Columbia man warns about snakes in grass

His efforts lead town association to post caution signs

Howard County

July 20, 2000|By Joslyn Wolfe-Arnovits | Joslyn Wolfe-Arnovits,SUN STAFF

Columbia resident Randy Orloff was walking his dog, Coogle, down a foot path in Jessup's Savage Mill Park one afternoon in 1998 when a copperhead snake suddenly emerged from the underbrush and struck the 16-pound poodle in the neck, killing it.

"The path was camouflaged. ... [The copperhead] came from out of nowhere," Orloff said. "This snake was bi-i-i-ig, about 4 to 5 feet long."

Devastated, Orloff vowed he would persuade the Columbia Association to post signs warning residents about copperheads.

One such sign was posted at Lake Elkhorn about a year ago, and a larger one was posted there last week.

Another is planned for Wilde Lake within the next two weeks.

The Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks has posted warning signs in Savage Mill Park and other areas -- for copperheads and stinging and biting insects.

"Since there is a remote possibility of stumbling upon [a copperhead], we wanted to warn and notify people," said Warren Raymond, the Columbia Association's assistant director for open space.

Part of the pit viper family of rattlesnakes, water moccasins and timber rattlers, copperheads are one of two types of venomous snakes indigenous to Maryland.

Timber rattler

The other is the timber rattler, found primarily in Western Maryland, said Scott Smith, an ecologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

"There are copperheads in Howard County, though. But they're likely to be in the rocky, semi-slope and wooded areas," Smith said.

Copperheads are venomous, but their bites are the least toxic among pit vipers.

"A bite on the lower extremity will result in severe pain, swelling and some ... tissue damage," said Dr. Barry Gold, a Baltimore area toxinologist -- an expert on animal, plant and microbial toxins -- and a consultant for the Maryland Poison Control Center.

"It depends on where the venom is injected. A facial bite or one on the trunk is likely to spread to the nervous system quickly," he said.

Anti-venom

Gold said he is unlikely to treat a healthy adult with anti-venom, a medical antidote to snake bites, because of the risk of death from an allergic reaction.

He also said that, in general, he would consider treating only children and the elderly with anti-venom.

Anti-venom has side effects including low blood pressure and respiratory problems.

The compound is derived from horses whose blood has been treated with venom and that have built up resistance to the toxin.

Anti-venom is considered a foreign substance the body could reject.

Two attacks

Barbara Nugent, former parks and operations manager with the county recreation and parks agency, acknowledged that two dogs were bitten by copperhead snakes in Howard County, one in 1998 -- Orloff's dog -- and the other in the mid-1990s.

Nugent said no injuries or deaths to people because of snakebites have been reported.

"Savage is a more suitable habitat for them ... because of the rocks, running water and woods. They provide a great environmental benefit. They eat rodents," Nugent said.

`Loss of a dog'

Despite the benefits of the creature, the mere mention of copperheads conjures up painful memories for Orloff.

"There's nothing like the loss of a dog," he said.

Orloff's campaign to persuade the Columbia Association to inform the public about copperheads stems not only from the death of his dog but also from the threat of snakebite.

"I went to several hospitals looking for anti-venom ... and none of them knew what the other had in their stocks. After four attempts to find it, one hospital -- St. Agnes -- had it," he said. "But it was too late."

Orloff says the Poison Control Center didn't have such information in its data banks, and he worries that he might have encountered the same problem if one of his young children had been bitten.

Anthony Wisniewski, curator of reptiles and amphibians at the Baltimore Zoo, said the zoo has a database that profiles snakes and lists the appropriate anti-venom.

Need for awareness

Orloff counters that such information is useless unless widely known. "Who would know that the zoo would have an antidote for snake venom?" he said. "If it were public information, I may have saved my dog."

Partly satisfied with the initiatives the Columbia Association has taken to inform the public about copperheads, Orloff said his mission isn't finished.

"We still can do more to make the residents more aware," he said. "I'm going to continue to make that one of my priorities."

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