NC man’s encounter with copulating copperheads is very uncommon, herpetologist says

NC man’s encounter with copulating copperheads is very uncommon, herpetologist says

STATESVILLE, NC (The News and Observer) - A Statesville man who says he was bitten five times when he accidentally interrupted a copperhead menage-a-trois was right when he said, "It was like being hit by lightning," a state herpetologist says.

Except, a lightning strike might be more probable.

Lenny Cook told WBTV's Alex Giles and The Charlotte Observer that he went into the garage behind his house last Thursday and pulled open a dresser drawer to find a romantic reptilian macrame: "three copperheads knotted in a mating ball," the story said.

"It happened so fast, I didn't realize what I was seeing," Cook told a reporter. "The second I opened the drawer, they unwrapped and they struck in the blink of an eye. It was like being hit by lightning."

Cook, who said he had worked for 20 years as an exterminator, said he had gone into the garage to set off a fogger to kill spiders. He opened the drawer to make sure the insecticide could get inside, he said, and that's when the snakes attacked, striking his left forearm repeatedly.

After he was bitten – and before he called his wife, and then 911 – Cook said he killed the snakes with a shovel.

Phil Bradley, head of terrestrial exhibits for the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh, said what Cook described is a very unusual herpetological event.

"It would not be impossible for snakes to end up in a chest of drawers. However, that is not typical," Bradley said. "And five bites? That's a lot of bites. Again, not out of the realm of possibility, but that's an outlier."

Further, Bradley said, while garter snakes and others sometimes mate en masse, copperheads are not known to participate in these reptilian orgies.

If two males in prime breeding mode encounter the same female, he said, the males will sometimes wrestle, without biting, until one is pressed into submission. The victor will then breed with the female.

"In my work I have never encountered multiple animals breeding," he said. "It's always a single male and a single female."

This is one of the times of year that people who spend a lot of time outdoors are likely to encounter snakes, including the six venomous species found in North Carolina.

With winter coming, "This is the time they're starting to move, to get back to those den sites," Bradley said. "They're on the crawl."

They will be out again in the spring, he said.

Bradley said he and other herpetologists discourage people who encounter snakes, even venomous ones, from trying to kill them. That's when a person is most likely to get bitten, he said.

Besides, he said, it can be difficult during an adrenalin-filled encounter to discern a venomous snake from a benevolent one, and Bradley hates to think of venerated vertebrates being unnecessarily slain.

Cook may have offered the best advice, even if he didn't follow it: "I don't care what kind of snake it is. Back away from it."