Click Here to Play Audio

Some scientists think the widespread human fear of snakes dates back to our distant past -- when our primate predecessors were living in trees to escape predators.

The only thing that could easily kill you up there was a serpent. Now, poisonous snakes are rare, according to Alex Wehrung at the Wildlife Center of Virginia.

“There are 30 species of snakes that live in Virginia," he said. "Out of all of those only three are venomous – rattlesnakes, cotton mouths and copperheads."

Rattlesnakers prefer Virginia's mountains while cottonmouths are more likely found in Hampton Roads, in rivers, creeks and lakes. Copperheads are less picky and can be found all around the state.

None of Virginia’s snakes are likely to inflict a fatal bite, said E d Clark, president of the Wildlife Center.

”Around the world there are snakes that they say if you’re bitten by them go sit in the shade, because there’s no reason to die in the sun, but the truth is that our snakes are not considered deadly snakes. They can cause quite an injury. It can hurt like crazy. It can actually do nerve and tissue damage, but the number of people who die by snake bite is just miniscule compared, for example, to the number of people who die from bee stings or falling in their bathtub for that matter," he said.

Chris Holstege, who heads the Blue Ridge Poison Center, adds that where you are bitten is a factor in how damaging a snake bite can be.

“We’ve had, for example, a teenager who was handling a snake, which he shouldn’t have been doing. He kind of wrapped it around his neck, showing his friends he was cool, and then got bitten in the neck.”

And, Holstege said, what you do after being bitten can make matters worse: Trying to suck out the venom or using a tourniquet don't help and could be dangerous in the aftermath of a bite.

Instead, he advises a quick trip to an emergency room for a shot of anti-venom that can keep the poison from doing further damage.

Osage Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix phaeogaster) in Southwestern Missouri
Photo by Dylan Wallace via Shutterstock 

Copperheard snakes are one of three venomous species found all around Virginia. They're easily identified by their tan or copper-colored scales. 

Better yet, avoid contact with snakes in the first place, Wehrung with the Wildlife Center said. 

“Most of the reported bites occur from accidental or surprise encounters in concealed spaces – brush piles, stacks of firewood, rock piles, crevices beneath porches," he said. "Just be aware of your surroundings. Don’t stick your hands in places that you can’t see. If you’re hiking on a trail be very aware of where you’re placing your feet.”

Holstege notes that copperheads and cottonmouths – also known as water moccasins – are often found at the base of trees or on the banks of rivers, lakes or streams.

The experts said it’s unwise to walk around barefoot. Wear boots if you’re hiking and carry a flashlight at night. Don’t store food in your garage where it can attract rodents which, in turn, attract snakes, and Wehrung suggests learning to identify the poisonous kinds.

“Venomous snakes tend to have triangular-shaped heads to accommodate the venom glands behind their eyes. Non-venomous snakes have round pupils. Venomous snakes have pupils that look like a cat’s eye – that elliptical shape," he said.

Whatever it looks like, keep in mind that in Virginia it’s illegal to kill a snake. 

“It is not legal to kill them unless they present an imminent danger to human health or safety or to your family and pets," Clark said.

The law also bars you from moving a snake from your property but you can contact pest companies who are certified to do it for you.