Episodes with Venomous Snakes: A Commentary

 

I offer this commentary together with several stories taken from books about snakes and from web-based resources in hope that together they will discourage anyone from careless (or even careful when needless) handling of venomous snakes, and especially snakes from foreign countries. Although anti-venin antidotes are available for most snakes from North America, there is NO such response available for MANY snake species from abroad. Unfortunately, I believe, such foreign snakes are readily available from dealers in this country, and venomous snakes are especially attractive to young amateur herpetologists.

 

Here is what Harry Greene has to say about young people and poisonous snakes: "Epidemiologists make a useful distinction between legitimate bites -- those accidentally incurred during normal activities -- and illegitimate bites -- those sustained while purposely interacting with snakes. More than half of all victims in both Costa Rica and the United States are under thirty years old; however, almost all Costa Rican bites are legitimate, and 68 percent are to legs and feet, whereas more than half the incidents with young men in the United States involve intentional handling of snakes and bites to the upper extremities.... Illegitimate bites are largely a late twentieth-century problem and mainly a matter of testosterone tyranny, because young men disregard or do not appreciate the inherent hazards of handling venomous snakes." (Greene 1997, pp. 89-90)

 

And no one should assume that small snakes or very young snakes are therefore benign, as F. Lynne Bachleda warns: "All venomous snakes are born fully equipped with venom and fangs. Often young snakes (harmless and otherwise) will be more pugnacious and ready to defend themselves, so it's wise not to discount a snake just because it's small." (Bachleda 2001, p.8)

 

There are, of course, wide variations in the potency of venom from snake species to snake species, but there are equally wide variations in human reactions to snakebite. It is simply not worth the chance to keep snakes that are not even acceptable in local zoos.

 

Some Episodes to Think About

 

1. Here is Harry Greene speaking about an episode with a Terciopelo or Fer-de-Lance, Bothrops asper, a pitviper: "Regarding the gruesome snakebite sequelae for this species, Clodomiro Picado, Costa Rica's first academic biologist and a pioneering expert on snakebites, introduced a 1931 book this way: 'Moments after being bitten, the man feels a live fire germinating in the wound, as if red-hot tongs contorted his flesh; that which was mortified enlarges to monstrosity, and lividness invades him. The unfortunate victim witnesses his body becoming a corpse piece by piece; a chill of death invades all his being, and soon bloody threads fall from his gums; and his eyes, without intending to, will also cry blood, until, beaten by suffering and anguish, he loses the sense of reality. If we then ask the unlucky man something, he may still see us through blurred eyes, but we get no response; and perhaps a final sweat of red pearls or a mouthful of blackish blood warns of impending death....'" (Greene 1997, p. 76)

 

2. Here is Green talking about some other episodes in which experienced herpetologists were lulled intocomplacency: ""Until the latter half of this century, herpetologists and physicians thought of colubrids as harmless snakes. Biologists had long known that some snakes had rear fangs, 'inferior' venom inlection mechanisms that might immobilize prey; although a few fatalities were on record, until 1957 the possibility that such snakes were deadly to humans seemed at most remote. The deaths of two prominent herpetologists from African colubrid bites changed that assessment, and recent events reveal that several other species of rear-fanged snakes have venoms that are potentially lethal to large vertebrates. "When Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo sent a small Boomslang (Dispholidus typus) to the nearby Field Museum of Natural History for identification, the three experienced herpetologists who examined it were not especially cautious. At age sixty-eight, Karl P. Schmidt was the most senior among them, as well as one of the world's most eminent and widely liked vertebrate biologists. Having studied African snakes as a young man, Schmidt immediately recognized the juvenile snake to be a Boomslang, despite some unusual scalation, and in the course of handling it he was promptly bitten. Although only one fang penetrated his thumb, Schmidt soon experienced nausea and some internal bleeding. He felt no great cause for concern and took careful notes on the symptoms. Schmidt felt better the next morning, but by midafternoon he was dead of a brain hemorrhage and respiratory collapse. As Clifford H. Pope, Schmidt's colleague and friend, concluded in an account of the incident, 'A total lack of experience with Boomslang venom is largely to blame for the tragic events of September 25 and 26.'

