CHARLOTTE, NC (Mark Price/The Charlotte Observer) - Copperheads have two annual mating cycles and Charlotte is in the midst of one now, which could explain why four people were hospitalized with bites during a two-week period.
But something more is going on, according to experts, and the venomous snake encounters could get worse.
A Charlotte man decapitates a Copperhead that was hanging out near his front door off of Sharon View Road. After an unusually warm winter, spring and summer, fall is high time for the snakes. Copperhead bites are up in North Carolina.
Part of it is timing. Copperheads sense winter is coming when temperatures drop below 60 degrees at night, so they are eating more frequently to build fat for winter. When copperheads eat big meals, they seek out warm spots to help with converting food to fat, experts said. That means stretching out and snoozing on concrete porches, driveways, garages and roadways.
The bigger issue, however, is development, said Grover Barfield, director of the Carolinas Reptile Rescue and Education Center. Charlotte is growing into places copperheads consider home.
"People don't expect copperheads in places like the garage, but we're destroying their habitat," Barfield said. "Personally, I think the major contributing factor to bites is habitat destruction, plus the greenways being built between subdivisions and developments. When habitat is destroyed, snakes have to look elsewhere for food."
That means once rare copperhead encounters in yards are going to multiply in Charlotte, he said.
The bites recently reported in the Charlotte area all involved people who encountered copperheads while engaged in daily routines. Two adults were out with family dogs, including a 76-year-old Mint Hill woman who was bitten on the foot. A Charlotte child was bitten while pushing a bike in the road, and one woman in Quail Hollow was stepping out the door of her home to take out her recycling.
The snakes involved were no more than three feet long and were unseen by the victims until after the bite. All four of those bitten ended up being hospitalized, including Lisa Romanoff, who was in the hospital for 12 hours.
Dylan Smith, 26, said he was bitten at the end of August while taking a puppy outside. He lives in a condo complex near the intersection of Sharon and Sharon View roads. Smith said his foot swelled to three times its normal size, and he could not walk for three days.
"Fast forward two weeks ago and I'm taking my dog out. As I get down to the main level, there's two copperheads, which I believe were mating," said Smith. "We called animal control to see if they could remove them in an ethical way, but they said they didn't come for that type of animal unless it's in my home. … Luckily, we had a machete."
A neighbor with a 5-year-old daughter killed both snakes on the porch, Smith said: "Having these two snakes around that could kill a child or puppy was not an option."
The three adult victims said pain from the bite was excruciating. It started as a sting, they said, then worsened with bruising and severe swelling. The pain lasted for days.
Barfield has been bitten more than once as part of his job, which includes removing copperheads from yards and releasing them into the wild. His description of a bite: "As the swelling progresses, you feel like you'll explode from the inside out. It's like having your hand hit by a hammer, but multiply that by three to five times."
He said he has rescued five venomous snakes this year in the region, including two that were living in the Carmel Road area of Charlotte.
Copperheads prefer to live within an acre of land, he said. That means someone who sees one in their yard is likely to see it again. And they are prolific. "I had one once that had 13 babies," he said.
At least two other bites have been reported in the Charlotte area this year. In April, a Ballantyne man reported a copperhead bite while doing yard work, and in May, a man was bitten while walking at Latta Plantation Nature Center and Preserve in Huntersville.
Venomous snake bites were up in North Carolina last spring over the previous year, and experts said the likely cause was the mild winter weather. The number of North Carolina residents bitten by snakes in April increased nearly four-fold over the same period in 2016, reported Carolinas Poison Control Center. The center said copperheads are the most plentiful venomous snake in the state.
Experts said homeowners can take a number of steps, most of which are easy, to keep snakes out of yards and gardens. First, clear away piles of debris, stacked wood and leaves. Second, try not to go out at night wearing only sandals or flip flops, which was the case in several of the bites experienced recently in Charlotte.
Repellants can be purchased at stores, but Barfield warns homeowners away from one popular home remedy: moth balls. Not only is there a lack of proof that moth balls repel snakes, he said, but the product is considered dangerous to other animals. He also says independent studies show many of the store bought repellants don't work.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 7,000-8,000 people per year receive venomous bites in the United States, and about five of those people die.