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Rattlesnake bites rattling Abilene area this summer

When you live in the Big Country, rattlesnakes are to be expected. They are a part of the west Texas landscape just as much as turbines and freight trains.

When you live in the Big Country, rattlesnakes are to be expected. They are a part of the west Texas landscape just as much as turbines and freight trains.

But rattlesnake bites? Well, that’s a whole other story. “If you're raised in Texas, we all have a respect for rattlesnakes,” said Jeff Utter, a counselor and preacher in Abilene.

Utter says he always checks his yard for rattlers, especially before gardening. But one Sunday in July, it happened. “I reached for the zucchini, and I saw a snake and I jumped back,” he said, “and I realized my hand hurts, and I look and there's a drop of blood.”

A rattlesnake bit him. Photos chronicle the swelling and pain that came soon after, pain he likens to putting your finger down on concrete, the getting smashed with a sledgehammer, “...and somebody putting an electrical wire in your finger and plugging it in.”

Headlines in the local papers told Utter’s story and the stories of the many others who were bitten this summer, too. One victim was just 1-year-old, flown to Cook Children’s in Fort Worth. Pamela Duncan of Cisco told us she was bitten six times on the Fourth of July, requiring 44 vials of antivenom. "We had a rash, and they were very close together,” said Taylor County Game Warden James Cummings. “It just seemed like there was one then another then another.”

In his 15 years on the job, Cummings can’t recall a rattlesnake bite season quite like this one. “Definitely more calls for snake bites this year than I have ever seen in my career,” he said.

At Hendrick Medical Center in Abilene, they treated 17 rattlesnake bites in all of last year. This year, they’re already up to 15. Most have been this summer. “I've treated maybe two or three this year already,” said Emergency Room Dr. Justin Cormack.

Cormack says each of his cases required the expensive, but effective antivenom. “Get to an ER immediately. Time is muscle, time is blood, time is treatment,” he said.

So what’s behind it all? “They’re trying to get into cool spots and cool shades,” explained Jack Money, who works for Wildlife X Team.

Money says calls to his company for rattlesnake removals are up 30 to 40 percent from last year. He and others say it’s a mix of factors. An increase in land development means snakes are being uprooted from their normal habitats and are on the move. Also, an increase in rodents is leading to more snakes. But a main reason, we’re told, is our exceptionally hot and dry summer.

“The drought,” Money said. “They're looking for a food source and a water source.” So snakes are venturing into homes and yards, where people tend to be in the summertime. And that’s where the bites happen.

“They don't really want to mess with you unless they feel they're violated,” Money said. “We’ve got to live with them, they’ve got to live with us.”

Five weeks, and about $260,000-worth of antivenom later, Jeff Utter is still in pain. “It swells every day, it's discolored, I can't straighten it,” he said of his pinky. But he feels fortunate he’ll be okay.

As for that garden of his? “It was snake heaven in there!’ he said. He ripped it out as soon as he got out of the hospital. “I'd rather buy zucchini. That's the most expensive zucchini I’ve ever had in my whole life.”

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