By Maria Elena Fernandez
Saturday, July 11, 1998
No Bark, But Big, Big Bite
Va. Man Wounded By Copperhead Fred
Platten had a close and painful encounter with a
copperhead snake this week near the Department of Housing
and Urban Development in Southwest Washington.
When the 18-inch pit viper sank its fangs into a
knuckle, his left hand swelled within minutes -- and felt
like it had been dipped in boiling water. "It was
just an immediate seering pain," Platten, 31, a
Lotus Notes developer for Caci International, said
yesterday from his bed at George Washington University
Medical Center. "My finger felt like it was on fire.
Then the burn started seeping down into my
Platten is the sixth person bitten by a copperhead in
the region this year. He was bitten Tuesday morning a
block away from the HUD building at Seventh and D streets
SW while helping a parking lot attendant capture the
snake. Another man was bitten Thursday night at Hemlock
Overlook Regional Park in Fairfax County. He was released
yesterday from Inova Fairfax Hospital, which declined to
identify him. Last year, the National Capital Poison
Center recorded 10 cases of copperheads biting humans. In
1996, nine people were bitten. "At this point, I
don't have any reason to believe that we are facing a
greater incidence than usual," said Toby Litovitz,
director of the poison center. "We are not
generating anything like a public health alert." But
for Platten, of Oakton, encountering the copperhead --
which normally shies away from urban centers and prefers
wooded areas -- was a health crisis.
Describing his efforts to capture the brown, slippery
reptile, Platten said he held the snake while the parking
attendant, who had first seen it, tried to place the
snake in a plastic bag. "I had it pinned and when I
lifted it up into the bag, it wiggled itself loose and
just sank its fangs on my knuckle," said Platten,
who had to shake his left hand twice before the snake
released its grip. The snake's venom traveled up
Platten's left arm, to his shoulder, and then to parts of
his chest. At the hospital yesterday, his left arm was
still swollen and partly bruised, and the venom was still
visible in the red markings on his body. Jim Monsma, who
handles snake calls for the Washington Humane Society,
said copperheads are the only venomous snakes in the
area. They are considered docile and reclusive -- and
only bite when provoked. Their bites rarely prove fatal.
"It is not going to chase you," Monsma said.
"If you step on it or put your hands on it, you will
get bitten." Platten will probably be released from
the hospital this weekend, and will suffer no long-term
complications from the bite, officials said. Normally,
patients with copperhead bites experience swelling along
the bite, on extremities, and may have some tissue
damage. "His left arm got so, so big, we were
comparing it to people's thighs," said Platten's
sister, Mert Cook. "It was just painful to
When Platten arrived at the hospital, doctors
scrambled to figure out what type of snake had bitten
him. Platten had thought it was a boa constrictor, but
when he identified the culprit with the help of Internet
pictures, Robert Rosenthal, one of the doctors in the
emergency room, determined it was a copperhead. "We
decided then to administer five vials of antivenom, which
is dangerous stuff," Rosenthal said. "It can
give reactions, such as fevers, chills, rashes, joint
aches or kidney problems. But in his case, it was
necessary." Platten, who suffered no reactions from
his medications, hopes the public will learn from his
mistake. "You stay away from it," Platten said.
" 'Oooh, a snake, pick it up!' That's what a
3-year-old would do. It definitely goes to show you that
you should not do idiotic things."
Recognizing the Copperhead Copperheads are
characterized by the "new penny" copper color
of their heads and by the hourglass-shaped crossbands on
their bodies. Habitat: Most copperheads prefer to live in
dry, wooded areas. Only two of the five species are found
east of the Mississippi River.
Size: 24 to 36 inches long.
Lifespan: Oldest recorded copperhead was 30 years
old. Only 5 percent live beyond 8 years.
Diet: Primary food is mice; will also consume
birds, frogs and small rodents.
Fangs: Large, hollow fangs at the front of the
mouth are connected to the bones of the upper jaw and
palate so that they are folded against the roof of the
mouth when the mouth is closed and are automatically
brought forward when the mouth is open.
Venom: Copperhead's poison helps to immobilize the
animal so the snake can swallow its prey whole. A bite
from a copperhead is not usually fatal for a person. It
can cause shortness of breath, blurred vision and tissue
damage that, in some cases, can result in gangrene.
Copperhead snake bites to humans in the Washington
area by year*: 1998 6 1997 10 1996 9 1995 22 1994 17 1993
11 *Includes the District, Montgomery and Prince George's
counties and Northern Virginia.
SOURCES: The National Capital Poison Center;
Ohio Division of Wildlife --