Austin’s building boom apparently has been a boom to the few critter-control companies that catch snakes for panicked homeowners.
Although there is no tally to prove the snake population in Central Texas is actually up this spring, there is an anecdotal evidence of a sharp increase in human-snake encounters.
Those close encounters of the serpentine kind are occurring far more often than just a few years ago, likely because of a number of factors, including the construction binge that is displacing rather than killing the reptiles outright, according to biologists and animal control experts.
“I’ve seen a 40 percent increase in the number of calls from residences and business over the past few years,” said Tom Regner, whose Austin business specializes in relocating nuisance bats, birds and snakes. “I now get a couple hundred calls a year, and I don’t even promote the snake part of the business.”
In most neighborhoods, the one thing clearly more common than snakes is the fear of them – a reflexive terror that many acknowledge to be irrational. Of the 115 species of snakes in Texas, only four poisonous species inhabit the Austin area.
That doesn’t mean people should be cavalier when they stumble across a slithering reptile.
Earlier this week, a gardener working in the Vineyard Bay area off RM 620 was bitten on the hand by a diamondback rattlesnake, said Thomas Deba of Greater Austin Pest Control, who was called to apprehend the perpetrator. The gardener was hospitalized overnight for observation, Deba said.
And late Thursday, a 16-year-old Austin boy was bitten twice on his toes by an unidentified snake while walking to his truck to get dry clothes after swimming with friends in the Adamsville area, a Brackenridge Hospital official said.
“There were puncture wounds, and his foot hurt up to the ankle, so there probably was some venom injected, but not much,” hospital spokesman Stephanie Elsea said. “He’s going to be fine, and he says he’s going to remember to wear shoes when outside.”
It is common for snakes – especially large, older snakes – to not inject much or any venom when striking at humans because the attack is done in fear rather than in an effort to kill prey, experts say. Also, snake fangs are fragile and often will not penetrate even canvas tennis shoes.
Austin hospitals treat five to 10 victims of venomous snake bites a year, and that number does not seem to be rising, said Dr. John Blewett, director of the emergency room at St. David’s Hospital.
Deaths from snakebites are very rare in the United States, with about 15 per year, experts say. Outdoor Life magazine recently noted that, by comparison, dog bites cause about 20 deaths annually and bee stings about 100.
Experts agree that construction generally forces snakes to find new places to live. A mild winter and early spring might also be responsible for a higher survival rate of young snakes, which are finding a plethora of food because frogs and insects also fared well over the winter.
Regner, the relocation specialist who runs Town Lake Construction, said he was surprised that during a recent three-hour canoe trip on the Colorado River below the Montopolis Bridge he saw 13 snakes, three of them cottonmouths.
The only problem snake is an angry cottonmouth, he said, “I’ve had them chase me across a river and go out of their way to attack me.”
Regner learned about snakes as a youth in Houston when Hurricane Carla struck, leaving dozens of dead snakes, including cottonmouths and copperheads, washed up on his parent’s property.
“I collected them in a bag and left them in the garage,” he recalled. “The problem was that about half were just stunned, and when the warmth revived them, it took about a week to find all of them in our house.”
The depth of some people’s snake phobias still amazes him.
“When I realized the regular pest-control guys were scared, I said, “This is good for my business,’ and they refer their snake problems to me,” Regner said. “You can’t believe the calls I get from folks with a small snake in their yards, and they want it removed.”
By Kevin Carmody