Reflections by award-winning maritime historian Joan Druett, author of many books about the sea
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Saturday, June 9, 2018
Do not pick up a snake's head -- particularly if it is a rattlesnake
Like all New Zealanders -- our little country being free of poisonous creatures, apart from a relatively harmless spider -- I am totally terrified of snakes. I have snakephobia.
Therefore, I was fascinated to read this grisly little story in the Smithsonian.
When Texas local Jennifer Sutcliffe discovered a four-foot Western diamondback rattlesnake nestled amongst the flowers in her yard, she reacted like most people in her situation would—with a scream. Jennifer’s husband Jeremy rushed over and decapitated the snake with a shovel, but when he bent down to pick up its severed head several minutes later, he received a nasty surprise.
“The head actually turned around and grabbed onto his hand,” Jennifer tells Global News’ Katie Dangerfield. “He had to rip the snake’s head off. He got all of the snake’s venom in the bite.”
According to The Washington Post’s Allyson Chiu, Jennifer immediately started driving Jeremy to the hospital, calling 911 in hopes of locating a nearby facility that had the appropriate antivenom. The closest match was about an hour away, but within two miles of the couple’s home, Jeremy began losing consciousness, suffering from loss of vision and mini seizures. Eventually, medical professionals were forced to airlift him to the hospital.
Local news station KIIITV reports that doctors initially told Jennifer her husband might not survive the attack. Chiu writes that Jeremy went into septic shock and experienced internal bleeding. He was then put into a coma and placed on a ventilator, as his organs had begun shutting down.
On May 31, four days after his admission to the hospital, Jeremy came out of his coma. He is currently in stable condition, but according to Dangerfield, is far from back to normal. In addition to experiencing acute renal failure, he will require “aggressive wound care” for his hand.
Doctors needed 26 doses of antivenom to stabilize Jeremy. Although early reports indicated that typical bite cases are treated with two to four doses, Leslie Boyer, antivenom doctor and founding director of the University of Arizona VIPER Institute, tells Gizmodo’s Jennings Brown that 26 vials is just over the average amount usually required.
Jeremy may not have expected a decapitated snake to pose any danger to him, but according to National Geographic’s Stephen Leahy, snakes actually maintain their bite reflexes in the hours after death.
University of Cincinnati biology professor Bruce Jayne tells Leahy that a snake’s nervous system can respond to stimulus without needing the brain to send a signal. In Jeremy’s case, the severed head reacted to him trying to pick it up.
Science Alert’s Michelle Starr further explains that snakes and similarly cold-blooded animals can survive without oxygen for short periods of time, as they do not generate their own heat and therefore require a lower supply of energy and oxygen.
“The head end of a cut-up rattlesnake can continue to function, including the venom glands, for a long time afterward and, in fact, the other half continues to work,” Boyer tells Gizmodo. “It’ll rise and rattle.”
Jayne and Boyer advise individuals faced with similar reptilian dilemmas to leave the snake alone or call an expert to remove it. Boyer warns against decapitating or otherwise killing a snake, saying, “It’s cruel to the animal and it leaves you with a smaller piece that’s venomous to pick up."