I came face-to-face with a copperhead, so I called a snake catcher. Here’s what happened

I’ve written more than a dozen stories about copperhead snakes during my time at The News & Observer, learning about them from experts and trying my best to accurately inform others about their characteristics and habits — but always from a safe, comfortable distance.

That is, until last week.

Working from home on Wednesday, I glanced out the back door onto my patio, where a chipmunk stood on his hind legs, head turning quickly from side to side like a little radar. I thought, “Hmm. I’ve never seen a chipmunk do that before.”

At that moment, a snake — immediately, I clocked it as a copperhead, with its little Hershey’s Kiss markings — slithered out from behind a flowerpot. I kicked my storm door and yelled, and the chipmunk took off (life saved, you’re welcome). The snake froze, staring straight at me.

I learned two things immediately, that I never learned from interviewing experts:

Kicking the door repeatedly will not scare away a copperhead.

Neither will cracking the door open and yelling “Get the (blank) out of here!”

But I did do one productive thing right away: I texted Talena Chavis, owner of NC Snake Catcher.

“I have a copperhead! We are in a stare-down. What do I do?”

My phone rang.

Chavis, who I have interviewed in the past, told me she was on the way and to keep an eye on the direction of the snake, “but do not intervene!” She said that last part a few times, to make sure I understood not to get too close and not to interact with the snake.

I had stepped out onto the patio at this point, and the snake moved out of sight behind some flower pots, but I assured her I had zero intention of “intervening” with anything this snake tried to do (unless he tried to eat a chipmunk in front of me).

I recalled an interview a few years ago with Jeff Beane, the herpetology collections manager at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh, in which he told me that a large percentage of snake bites occur while people are trying to kill or catch them. So, yeah, I’m keeping my distance.

(By the way ... if you’re tempted to email to tell me I should have left him alone, let me stop you right there. I have a very small patio and garden, and there’s not room for the both of us here. And just three days prior, my 2-year-old niece stood and picked tomatoes right where that snake now lay. He had to go.)

Standing guard and getting advice (mostly bad)

I texted Chavis my address and stood guard on the patio, armed only with a smartphone, partly to watch for the snake’s escape (he never tried to leave) and partly to keep chipmunks from wandering back into the danger zone.

While I waited for Chavis, I texted updates to various parties following the saga:

“Kill him!” my mom texted. No.

“Do you have a spray bottle?” a friend asked. Hard pass.

“Now you have to move,” my editor instructed. Not out of the question.

Chavis arrived within 20 minutes, wearing long pants and long sleeves, high protective boots and gloves. She was carrying a snake grabber stick (probably not the technical term) and a large plastic box, and with her was Jerry Parker, who is in training to become a snake catcher.

I pointed to where I’d last seen the snake — behind some flowerpots sitting in front of two raised beds of tomato plants in my garden — and basically told her to destroy anything in her path to catch the snake. In less than one minute (I was filming), she had captured it: a full-size adult copperhead.

The NC Snake Catcher fee was $250, and it was worth every dime. That’s a lot cheaper than a trip to the emergency room, or me burning down my house and moving to snake-free Ireland.

Copperhead snake that was spotted on the patio of a townhouse in Raleigh, NC after being collected by Talena Chavis, owner of NC Snake Catcher.
Copperhead snake that was spotted on the patio of a townhouse in Raleigh, NC after being collected by Talena Chavis, owner of NC Snake Catcher.

What attracts copperheads? Why are they everywhere now?

With the snake safely in his clear plastic box, Chavis and I talked a little about why the snake was attracted to my patio (chipmunks are apparently a delicious, high-calorie snake snack) and she answered my No. 1 question: Are there more snakes here?

It’s hard to know for sure, but Chavis said it’s a myth that “where you see one, there are always more” or “where you see an adult, there are babies.” She said copperheads sometimes travel in pairs, but if this one had a buddy, it likely would have been there where we found this one. She thinks (and I pray she’s right) that this was a solitary traveler.

But, she pointed out that copperheads are becoming more and more common in people’s yards, gardens, patios and porches, because we are tearing down so much of their natural wooded habitat, and we’ve essentially eradicated one of the copperhead’s main predator: the Eastern king snake.

Copperheads are thriving here, she said.

When I told people about Chavis catching the copperhead, the most common questions were: What does she do with the snakes? And has she ever been bitten?

Chavis relocates the snakes to a remote property with the permission of the land owner. It’s against the law to capture and release a venomous snake on public property or on private property if you don’t have the owner’s permission, she said.

Chavis has never been bitten by a venomous snake, she said — “and I plan to keep it that way.”

Below you’ll find some tips and advice from our previous copperhead snake coverage.

How to avoid trouble with a copperhead

Be extra cautious at night. Copperheads are active during the day and night, but are largely nocturnal during hot weather, says NC Wildlife, so use more caution at dusk or dark.

Chavis told us in a previous report: “They hunt at night, so try to let the dogs out before dark, if you can, and wear your boots. We get bitten at night because we put on our little flip-flops and grab the trash and walk out, and that’s when we get tagged.”

Keep your distance. While many bites occur when someone inadvertently puts a hand or foot near a copperhead, NC Wildlife notes that many bites occur when a person is trying to kill or remove a copperhead.

“Admire them from a safe distance and leave them alone,” said Beane, who does not advocate for killing the snakes. “No one was ever bitten by a snake while they were leaving it alone.”

If leaving it alone makes you nervous, you can call a professional wildlife relocation expert to remove the snake from your yard. (If you’re interested in contacting NC Snake Catcher, you can call or text 919-867-0173, or get more info at facebook.com/ncsnakecatcher.)

Look before you step or grab: Watch where you walk and where you put your hands. If gardening or doing yard work, wear boots and gloves.

Copperheads love pine straw, dried leaves or brush, or dense, low-growing ground cover like English ivy. They also love wood piles and dry stack walls, which are border walls that are essentially stacked pieces of slate without mortar — those crevices make great homes for copperhead prey.

What to do if you’re bitten by a copperhead (or other snake)

Earlier this year, reporter Kimberly Cataudella interviewed Dr. Ben German, WakeMed emergency physician and medical professional with the international Asclepius Snakebite Foundation, abut snake bites.

If you’ve been bitten by a copperhead or other venomous snake (or if you’re unsure if the snake that bit you is venomous), seek care, German said. If you have concerning symptoms, go straight to an emergency department.

This can include:

  • Difficulty breathing

  • Chest pain

  • Dizziness

  • Significant swelling

“Any patient with worsening pain, swelling or any other concerning symptoms should be evaluated in person,” said German.

If you do not have these concerning symptoms, you can call NC Poison Control (1-800-222-1222) first. This is a free 24/7 hotline for people in North and South Carolina who want to speak with a medical expert before heading to the emergency room.

NC Poison Control offers this advice:

  • Sit down and stay calm.

  • Gently wash the area with warm, soapy water.

  • Remove any jewelry or tight clothing near the bite site.

  • Keep the bitten area still, if possible, and raise it to heart level.

  • Call NC Poison Control at 1-800-222-1222.

If a snakebite victim is having chest pain, difficulty breathing, face swelling, or has lost consciousness, call 911 immediately.

You should not:

  • Cut the bitten area to try to drain the venom. This can worsen the injury.

  • Ice the area. Icing causes additional tissue damage.

  • Make and apply a tourniquet or any tight bandage. It’s better for the venom to flow through the body than for it to stay in one area.

  • Suck or use a suction device to remove the venom.

  • Attempt to catch or kill the snake.

Reporter Kimberly Cataudella contributed to this report.

Bitten by a copperhead snake? How to know if you need antivenom or an ER visit.