Snakebite death puzzles experts

photo A copperhead snake looks up at the Nature Museum in Charlotte, N.C., Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2010. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

Reptile experts and wildlife officials were stunned by the news that an East Ridge man died Saturday after being bitten by a copperhead snake.

Wade Westbrook, 26, was bitten on his upper right arm while handling a copperhead his friend brought over, according to East Ridge Police.

"It's extremely unusual for someone to die from a copperhead bite. It is especially unusual for someone to die as quickly as he did. And it is very rare for someone in a metropolitan area to succumb to a bite. Usually they are able to get help in time," said Dan Hicks, spokesman for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, which is conducting a follow-up investigation along with East Ridge Police. "The people at his home said he was blue in the face after 10 minutes."

Emergency medical personnel arrived at the house at 1058 Blanton Drive around 8 p.m. They attempted CPR on Westbrook, then took him to Erlanger hospital, where he was pronounced dead. The snake also was taken to the hospital so physicians would know how to treat Westbrook. Physicians confirmed that the snake was a copperhead, East Ridge police said Sunday night.

The man who literally wrote the book on Southeastern snakes said copperhead fatalities are "rare to nonexistent."

"If he was 26 and healthy, it is highly unlikely that one bite could kill him," said Dr. Whit Gibbons, emeritus ecology professor at the University of Georgia and co-author of "Snakes of the Southeast."

"I'm not saying it couldn't happen, but it would be a first," Gibbons said.

Because of this, Hicks said his agency is not verifying that Westbrook actually died from a snakebite until an autopsy is completed. He said it is possible that some other factor was involved, such as some pre-existing condition.

Westbrook had several exotic snakes and native turtles in his home, Hicks said.

"According to his wife, it seems he was a wildlife enthusiast who had taken it to the next level," said Hicks.

East Ridge Police spokesman Erik Hopkins said Westbrook's friend brought the copperhead over so Westbrook could determine the snake's sex.

Westbrook's Facebook page says he is interested in books that relate to "anything reptile."

Tennessee Aquarium herpetologist Courtney Lewis said Sunday that copperheads usually are hibernating in winter.

"Usually if you leave them alone, they leave you alone. Copperheads typically only bite humans if they feel threatened," she explained.

Hicks said in Tennessee it is illegal to take any native species out of its habitat.

East Ridge Animal Control took the other reptiles from the home. The copperhead has been handed over to the TWRA.

Hicks said the copperhead probably will be given to a wildlife refuge.

Westbrook was the father of one. His widow could not be reached for comment Sunday afternoon.

"She's doing the best she can, considering the situation," Hicks said. "I think she was ready to get rid of the menagerie."

UPDATE: Copperhead death in East Ridge attributed to anaphylactic shock

Upcoming Events