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Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Deadly Dozen

Happy Halloween!

People love to know about extremes, about record-holders.  What's the biggest snake in the world?  What's the fastest bird?  So it's not surprising that, when you talk about venomous snakes, you get a lot of folks asking, "What is the deadliest?"  To which I reply, "The one that bites you."

It's hard to categorize snakes by how dangerous they are, because there are a lot of factors that go into the calculations.  Venom is obviously one; some snakes have venom that is extremely lethal to humans, others have something that could technically be called venom, but mostly results in slight itching in people.  There are other factors, too, however.  How aggressive is the snake?  How much venom does it produce?  How much does it inject?  Does it live in an area where there are actually people to bite?  How effective is antivenom?  Is there antivenom?

Questions like these are why sea snakes, like those washing up on the California coast, although having some of the most potent venom in the animal kingdom, generally aren't feared that much by herpetologists.

I've never seen two rankings of "deadliest snakes" that are the same.  The one I'm summarizing below is from Black Hills Reptile Gardens in South Dakota, home to one of the deadliest collections on earth.  I like their rankings because they do take a lot of factors into consideration.  To see their actually rankings, click here - otherwise, enjoy the abbreviated Top 12 List below.

12. Papuan Taipan
11. Barba Fer-de-Lance
10. Puff Adder
9. Coastal Taipan
8. Common Fer-de-Lance
6. Russell's Viper
4. Bushmaster
3. Mexican West Coast Rattlesnake
2. Saw-Scaled Viper
1. King Brown Snake

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Zoo Review: Riverbanks Zoo & Garden

Opening its gates in 1974, the Riverbanks Zoo & Garden is one of the youngest major zoos in the country - so young that the last of the original zoo animals from its opening day, an American flamingo, passed away just last year.  While the zoo itself is young, the land that it occupies along the Saluda River, weaving its way through South Carolina's capital city, has seen a lot of history.  It was the site of a Civil War skirmish (Columbia was one of the cities "visited" by William Tecumseh Sherman on his March to the Sea) and Civil War-era ruins can be seen in the woods along the river.

Being a relatively young facility, Riverbanks has many spectacular exhibits, but the most famous of all is the Aquarium Reptile Complex, generally known as the ARC.  A variety of fish, amphibians, and reptiles are found in a series of themed rooms.  In the South Carolina Gallery, aquariums feature trouts and hellbenders, while terrariums display a varied representation of the Palmetto State's native snakes... including an impressive selection of venomous species, such as cottonmouths, timber rattlesnakes, and eastern coral snakes.  Alligators occupy a swampy yard elsewhere in the zoo. The Desert Gallery displays yet more hots, Gila monsters and more rattlesnakes, as well as (at the time of my visit, anyway) baby Galapagos tortoises and Grand Cayman iguanas (there are lots of reptiles that I've seen at many zoos but have only ever seen very young specimens here).  The hot, humid Tropical Rainforest Gallery features large aquatic displays in a sauna like atmosphere.  Piranhas and arowanas are the most impressive of the fish, but the crowds are more drawn to the big reptiles - Komodo dragons, green anaconda, and tomistoma, all with underwater viewing.  The next room features more rainforest reptiles, including an impressive collection of venomous snakes, such as king cobras, green mambas, and rarely displayed Mangshan vipers (most impressive to me was the only elephant trunk snake I've ever seen).  From here, visitors enter a darkened aquarium gallery, where reef-sharks, wolf eels, lion fish, and jellies can be seen, along with a massive coral reef display.

The reptile collection was impressive to be sure, but the Birdhouse at Riverbanks gives it a run for its money.  After passing through a flock of American flamingos, visitors enter a gallery surrounded by mixed-species aviaries depicting an Indonesian forest, an African savannah, and a South American clearing.  Among the beautiful birds here are Raggiana birds-of-paradise (I was lucky enough to see a male displaying), Indian pygmy geese, troupials, and wreathed hornbills.  The final and most popular display features underwater viewing of various sub-Antarctic penguins.  Except for the penguins, held behind glass, the aviaries are behind mesh so fine that it disappears from sight as you watch the birds fly.  Scattered across the zoo are more aviaries featuring other birds, including critically endangered Edwards' pheasants.  One particularly cool exhibit features cinereous vultures and Abyssinian ground hornbills perching on a wrecked jeep.  Elsewhere in the zoo, the Avian Incubation Center offers a behind-the-scenes peak at how zoo staff breed and care for endangered birds.

