WL woman gets snake surprise

Published 5:00 am Thursday, August 27, 2009

West Lincoln’s Joe Ann Pepper has a word of advice to localsnake killers – if you’re shooting down a dangerous cottonmouth onyour property, rack another round in the chamber and finish thejob.

Killing momma snake may not be enough.

August and September are the months when Agkistrodon piscivorus- a poisonous pit viper known locally as the cottonmouth – givesbirth. Slender young snakes are birthed live from inside themother, not hatched from eggs in the tall grass.

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With as many as 16 baby cottonmouths, ranging in size from 9 to14 inches long, born at once, killing only the mother may notremove one’s cottonmouth problem.

Pepper, a retired nurse, experienced that first-hand last weekon her farm in West Lincoln when she and neighbor C.W. Robertskilled a 4-foot-long cottonmouth with a 12-gauge shotgun to makethe grounds safe for grandbabies and livestock.

“(Roberts) said, ‘Look, even its guts are still moving. I turnedaround and I said, ‘That ain’t its guts, that’s where the rest ofthe snakes are,'” Pepper recounted. “I turned it over and slit itsstomach on up, cut each one out and they came out striking.

“But I had my boots on, so I just stepped on their heads.”

Pepper’s offending cottonmouth had already birthed two snakes inits pond-side den, but with knife in hand, she cut a further 17baby cottonmouths from the dead mother. A 20th snake was killed byRoberts’ shotgun blast.

“It was just a whole row of them,” she said. “Some of themimmediately came out, some I had to pull out, but all the onesinside were alive. We’d have had 19 more snakes running aroundhere.”

As opposed to “good” snakes – like Kingsnakes, which arenon-venomous and kill and eat other snakes, including venomoussnakes – cottonmouths are dangerous, especially to those likePepper who have grandchildren.

According to the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park Website, cottonmouths, although usually more territorial than outrightaggressive, can cause severe and fatal damage from their venomousbites. The snake’s venom is hemotoxic and attacks the bloodstream,reducing the blood’s ability to clot and causing hemorrhaging inthe bitten area.

Cottonmouths are commonly found near water, in places like theedges of lakes and ponds, swamps, slow-moving streams and drainageditches. They sun themselves frequently, and may be found gatheringrays on branches, logs or rocks at the water’s edge.

And, as Pepper advised, getting rid of them requires a littleextra effort.

“I thought that might be interesting for people to realize, whenthey kill one of these snakes, they might want to check. Split thatbelly in two and see what’s inside,” she said. “When the snakedies, they will come out.”

Or, they will die inside their mother’s body.

Mississippi snake expert Terry Vandeventer said the baby snakeswould not be able to escape unless the mother was split or cutopen, and the timing has to be right.

“The babies have to be exposed at exactly the right time,” hesaid. “In other words, within a short time of the would-be birth.I’ve removed live, healthy babies from road-killed femalerattlesnakes. They survived fine. Others have been premature whenthe female was killed and couldn’t survive on their own.”

However, if the timing is right and the mother is opened up as aresult of her death, that bucket load of babies could comeslithering out.

Vandeventer said pregnant snakes about to give live birth arejust that, and a widely believed notion that cottonmouths carryalready-born babies in an internal pouch to protect them is one ofthe state’s oldest myths.

Even Pepper said she has heard the story her whole life.Vandeventer has, too.

“My uncle told me that, too,” he said. “These stories go way,way back, maybe 100 years. We have a tremendous number of mythsabout snakes in Mississippi.”

Vandeventer said around 25 percent of snakes native toMississippi give live birth, but no snakes here or anywhere”swallow” their young into a kangaroo-like pouch forsafekeeping.

“Snakes digest entire organisms within a day or so, so they havevery powerful digestive enzymes,” he said. “Those babies would diealmost instantly.”