Dangerous Snakes

(This column was first published in the January 28, 2002 Buffalo News.)

The unmarked package came in the mail addressed to a high school student. His mother intercepted it and asked her son what it contained. After some hesitation the young man admitted that he had purchased two snakes by money order from a Florida reptile dealer.

Questioned further — we can easily imagine the intense grilling — the young man admitted that the snakes were, well yes, poisonous. But, he assured his mother, he had been told that the venom was inconsequential and that he didn't have to worry about being bitten. No thanks, his mother told him. I won't have those snakes in our house.

To seek help the mother turned to Marion Janusz, director of RARE, that acronym representing Reptile Adoption, Rehabilitation and Education, Inc.

A perfect choice. Mrs. Janusz is a remarkable woman, arguably our finest regional animal rehabilitator, and that is saying a great deal in her favor for every one of our local rehabbers is admirable. She works with reptiles — not just snakes but lizards and turtles as well — a very difficult specialty. Can you imagine nursing a sick gila monster?

Reluctantly, Mrs. Janusz accepted the unmarked box and carefully opened it. Inside she found two taped deli cups packed with crumpled paper and hot packs. The young snakes in them were identified as a rough-scaled bush viper and a Pope's green tree viper, the first African, the second Asian species. Both are pit vipers like our rattlesnakes, the pit a heat-sensing orifice between the snake's eye and nostril.

Mrs. Janusz immediately contacted Kevin Murphy at the Buffalo Zoo. Kevin informed her that the zoo could not accept the snakes because no antivenin is available locally. She is now trying the Rochester Zoo but, failing there, she will euthanize the snakes.

Why should they be killed? Few people have the training and equipment necessary to handle poisonous reptiles. Kevin tells me that only after months of training are their zookeepers allowed to work with their dangerous snakes.

And what if someone is bitten? Can we take a chance that this snake's venom is non-lethal? Certainly not when a life is at stake. A national check would be necessary to see who has the antivenin for this species — if indeed it is available at all. And at great expense it would have to be shipped in.

Not only that, but antivenin supplies are already low. When a local man was bitten by his Gaboon viper last year, the 20 vials of antivenin that saved his life severely reduced the supply at the Bronx Zoo. And the cost of rapidly delivering the antidote is always substantial.

The bottom line: we should not take chances with snakes like these in our community. Unless she finds an appropriate home for them, Mrs. Janusz is right in euthanizing them.

Why do we have this problem? Herpetologist Harry Greene calls it "a matter of testosterone tyranny, because young men disregard or do not appreciate the inherent hazards of handling venomous snakes." Admittedly as a youngster I too would have wanted a poisonous snake if one had been available. Yet Kevin Murphy characterizes snakes as remarkable escape artists and even my caged garter snakes escaped. My neighborhood would have been a dangerous place indeed.

I urge amateurs not to keep venomous reptiles. There are many better choices in the pet world including, yes, non-poisonous snakes.

Too many of us already hate snakes so I have not included here stories about the possible terrible effects of snakebite venom. I have, however, collected a number of these episodes and will make them available on request. (To see these stories, click here.)-- Gerry Rising


Some correspondence related to this column:


A Considered Response


Date: Mon, 28 Jan 2002 21:32:07 EST

From: Pythonboybill@aol.com


Dear Mr. Rising:


I am writing in response to your Nature Watch piece regarding a minor's purchase of venomous reptiles. First, I must confess to being a lifelong snake lover. I have kept and reproduced live snakes for most of my thirty-two years. I hold that this group of legless, unblinking animals are the most fascinating and beautiful non-human creatures on this planet. My life is far richer because of my experiences with them. I am a local elementary school teacher and frequently conduct live reptile demonstrations for students in the WNY area. The awe and wonder that children display when allowed to view and touch a harmless snake, such as a ball python, a kingsnake or a cornsnake is inspiring. It is a shame that this fundamental tie with our natural world gets stamped out as people become closed minded, intolerant and buy into superstition and stereotypes. However, that being said, I'll attempt to contain my obvious bias and address the facts as I see them.


First, for the purpose of accuracy, it should be mentioned that both Pope's pit viper Trimeresurus poperum, and the rough scaled bush viper Atheris sp. (a true viper, not a pit viper) are very common exotic venomous snakes that are maintained in this country. They are widely kept in both private and zoo collections. As such, antivenin for both species is available for those willing to locate it. It should also be known that while Pope's pit viper possesses a mild venom, often resulting in localized pain, swelling, bruising and edema, the other snake mentioned, an African bush viper has fairly toxic venom and should be considered to be very dangerous and treated with absolute respect.