If you asked a non-zoo-nerd visitor who the stars of the zoo are, they'd probably be torn.  Many would probably say the koalas, located in indoor/outdoor enclosures by the entrance of the zoo - even if the sleepy marsupials aren't doing anything, their distinctive eucalyptus/cough-syrup smell will stay with out.  Outside, parma wallabies hop in the grassy yard, while lorikeets flit about in a walk through aviary.  More Aussie-animal interactions take place at the walk-through 'roo yard, with red kangaroos and red-necked wallabies.

African animals can also be seen here, whether in the grassland yards, home to giraffe, zebra, and ostrich, or in the new Ndoki Forest, home to meerkats, gorillas, and African elephants.  The elephant exhibit sloped down from equal level with visitors towards the back to a moat towards the front; when the elephants are at the front of the exhibit, as they were when I was there, visitors are pretty much looking them straight in the eye.  Hamadrayas baboons are found in a rocky grotto nearby; a second grotto rotates between lions and spotted hyenas (with Diana monkeys in the background), while a third houses (admittedly non-African) tigers - these grottos I found to be the least impressive exhibits in the zoo, based on size and complexity.  Other exhibits include a pair of siamang islands, a petting barn area, and a rocky tunnel that leads visitors past a series of small mammal habitats, including two species of lemurs, black-footed cats, tree kangaroos, and lion-tailed macaques, dubbed the Riverbanks Conservation Outpost.

There's more to the zoo besides animals, of course, and if you have the time (which I was sadly short on), you should definitely cross the river to view the Gardens which make half of the zoo's name.  Alas, all I had time for was a stroll along the woods along the river, which was cool enough, providing some scenic views of the river and the aforementioned ruins.

At the time of my visit, the zoo was preparing to unveil new exhibits for brown bears, river otters, seals, and sea lions, the exhibits for the first two opening this past summer.  Riverbanks is already a very impressive facility, an advantage of its youth.  Youth fades, however, and what was once new and state of the art can become old and decrepit if allowed to sit still.  From what it looks like, Riverbanks has no intention of sitting still.  It'll be interesting to watch as the zoo continues to develop and improve.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

A Paper Tiger, a Defanged Snake

"It was also discovered that the dilophosaurs could spit a distance of fifty feet.  Since this raised the possibility that a guest in a car might be blinded, management decided to remove the poison sacs.  The vets had tried twice, on two different animals, without success.  No one knew where the poison was being secreted.  And no one would ever know until a autopsy was performed on a dilophosaur - and management would not allow one to be killed."

- Michael Crichton, Jurassic Park

The ranks of venomous snakes have to include some of the most impressive snakes on the planet.  The king cobra is a massive, powerful snake, capable of rearing up and looking its keeper in the eye with an intelligent, alert gaze.  The whirling sound of a rattlesnake's tail in motion, whipping so fast that it can barely be seen, is one of the most memorable noises in the nature.  Many venomous snakes have beautiful patterns and colors, from the elaborate geometric designs of the Gaboon viper to the startling, electric yellow of the eyelash viper.

If only there wasn't that whole pesky venom aspect of their care.  "Hey," you can almost imagine some enterprising reptile keeper saying, "that gives me an idea..."

Venom is produced in a gland.  Glands can be removed.  Venom is carried to the fangs via ducts.  Ducts can be severed.  Some people put this information into practice and surgically remove the venom glands from their snakes.  Such animals are called "venomoids."  

(Some handlers try to draw the fangs of the snake instead, but fangs will grow back, which can pose quite a problem if the handler forgets when they last defanged their snake.  Other people, especially snake charmers, would take the extreme of actually sewing the mouths of snakes shut.  That's obviously pretty crazy and brutal, and we're going to assume that no sane person would think that's an okay thing to do.  We'll focus on the surgical side only).

Removing a snake's venom glands has obvious safety benefits for hot keepers.  Without its much fabled venom, a black mamba is just a big gray snake and it's bite no more serious to a caretaker than that of a black rat snake.  Antivenom is so prohibitively expensive for many species, and not always effective.  Keeper safety should come first, so why not just remove the primary factor of danger in the first place?  Captive snakes are rarely fed live prey anyway, proponents point out, so what do they need venom for anyway?