"By 1972 several other deaths and serious bites from Boomslangs and Savanna Twigsnakes (Thelotornis capensis) had been recorded. Following bites from each species, a prevalent symptom was chronic bleeding throughout the body. This precedent did not deter Robert Mertens, an extraordinarily accomplished German herpetologist...from hand-feeding his pet Twig-snake. Bitten, he lingered for three weeks before dying.... Among Robert Mertens's last words were something like 'What a fitting death for a herpetologist.' "More recently several fatalities have been caused by bites from a Japanese natricine colubrid, the Yamakagashi (Rhabdophis tigrinus), with symptoms including severe bleeding. Other possible candidates for deadly colubrids include Old World catsnakes and treesnakes (Boiga; Blanding's Treesnake [B. blandingi] has venom as toxic as that of some elapids), the Road Guarder (Conophis lineatus) of Mexico and Central America, and certain neotropical racers (Alsophis and Philodryas). Bites from Road Guarders have caused headache, nausea, pain, and -- perhaps most significant, given the symptoms of Boomslang, Twigsnake, and Yamakagashi bites -- severe and prolonged bleeding. Bites from two species of South American green racers (P. olfersi, P. viridissimus) have resulted in severe symptoms in humans, and there are recent reports of a fatality caused by the latter species in Brazil." (Greene 1997, p. 84)

3. Micah Stancil's experience suggests that even hospital care is not enough: "I was out cleaning cages one afternoon when I learned what was to be a very painful lesson. The first cage I cleaned was that of a large Sedge viper, around two and a half to three feet in length. I took a bag and two clamps out, and clamped the bag to the counter. I then took the snake out, placed her on the floor and pinned her the way I had done many times. I picked her up behind the head with my right hand and by the tail with my left hand. I carried her over to the bag, placed the tail in first, then held the bag open with my left hand as I dropped the snake in the bag. When I dropped the snake I made the mistake of holding onto the bag instead of letting go. She caught herself on the edge of the bag with her prehensile tail and in one fluid motion, shot straight up and out and bit me on my left thumb. I didn't feel any pain from the bite, but I knew it had happened.

 

"In disbelief, I looked down to see the two fang marks and a couple of drops of blood. I quickly hooked the viper and put her back in her cage. Knowing the seriousness of the situation, I quickly headed back inside my house to tell my wife what had happened and that I needed her to drive me to the hospital. She was in the middle of giving our little girl a bath and asked if it could wait until she was through. I kind of laughed and said, 'NO, we have to go now!' It was only about a 15 minute drive, but it seemed like forever. About half way to the hospital my hand began to feel as if it were on fire. Literally.

 

"When I arrived at the hospital, I told the nurse through my clenched teeth what had happened and she took me straight back. I had a packet of information already assembled with the scientific and common names, a picture of the snake, it's origin, and who to contact on how to treat the bite. The doctor just looked at the picture and said 'Pretty snake.'

 

"That's it! He didn't even take any information from the packet and therefore didn't know how to treat the bite. By the time he returned, they had me hooked up to an EKG and blood pressure monitor to keep an eye on my vital signs. The swelling was well past my wrist and the pain was excruciating.

 

"At this point the doctor decided to cut and suck the bite even though I told him the treatment was obsolete and besides that, it had been too long after the bite to do any good. He also decided to give me some antivenin at this time. I told him that there was no antivenin for Atheris yet and that the crotalidae antivenin wouldn't work. He just smiled and said, 'Yes it will. It works for all snake bites.'

 

"I guess I was too young to know that I could have and should have refused the antivenin at this point, so I ended up letting him treat me the way he wanted too. After all, he was a doctor right? But this brings up another point. Don't assume that all emergency room doctors know how to treat snake bites. Especially from exotic species. Unless your doctor has spent time with the Peace Corps in Africa, chances are he's never even heard of a Sedge viper.