While I agree with much of what you said in your article regarding the danger of envenomization to an inexperienced handler, I disagree with your blanket statement that venomous reptiles don't belong in the community. The herpetological record shows that private keepers have contributed to the body of knowledge that we have today regarding reptile husbandry, biology, and reproductive physiology as much as public zoological institutions. Many, many keepers have maintained venomous reptiles in their collections for decades without incident. Unfortunately, we rarely hear of the good work that such individuals are engaged in, it's just the fallout from a scared and uninformed public after a well publicized envenomization that we always see on the news.


The fact is that New York State recognizes that some skilled keepers possess the experience level necessary to safely maintain these specialized creatures, because the state issues permits to keep and breed these animals. Just as one needs a permit to own a handgun, snake keepers must file a detailed application with the state in order to obtain a permit and lawfully exercise the privilege of maintaining a venomous snake.


The fault in this instance lies this boy's bout with "testosterone tyranny," as the great Dr. Greene puts it, and with the dealer for not following established protocols that help to keep such animals out of the wrong hands. Most dealers have a working knowledge of the state's venomous reptile laws in which they are conducting business. The fact that the dealer was in Florida does not matter, legitimate dealers everywhere are aware of New York State's restrictions regarding venomous animals and require a copy of the appropriate paperwork before they will ship a venomous animal. Although I no longer personally keep venomous snakes, when I did keep them and made the decision to acquire another, the breeder or dealer I was conducting business with demanded to see a copy of my drivers license (as proof of age) and my NYS permit for the animals I intended to keep. Like the general public, responsible keepers do not want these animals ending up in the wrong hands. The dealer should never have shipped these animals to a minor, especially one who did not obtain the proper authorization from the state. As such, action should be taken with this individual dealer, not with the law abiding venomous snake keepers of New York State.


What it comes down to is this, cars, dogs and horses kill far more people every year than captive venomous reptiles, and it is easier to get a license for any of the three than it is to get a state license to keep a venomous snake. So before we go any further and create more knee-jerk legislation based on emotion and fear, let's be rational and try to enforce the laws that are already in place to protect the public, the snake keepers, and the snakes. Thank you sir for your time.


Sincerely, Will Still, Western New York Herpetological Society


My Reply


Dear Will,


Thanks for your thoughtful response to my column. And I agree with almost all of what you had to say. In fact, if you read carefully you will see that I tried to avoid condemning snakes or those who keep snakes. I wish I knew the NY regulations before I wrote or I would have said something about them. I am willing to agree that following them either here or at the source of these snakes would have prevented this episode.


I also especially appreciate your correction of my incorrect assignment of the second snake as a pit viper. I thought that I had checked that out carefully. Clearly I had not been careful enough.


But now let me turn to two of your points with which I disagree:


(1) The "antivenin for both species is available for those willing to locate it." This misses the point of this episode. It is not available locally. Even if found, it would cost a great deal to be brought in rapidly, and it would deplete the available supply. For those reasons, I don't buy your oversimplification of what, once someone is bitten, becomes a medical emergency. And those comments apply to both snakes. Who is to judge that the response is to be mild? I call your attention in this regard to Greene's stories on page 82 of his 1997 book. You might be willing to take the word of another amateur herpetologist, but would the patient or his family be so satisfied?


(2) Your other point -- "cars, dogs and horses kill far more people every year than captive venomous reptiles" -- you must know is simply nonsense. It is the proportion that counts. Cars, dogs and horses kill more than does drinking poison also, but neither of us would drink poison, I hope. I suggest that you count up the number of people locally who keep venomous snakes. Surely there are no more than, say, 20. Now it is my understanding that there have been two bites within recent years. If my 20 is reasonably accurate, that would mean that 10% of those who keep snakes have been bitten. How does that proportion compare with life-threatening injuries by "cars, dogs and horses"? I realize that neither of the two people bitten died, but their lives were surely threatened.


I will post the stories I mentioned in the column together with the column on my website. (I will also post your thoughtful letter together with my response.) I urge you to read the snakebite stories thoughtfully and take from them a further concern for those who handle venomous reptiles.


Finally, I honor you and your colleagues for your contributions to a better understanding of, appreciation of, and reduction of fear of snakes in the general community. I fully realized how my column could be misconstrued, but I went ahead because of my (and Marion's and Kevin's)

concern about episodes like this.


Thanks again for your letter.


Regards, Gerry Rising