Well, there is a reason that most snake handlers do not convert their snakes into venomoids... a few reasons, actually.  First is the risk, stress, and (even with analgesics) pain that the surgery inflicts open the snake.  Even more important is the future well-being of the snake.  Venom has functions other than killing prey and fending off predators; venom also contains enzymes that the snake uses to help digest its prey.  Critics suggest that venomoid snakes will have a compromised ability to gain nutrition from their prey.  Oh, and there have been cases reported of snakes regenerating their removed venom glands.  Surprise!

Pretty much every venomous snake I've ever seen in a zoo has its venom glands intact.  In fact, almost all venomoids that I've encountered have been marked for private sale to pet-owners and collectors.  The practice is generally frowned upon by most herpetologists I've met, who consider it a chance for irresponsible pet-owners to pretend to be bad-asses by swinging a (nominally) "safe" cobra around in their bare hands, or a showman who wants to let tourists hold a venomous snake for a photo-op.  Many veterinarians will refuse to perform the procedure.  Unfortunately, some people who decide to do the surgery do it themselves, first chilling the snake so that it will be too cold to resist during the procedure.

For a cobra or a rattlesnake, venom is as much a part of the snake's being as its scales and bones.  Working with a venomous snake means working with the whole venomous snake.  I tend to take a pretty liberal view of private hobbyists and owners with exotic pets as long as they meet very high standards of professional care, what I would expect of myself or any other professional zookeeper.  To turn a snake into a venomoid because you want to feel like a tough guy or aren't prepared to accept that aspect of the snake means you fail to meet those standards.

You want to play safe, then get a corn snake.  Leave hot snakes to those who can handle them.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Movie Review: Murders in the Zoo

The use of a venomous snake to commit a murder isn't a new plot device - it's appeared in novels and stories  for decades, from the Sherlock Holmes stories of Arthur Conan Doyle to Barbara Kingsolver's modern classic, The Poisonwood Bible.  In the aptly, if unoriginally, titled Murders in the Zoo, a wealthy big game hunter and animal collector uses animal accomplices to dispose of those who displease him... and it seems that there are a lot of people who displease him.

Like Hatari!, staring John Wayne, Murders in the Zoo is not a movie that you could make today, not unless it was all done in CGI.  The namesake zoo is the centerpiece of much of the film, and the animals that inhabit it don't just provide scenery - in many ways, they are the stars, as integral to the plot as any of the actors.  That's not to say that they don't provide scenery - a decent portion of the film is given to panning over the animals.  Some of the footage is endearing.  Other parts are a little unsettling - like the rows of baby bears tethered on leashes, being given milk bottles by zoo visitors.  Or maybe the tiny cages of the Carnivora House, where lions and tigers pace behind heavy bars.  If nothing else, the film provides a nice visual representation of what zoos used to look like, and how far (most of us) have come.

It's the dank, depressing Carnivora House (which none of the film's actors seem to mind) that provides the most stunning part of the film, the scene which first led me to watch it.  All of the big cats are turned loose for one epic free-for-all, lions and tigers and other big cats rolling and clawing and slashing each other... or so it seems.  If you watch carefully, you'll see that none of the animals harms another - it looks fierce as heck, but they bat at one another with snarling faces, then whirl around and trade partners without so much as scratching each other.  I know that the use of performing animals in film and television is in disfavor these days, but you do have to take off your hat to whoever trained that scene.  It's a masterpiece.

Sure, the plot of Murders in the Zoo is pretty thin.  Animals rarely behave like in real life like they do in the move (mostly thinking about a certain boa constrictor scene).  And don't get me started on incorrect animal information given out (note: mambas do not come from India).  Still, it's a fun enough yarn if you're looking for an old-school horror movie for a Halloween night.  Silence of the Lambs it isn't, but it does take you back to a bygone era, when animals were used very differently, both in zoos and in film.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Spray It, Don't Say It

The rusty-red cobra wasn't the biggest one in our Reptile House, but it certainly was the pluckiest.  As soon as he saw me approach, he reared up, eyes bright and alert.  The ribs under the skin of his neck expanded, creating the characteristic hood for which cobras are famous.  I changed the angle of my approach and he pivoted accordingly; after I came a few steps closer, he made a mock lunge.

