Pit Bull saves owner

Published 5:00 am Friday, September 25, 2009

Pit bulls are always earning notoriety as fighting dogs, attackdogs and all around vicious canines, but East Lincoln’s Phil Hembyhas one specimen of the square-headed breed earning a new name foritself.

And that name is lifesaver. Well, not quite …

Shortly after 2 p.m. Thursday, Hemby stepped out to take Slim,his 2-year-old pit terrier, for a joy ride in his Yamaha Rhino ATVaround the Hemby Farms chicken houses off Townsend Drive. But thenormally docile dog was in a rage – barking, snarling and drivinghim back – and wouldn’t let him approach the machine. Hemby said hethought the pit had turned on him, but then the reason for thecommotion became clear.

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Slim wouldn’t let Hemby approach the ATV because coiled beneaththe vehicle’s rear end was a nearly 4-foot Copperhead, Hemby said.The snake made a run for it and Slim was on him, taking the viperin his mouth and performing the classic canine kill by shaking itviolently from side to side.

“Today was my lucky day, buddy,” said Hemby, 44, a formerminister at Union Baptist Church. “When I went to let the gatedown, I would have stepped right on top of that thing. It may nothave killed me, but who wants to be snake-bit?”

Hemby said he was proud of Slim, whom he described as a playfulyard dog who loves chasing balls and rolling in the grass with theHembys’ nieces and nephews. Hemby raised Slim from a puppy, whenthe dog was given to him by his stepdaughter, 18-year oldCopiah-Lincoln Community College student Tara Paden.

With pit bulls having such a poor reputation and being seen asunsafe, killer dogs, Hemby said he felt compelled to tell the storyof how Slim protected his master. The sour news about the breedalmost got to Hemby, who grabbed a shovel off the porch and wasabout to strike Slim down during his fit over the snake before herealized the dog was just looking out for him.

“There’s nothing ever good that comes out in the news aboutthese dogs,” he said, sitting on the back of the Rhino holding ahappy Slim with one arm. “He protected me. He killed the snake. Icouldn’t get him away from it. It took me 10 minutes to get him offof it.

“I love the Lord, and I believe he worked through this dogtoday.”

While Slim may be the most faithful pit bill in Lincoln Countyand he surely saved Hemby from a terribly painful snakebite,calling the dog a “lifesaver” may be a stretch.

Mississippi snake expert Terry Vandeventer said the Copperhead,a member of the pit viper family, delivers a painful, venomousbite, but those bites are very rarely fatal to humans. In fact,among the venomous vipers common in the state, the Copperhead’svenom packs the least punch.

Still, the bites are painful. Copperhead venom is hemolytic anddestroys red blood cells, releasing hemoglobin into the body fluidand causing hemorrhaging. Copperhead venom does not attack thenervous system.

“Copperhead bites are serious and can ruin your day, but they’renot fatal,” he said. “There are some stories that go way, way backof people who have died of Copperhead bites, but we really have noevidence in the U.S. of people ever dying from a Copperhead bite.We’ve had small children, 2 or 3 years old, bitten by Copperheads,and they just kind of work their way through it.”

Hemby was worried that Slim was bitten by the defeatedCopperhead, but the dog showed no signs of sickness Thursday. Evenif Slim had been stricken, Vandeventer said it probably wouldn’tmatter.

“Generally, dogs are highly resistant to snake bites,” he said.”Generally, the dog gets wimpy for a couple of days and wants a lotof attention, but then they get better. Some dogs get bitten allthe time – some attack snakes all the time, they just can’t leavethem alone. A big, muscular dog like a pit bull, if he did getbitten, he may not have even noticed it.”

Copperheads are one of the most common species of snakes inMississippi, Vandeventer said, especially this time of year.

“Almost every Copperhead you find this time of year are males,and often they’re fairly good-sized,” he said. “This is just alittle past the breeding season, and we see lots and lots of malescrossing roads in the middle of the day, 90 degrees, looking for adate.”