 

"Well, by the time he finished cutting and suctioning the bite site, they had pumped 11 vials of Wyeth Crotalidae Polyvalent Antivenin into my body. And yet, the swelling was past my elbow and I was blacking out from the pain ! As they were taking me to my hospital room from the ER, I lost consciousness. After four hours I awoke to discover, much to my dismay, that the swelling was past my shoulder and into my chest. The pain fortunately had subsided due to a morphine drip, but this was really the least of my concerns at this point. Also, my hand was so swollen that my fingers were spaced out as far as they could go but they still touched each other. The hospital called in a hand surgeon but when he arrived he wasn't very eager to cut on me. He said that as long as the swelling didn't cut off the blood flow to my fingertips, he wasn't going to cut to relieve the pressure. The technical term for this is fasciotomy and in reality they are performed way too often with hemotoxic snake bites.

 

"I was talking with my hand surgeon when the real fun started. This is when I found out that the venom had inhibited my blood's ability to clot. The doctor's felt that my platelets had dropped too low and that I needed a blood transfusion. I thanked God when they tested my blood once more just before they took me out for the transfusion and discovered that my platelets had come up just enough to avoid one. Blood transfusions are often needed with severe hemotoxic envenomations.

 

"I wasn't in the clear though; I was still technically a hemophiliac. My blood was very thin and the doctors were worried that I could start bleeding internally. I couldn't even get out of bed because they were scared I might fall or bump into a table and bleed to death. And I suppose that it was actually a likely scenario. After being in the hospital for over a week, I finally talked them into letting me go home. By this time most of the swelling in my hand had gone down and all of the swelling was out of my arm. My hand did have a little stiffness and a few blood blister's, but it was much better. After two weeks and multiple trips to a hematologist, my blood returned to normal. Fortunately, the only lasting effect from the bite is a totally stiff joint on my left thumb, due to the tissue destruction of the ligament.

 

"If you do keep or are thinking about keeping venomous snakes, please understand that you can never be too careful. Many bites result in permanent injuries and are occasionally even fatal. A large percentage of these accidents can be avoided with proper handling techniques and equipment. But if the lasting physical effects of my bite and brush with death aren't enough to keep you from being careless, maybe it will interest you to know that my total hospital bill was $25,000. Though my insurance covered 80%, that left me with a $5,000 debt that I am still paying on. Heard enough? I thought so." (Stancil 2000)

 

4. And it is not just exotic snakes. Our own can cause trouble. Consider Manny Rubio's story: " During the four hours of my return flight from visiting a friend in Arizona, who was recovering from a serious Mojave Rattlesnake (Crotalus scutulatus) envenomation, I had considerable time for reflection on the implications of interrelating with venomous animals.

 

"My friend’s snakebite

 

"My friend has been handling snakes and other animals for many more years than he would like to admit, and has spent the past fifteen years professionally milking Mojave Rattlesnake venom to supply research labs. He is conscientious, methodical, and fully aware of the implications of what he is doing-- not the type who takes chances. Incidentally, his facility is in a small, isolated community, 120 air miles from the nearest properly equipped hospital. [Ironically, the venom he collects is used to produce the new CroFab antivenin (C. Harper, New anti venom, CroFab, hits the market. SHHS fall 2000), and none was available for him.]

 

"While holding the snake’s head in the prescribed three-fingered grip he has used thousands of times, it twisted scratching him on the knuckle of his index finger with one fang. The scratch was superficial, so much so that it was difficult to squeeze out any blood. Being completely aware of what happened, he chose to be cautious and applied an EXTRACTOR in less than a minute, successfully removing a quantity of blood and associated fluids. Simultaneously he called the local volunteer fire department and EMTs (located less than a half mile away) to alert them to the possible implications, and to make preparations if they were needed. To expedite transferring him to the hospital, a medical emergency helicopter was put on hold. Calls were made to the two major hospitals within his area to alert them, the Tucson Medical Center and a closer hospital.

 

"[Incidentally, he is a volunteer fireman in his community, and had been a professional fireman in the past, so he is well versed in all the necessary emergency procedures. Because of his venom production facility, and another somewhat clandestine one nearby, the volunteers have considerably more than basic training to respond to snakebites. They had an opportunity to utilize their snakebite protocol a year earlier when a Western Diamondback (Crotalus atrox) envenomated a local 11-year-old boy. The response and procedures went smoothly and he survived.]

 

"In a few minutes reactions to the bite were unmistakable, and emergency procedures were enacted. EMTs inserted two IVs and transported him to the helipad at the firehouse. Weather was a problem, it was windy and rainy, so the helicopter was uncertain it could respond. Weather conditions were very bad in Tucson, so the closer hospital was chosen. Symptoms increased rapidly, his lips were numbing, his legs and stomach were cramping, and he was passing into and out of consciousness. The pain was intense, unbearable.

 

"Fortunately the weather broke enough for the helicopter to land. While flying to the hospital (within 35-40 minutes of the envenomation) he lost consciousness. He learned later that by the time he arrived at the hospital the affect of the bite was dire... he was near death. Several hours later he awakened in Intensive Care (ICU) unaware of the emergency procedures that he had undergone.

 

"After administering 14 ampoules (the hospital’s total supply) of Wyeth Polyvalent Antivenin via IV, and spending 4 days in ICU, he was released and returned home. A week later he noticed he was having trouble focusing one eye. Two blood vessels in the cornea had burst from increased blood pressure. The Doctor prescribed medicine to lower his blood pressure and it seems to be improving.

 

"Some personal input

 

"Although I’ve captured, handled, or kept a wide variety of more than a thousand venomous snakes over the past 40 plus years, I’ve been extremely fortunate to never be bitten. This has special significance because nearly everyone I know (who shares my extended interest) has undergone the experience at least once. And, all of them admit that it was a uniquely unpleasant and unforgettable ordeal, with innumerable repercussions.

 

"Some consider me to be lucky. I see it as an ongoing incentive for being cautious and aware. Sure, I’ve had a few close encounters, mostly while posing and photographing rattlesnakes. Being engrossed in getting "just the right shot" easily led to over-stepping my self-imposed bounds. The snakes saw it as an opportunity to do what it innately does, to demonstrate that I was invading its turf.

 

"The positive spin is that they were learning experiences, fortifying my need to be more wary—to be more prepared. Because of my longtime association with venomous animals you may think it a bit odd, but I truly believe keeping venomous snakes is an accident waiting to happen!

 

"Make no mistake-- rattlesnakes are incredibly beautiful, unique snakes, and my passion goes far beyond the norm. I actively seek out new and different forms to photograph, and keep up on the literature in an attempt to learn as much as I can about them. Photographing all the living species and subspecies is becoming an obsession. Hopefully this will lead to a more inclusive, updated, expanded, second edition of my book. At the very least, it’s a goal!

 

"[Please accept my apologies for the somewhat self-serving pep talk, but I feel that any aside that reinforces the need for caution is well worth highlighting.]

 

"Although it may seem trivial, the two most important considerations about keeping venomous animals are—knowing exactly what to do when you are bitten, and fully understanding the potential danger and liabilities. I will not make this article a treatise on the hazards, gruesome details, and permanent consequences of undergoing envenomation. That must be a "gimme" for anyone even thinking about keeping venomous animals; unless, of course, he/she is too impetuous—or just plain stupid!

 

"I spoke with a few longtime professional snake keepers, and uncovered some frightening, common threads. All of the keepers related that they were aware that envenomation was not only a possible eventuality of their daily interactions with snakes, but they consistently jeopardize themselves by "take chances".

 

"Like any job requiring repetitious and rather mundane activities-- in this case cleaning cages and changing water dishes-- it is extremely easy for the mind to become preoccupied with more complex, demanding matters. After all, cleaning snake feces is a menial task. It is too simple to assume a snake lying quietly in its favorite spot is asleep, as it is every day, unaware or unconcerned about your presence. Why disturb and move it into the shift cage, or take it from the enclosure? After all, it never has become aroused or aggressive before!

 

"Many procedures (e.g., transferring a snake from one cage to another, or feeding) are done without help or having someone near enough to respond if needed. Clearly, there is considerable danger of being bitten. And, in time it will happen! Just ask any keeper that has been bitten.

 

"It’s more than the physical implications of the bite

 

"My emphasis (actually more of an obligation) is on the liability factor—the sizable legal and financial implications. If you have any interest in keeping venomous animals, I suggest you read this part carefully. It may bring objectivity and rationality to your thinking, and awaken you to the extensive monetary risks that you are undertaking. It may save you from a financial catastrophe of epic proportions.

 

"Treatment for envenomation is expensive, very expensive. My friend’s bill was at the low end, it was in excess of $40,000. Another friend’s Eastern Diamondback (Crotalus adamanteus) bite was more than $89,000, and I know of yet another person bitten by an Eastern Diamondback a few years ago that topped $162,000. Fortunately, they were all working as professional herpetologists, insured, and covered by Workman’s Compensation, so someone else paid the majority of the bill. Imagine the strain of not being covered, of having to pay even part of it!

 

"As with any medical procedures that encompass emergency, life-saving measures, tests, I.C.U, and extended hospital care, the costs are high, and build up quickly. The number of antivenin ampoules varies, but rarely is less than 20, with an Eastern Diamondback bite as many as 30. The per-unit cost is high, but because it must be administered in a hospital, by I.V. it will be billed at $550- $950 per ampoule. And, of course an adequate supply of in date antivenin must be available.

 

"If you have health insurance, does it cover snakebite? There may be a very important distinction in the terminology of "accidental" snake envenomation. How, where, and why you were bitten are important variables that will be considered. Because of the amount of money that must be paid, an insurance company will likely do its best to assure the legitimacy of the claim.

 

"Another thing that must be considered is the legality of keeping the snake. Many states and local municipalities have made it illegal to possess "dangerous" animals. The vagueness of their wording opens a door for clarification, but likely entails hiring a lawyer. Who pays for this? Because emergency personnel and hospitals are required to report accidents, police will be informed. State Game and Fish, conservation, and possibly health authorities may enter fray. This would entail more lawyers and legal advice.

 

"Local media will be made aware, and if it is a "slow news day" you may become a "star". Then there is the possibility of having endangered others (e.g., neighbors, friends, visitors). I’ll bet there is a least one neighbor who would gladly be interviewed, and jump all over the threat you had placed on his/her family by possessing a dangerous animal.

 

"And it could be worse

 

"Let’s assume that you have done nothing wrong, that you are keeping your animal as safely as possible, but it escapes and bites someone. There is no doubt that, by possessing the animal, you are responsible for its actions. To carry it still further, if a person breaks into your house and somehow is envenomated—it’s your fault.

 

"Here’s yet another scenario. You are showing a snake to a friend, or he/she is helping you clean cages and is bitten. Who pays? You do! Will your homeowner’s insurance cover it? Do you have homeowner’s insurance?

 

"We live in an extremely litigious society, suing is a matter of course. Make no mistake-- the one found to be at fault loses—big time! Venomous snakebites are costly, but the repercussions and peripheral expenditures can easily place an insurmountable financial burden on the hapless keeper.

 

"I am not merely preaching, I gave considerable thought, weighed the possibilities, and no longer keep venomous animals.

 

"Once again I ask — Are you really prepared?"(Rubio 2000)

 

5. Here's another episode, this one Bret Welch's experience in south Texas: "You have heard of the phrase biting the big one. Well how about the big one biting you? Back in February 2001, My Zoology class took a field trip to site in south Texas. It was to be a cross Botany and Zoology outing. My field is Herpetology and I've been at it for twenty years. Sometimes even experience needs a little reminder.

 

"By midday our class started to a new location to monitor alligator drag marks. I was driving with my wife and former Botanist professor when I spotted a large Western diamond back crossing the road. Actually it was very hard to miss, seeing that it looked like a moving speed bump with a rattle. I stopped the truck immediately to get a better look and decided to catch him to show the class. I figured since we were there, and the class was to go to Mexico in a few weeks, I could give some pointers on what to look for and expect if we ran across something venomous in Mexico.

 

"Now, I have caught over two hundred large atrox well over six feet with very little problems, but this one was different. He was right out of hibernation, hungry, grouchy, and I found him in the middle of the day. I usually see the monsters at night during breeding season, so this was totally different. I had no grabbers or hooks with me and all I could use was a shirt to give him a target. Usually if you can cover their heads they'll calm down long enough to get a decent pin. This big boy had no intention of giving up or going for the shirt routine.

