possible -- leave little time to price-shop after the bite, so service costs become a crapshoot. Folks head to the closest medical facility in a hurry and worry about paying later.
McCafferty did suggest researching price of care before going afield, but even if a hospital -- say 30 miles away -- charges much less to treat snakebites than one two miles away, people might still go to the closer one out of simple fear.
Allegedly, Maine and Alaska rank as the only two U.S. states without poisonous snakes, so unless we travel, it's a non-issue. However, many of us travel in venomous snake habitat, where we often tip-toe through brush, obviously more concerned than folks who grew up with poisonous snakes possibly lurking under a bush.
Fifteen years ago, I was fly-fishing for trout in North Carolina and suffered good-natured abuse one night. A fellow was tiptoeing around the kitchen, imitating me walking through rhododendrons along a creek.
My worry about venomous snakes began big time 25 years ago, when I met Larry Tew, a friend of my late aunt and uncle. This officer and career man in the Navy told me a story about walking through palmettos in Florida, and according to his own evaluation, he "stupidly" stepped over a blown-down trunk and placed his foot where he couldn't see the ground. A hidden diamondback rattlesnake instantly bit him on the leg.
"Imagine a bee sting and multiply it by a 100," Tew said, "and you'll be approaching the pain level."
That story gave me a healthy fear of venomous snakes, so I read up on safety tips for traveling in snake country:
• Snakes can strike from half to two-thirds for their body length. In short, a 6-footer can bite its target 3-4 feet away.
• When walking in snake country, folks should ideally place their feet where they can see the ground and for several feet beyond the stepping spot.
• A snake could lie in trees or rush off the ground, concealed within striking distance, so folks should avoid placing hands or body in places where snakes might hide close enough to bite.
When in snake country, a Maine native such as myself goes to any length to avoid stepping where I cannot see around my feet -- which works much of the time. It's amazing, though, how many times we walk through spots where crevices in brush or rock block vision. So, I use the end of a bow, rifle or stick to push limbs aside before stepping.
Snake bites present another problem beyond pain and fear, and many people are unaware of it. When George Bush the younger was president, a federal law was passed that insured bankruptcy wouldn't excuse medical bills, so here is one example of how folks could innocently get themselves in big financial trouble. A $100,000 bill would devastate many family economies, and even a $30,000 cost would make a serious dent.
Maine supposedly has no rattlesnakes, which reminds me of a story from the 1980s. One September, Val Marquez of Shapleigh and I were hunting deer with bows and arrows near his camp in Freedom, N.H., practically within sight of Maine. At the time, a neighbor by his camp allegedly saw a small nest of timber rattlers on his property, leaving me with a thought.
Do rattlesnakes slither up to the border and think, "Hmmm, zoology texts claim I cannot go into that state."
One last thought: When traveling in snake country, I seldom see poisonous snakes, occasionally a problem, because I'm trying to shoot photos of them. A good herpetologist can find them, though.
These reptiles' ability to stay hidden offer one reason why so few U.S. residents get snake-bit annually, but the chance exists in 48 states and hundreds of countries.
Ken Allen lives in Belgrade Lakes village and can be reached at: