July 7th, 2009 - Occupational Hazards


When I was a kid, it was inevitable that your "friend" or mean cousin (Scott, you know who you are) would come up to you and say, "Ya wanna snakebite...!!!?" and before you could say, "Uh, duh... no..." they would grab your bare arm and twist the skin like they were wringing out a dishrag.
You would go, "Ow, hey, knock it off...!" and they would go, "Huh huh, man, I can't believe you're so stupid."
Up until last Thursday, this was about my experience with snakebites personally. Not that I hadn't had a number of near misses. Working at the nature centers, it goes with the territory, AND IF YOU ARE CAREFUL, you can usually see it coming or take measures to avoid it; wearing gloves, washing frequently, using forceps, shielding your hands while cleaning, or just not being at the wrong place at the wrong time.
I, along with most of us have seen a fair amount of snake-biting going on in movies, on TV, in back-county medical training guides, etc. and of course most was of rattlesnakes, cobras and other "fanged snakes" that have serious venom and big teeth. Not all of it was portrayed accurately by the way, and this is one reason I like to and really feel the need to handle snakes for educational purposes, as I feel that much of the public is generally misinformed about snakes and has a hard time getting over some deep-seated inbred loathing of them that comes from an unknown origin.

Bill the Red-tailed Boa Constrictor is the largest and probably oldest of Springbrook's snakes. He was donated many years ago by some of the regulars at the NC (i.e. Nature Center.)
I measured him last year at exactly 73 1/2" in length, which is exactly as long as I am tall, and I've wanted to get an accurate weight on him, but I'm guessing that he weighs somewhere around twenty pounds.
Last Thursday evening, because of the 4th of July holiday we fed the snakes along with all the other animals, as we usually feed them on Saturday, but the building was going to be closed. So Jim the "day guy" who used to work my current evening shift and do the animal care, was going to feed as many of the "mouse-eaters" as possible before he left when I came in at 4:30.
At Springbrook, all the snakes except the Garter eat live mice, and we usually have a public feeding program on Saturday morning.
We are one of the few nature centers that feeds "live," most use frozen mice (which are thawed out before presentation to the animals). There are advantages and disadvantages of both methods. Personally I think it's good that we feed live, it does show you in a dramatic fashion at least a little of how these animals hunt and eat, and it gives them a chance to eat something at least a little more like what they would get in the wild. It also brings up a lot of philosophical questions, which is always good.
So Jim had most of the snakes through at least one mouse by the time I got there and I was ready to finish feeding them and the rest of the turtles, fish, frogs, salamanders, hissing cockroaches, tarantulas, bearded dragon, and fill the birdfeeders.
I used to work the Saturday feeding at SB and help with the snake feedings at Wood Lake NC, and I pretty much knew the drill, but it had been a while since I did it. The primary rule when feeding ANYTHING is: If you don't want to get bit, don't smell like food.
Sense of smell in most animals is very acute and after they get in the "feeding mood" their senses go into overdrive, AND they just start to get the bloodlust. They want to feed as much as they can when food is present, because it might not be there next time.
Well, things were going along swimmingly and it came time to feed Bill.
Jim told me Bill had already had one mouse earlier, and he usually eats three to five at a sitting. I have always gotten along great with Bill, I could read him pretty well and he could read me pretty well, the first time I took him out of his cage by myself I was a little tense and I swear he sensed it, but let me anyway. After that we both loosened up, I've handled him many times and we've also maintained a mutual respect.
My usual rule is to wash my hands between handling or feeding each animal no matter what it is, both for cleanliness and smell reduction. In getting all wound up in feeding the whole menagerie, I may have broken that rule...
I had fed some of the smaller corn snakes some "pinkie" mice (tinys), and I really can't remember if I washed my hands after that or not. As I opened up Bill's cage I noticed he was "attentive" and that he had recently shed and must have been in his water tray to help get the molt off because there was a big gooey mess of wet snakeskin all piled up on his astroturf deck where he usually lays around and / or feeds.
Usually when snakes molt or shed their skin, they don't eat. They can't see very well because they also shed the skin over their eyes (it comes off as part of the whole shed but as sort of a pair of goggles or "eyecups") and they are sort of "glazed over" for a while and feel vulnerable.

In hindsight I can see a pattern that I failed to recognize at the time:
Bill is hungry. Bill has had one mouse about an hour ago. Tim hasn't fed the snakes for a while and isn't thinking it through. Tim handled some mice and may have forgotten to wash his hands. Tim trusts Bill. Bill has the feeding bloodlust. Tim is only thinking, "I gotta get that gooey shed mess out of Bill's feeding area before I drop a mouse down." Tim does not put on gloves. Tim does not use forceps. Tim reaches in Bill's cage and does not do what he normally does, which is SLOWLY, gently, talking sweetly to Bill, reach his hand in and watch Bill to make sure it's okay. Instead Tim forgets all previous experience and reaches right in and grabs the shed mess in a quick motion and throws it in the garbage. Bill raises an eyebrow (if he had one). To cap his idiocy, Tim DOES THE SAME THING AGAIN. Bill mistakes Tim's third finger tip for a pinkie mouse and strikes at it with his mouth open. This is a bad thing.

As you can see, I got off easy. Boa constrictors kill their prey but squeezing it to asphyxiate it. That is NOT to say they DON'T HAVE TEETH. They do. Their teeth are very pointed and very sharp. They are not very long, but there are multiple rows of them. The teeth actually point down the gullet so that once in, the prey can't get out. Caution: DO NOT back up, severe tire damage may result:


The "bite" has healed up well. It's more of a multiple laceration. When I first looked at the bite, there were three pretty deep razor thin punctures with three even finer scratches going across them the opposite direction. I probably did this when I recoiled so quickly.
I was more shocked than anything when it happened, but I shouldn't have been, I broke the rules. I was due, and I was lucky. I jerked back quickly, and I'm not sure if Bill let go on his own or if I just happened to pull back fast enough. If he would have grabbed on and tried to constrict or even gotten more of me in his mouth, things could have been serious. I was alone. There was no venom, and I'm not allergic to this particular snake's saliva, but it would have been a mess trying to get him off if he didn't let go on his own.
Valuable lessons were learned. You don't turn your back on the ocean.
One small mistake or misjudgement can have huge repercussions.
People naturally take the risk when they don't feel there is a risk.
In researching my incident I came across a 2006 story of a New York man where again several of the basic safety rules were broken, and the keeper paid for his mistake with his life.
According to published reports, the 19-year old snake keeper took his 13-foot Burmese python across the street to buy a live chicken for feeding. (!) When he returned to his apartment, he put the snake on the floor in the hallway, opened the door, and took the box containing the chicken into the room. As he stepped back outside, the snake, seeing the movement and catching the scent of live prey, apparently mistook its owner for a chicken and struck at him, constricting and killing him. Alone, the victim was unable to escape the snake's coils. Stupid. But he had probably done something similar and gotten away with it in the past.
Last night, Bill and I made amends. I washed my hands with anti-bacterial soap. I slowly, cautiously opened up his cage, talked to him and touched him on the back, stroked him for awhile. I let him come up to my fist and taste me with his tongue. He "sniffed" a good long time, just to test my nerve. I asked him if he wanted to come out, slowly picked him up and let him explore. I could feel him relax after a while. I did too.
I won't ever think of him the same way again. I learned things, but I may make still mistakes in the future. Things happen. Everyone faces occupational hazards every day, no matter what profession they acquire.
Please: Think.