 

"So I had him distracted with the shirt long enough to grab his tail with my left hand and move him to the road where every one could see. With his tail over my head and his head a few feet on the ground he actually turned to the left struck up in the air, and as I was moving back to avoid being hit in the face, my left hand simultaneously came down. He got it. Both fangs right on the top of my hand, and injected a large quantity of venom. I had a small audience of about fifteen people who were now needless to say, quite shocked. I looked straight up at my zoology friend and said, "This one is going to hurt in the morning." Not the brightest thing I've said, but I almost felt like laughing. Well, at first I did.

 

"I've been bitten before and am certainly no stranger to what might happen next, but I did not know I was going to have to calm everyone else down too. As I tried to herd college students one way and my wife and friend the other, I was sucking out as much venom as I could. Trying to get it to bleed harder to wash out as much venom as possible. I got in the truck, wrapped my hand in the shirt I was using and basically ordered to be taken to the nearest hospital.

 

"It took thirty to forty minutes to get to the first one, but while this was going on I was trying to keep a mental log of what was happening to me and trying to keep my wife sane. Not easy when the driver is have difficulty trying to put an automatic in different gears. With in seconds my hand doubled in size and color. The fingers were taking on a grotesque figure, like the wicked witch of the west or something. My hand was still bleeding very hard, and I was feeling sick to my stomach. I happened to look into the rearview mirror and noticed my eyes were yellow. I mentioned this to my wife, who at this point told me most of my skin was turning yellow too. Pain, Pain, and more Pain, but I kept silent for the most part, and the nausea was really kicking in now. So far I had suppressed gong into shock, but I felt I would go into it any time now.

 

"After my friend missed every light and a few corners, we got to the first hospital. I'm not sure how I did it, but under my own power I got out of the truck and walked into the emergency room. By this time certain motions became extremely difficult, like speech and walking. Right off the bat this hospital had no antivenin. My first thought was, "Great I'm dead. But okay now what?" Then some young EMT thought it would be a good Idea to ask me if I was sure it was a snake. I can't repeat what I said, but it was something along the lines of a garden hose.

 

"Anyway, vitals were taken and my blood pressure was at 60/38 and I was going into respiratory failure. So I was intubated. Fun, fun - hoses in places hoses do not go, but we are just getting started. Now we are off to the next hospital, only fifteen minutes away. Keep in mind that during a bite of this magnitude, seconds count. As we pulled into the next emergency bay I had already gone into shock, but I was still conscious. Hard to describe the chaos next, still remembering bits and pieces.

 

"In the thick of dying someone thought black widow antivenin would be appropriate. Why? Who knows, but I fought off five of them and pulled the IV out before they knocked me out. Some thirty hours later I woke with a tube in my mouth, a catheter, and IV lines in just about all major veins. I was pretty sure I had died and went to hell. My new doctor was a trauma specialist and had seen snakebites before, just not one like this. It is still unclear of how many viles of antivenin if any at all I received at the second hospital, but I did get five at the third. My Doctor says he has no idea how I survived the initial part of the bite, but I speculate that having been bitten before has a lot to do with it.

 

"Basically I fought off the bite for almost forty hours. The atrox that bit me was a little over seven feet and its bite measured at six centimeters from fang to fang. It was estimated that I received well up to two hundred milligrams of venom from my buddy. No one has ever seen an atrox bite cause the eyes and skin to turn yellow. I have lost most of the use of my left hand, but I've still got it! And believe me, certain doctors tried to take off!"(Welch 2002)

 

I hope that these stories will make amateurs think carefully about working with venomous snakes.

___________

 

Sources:

 

Bachleda FL. 2001. Dangerous Wildlife in the Mid-Atlantic: A Guide to Safe Encounters at Home and in the Wild. Birmingham, AL: Menasha Ridge Press.

Greene HW. 1997. Snakes: The Evolution of Mystery in Nature. Berkeley, CA: The University of California Press.

Rubio M. 2000. Are You Really Prepared? I’ll bet the answer is -- No! <www.venomousreptiles.org/articles/56>

Stancil M. 2000. Bitten by a Sedge Viper! <www.venomousreptiles.org/articles/28>

Welch B. 2002. Being Bit by the Big One. <www.venomousreptiles.org/articles/72>