When this failed to deter me, he brought out the big guns.  Out from the front of his short, fixed fangs came a spurt of sickly looking liquid, aimed directly for my eyes.

It splattered on the glass window between us.  With rag in hand, I finished cleaning the front of his tank, then moved on to the next snake.

There are few adaptations among venomous snakes -any snakes, really - more sophisticated that the defensive maneuvers of the spitting cobras.

Most venomous snakes use their toxins primarily for subduing and killing their prey; its defensive uses are a utilitarian afterthought.  Venom is, biologically, expensive to produce, so snakes tend not to waste it needlessly.  It is for that reason that it is not unusual for a person bitten by a venomous snake to experience a dry bite, or one in which no venom is actually injected.

About half of the two-dozen or so species of cobra, however, have the ability to spit their venom, which is used solely for defensive purposes.  Venom is forced out of small holes at the front of their fangs, sending it in a directed squirt towards an attacker.  If it lands on bare, exposed skin, there is no harmful consequence for the victim.  If it gets into an open wound, it can be dangerous.  If it gets into the eyes, permanent blindness is a possible result if no treatment is offered.

From BBC's Life in Cold Blood - Sir David demonstrates the defensive capabilities of a spitting cobra

Zookeepers who work with venomous snakes use special tools for handling spitting cobras.  Most important is a face mask, often like those worn by metal welders.  One advantage of working with spitting cobras is that, like the little fellow that I was taking care of, they seem to put so much stock in their spitting powers that it sometimes doesn't occur to them to bite (note: all spitting cobras are capable of biting as well as spitting).  My little buddy would lob round after round at me, and I swear I could hear him thinking, "Why isn't this working?!?"  One keeper I knew told me that one of her colleagues was bitten by a red spitting cobra... and that it took the rest of the staff several minutes to be convinced that it had actually happened (way to go, team...)

Even if the snake does bite, oftentimes it will have expended so much venom spitting that there won't be much, if any, left for the bite itself.  That's what happened to Joe Slowinski, the hero of Jamie James' The Snake Charmer... and from a species of spitting cobra that he had just discovered, to make it more insulting.

While they may be "safer" to work with than some other venomous snakes, spitting cobras are capable of inflicting a world of pain upon unwary keepers and handlers.  The victim who gets spit in the eyes, it is said, gets a close approximation of what it feels like to have battery acid poured into his or her eyeballs.  How do I know?  Not because I've ever taken a hit.  Because I've read the accounts of some people who have.  In addition to his bite, Joe Slowinski took an eyeful of the stuff.  Peter Brazaitis, author of You Belong In a Zoo!  never got sprayed, but had the misfortune of rubbing his eyes without realizing that he had a drop of the stuff on his hand first.  Never made that mistake again, I'm willing to bet.  If you do get venom in the eye, immediate first aid involves flushing the eyes with water or saline solution.  Some cultures through Africa and Asia that share their lands with spitting cobras use fruit juices... or urine.

I might opt for the blindness.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

My Scariest Moment

Above anything else, October is known, of course, as the month of Halloween, our annual celebration of fear.  In that spirit, I've decided to share on of the scariest animal stories which has ever happened to me, in or out of the zoo.  I've had a handful of pretty terrifying moments over the course of my zookeeping career.  I've found myself in a fairly small enclosure with a fairly large bear who had figured out how to open his shift door while I was cleaning his exhibit.  I've had a careless colleague drop a rinkhals cobra directly on my feet.  I've already told the story of how a condor that I (foolishly) considered my friend tried to carve my forearm up like a Jack-o-lantern.

But the scariest animal encounter I've had, the one that left me most certain that , "Yep, this is it" didn't come from a zoo animal.  It came in a lonely patch of East African bush several years ago when I was still in college, studying abroad.

By noon of my first full day out in the bush, I was already getting plenty discouraged.  My field survey of East African reptiles and amphibians was off to a poor start; I’d scoured the bush surrounding the river for hours without finding anything more rewarding then a few agamas, and I was exhausted.  It was the hottest part of the day and I figured that most animals, at risk of overheating in the midday sun, would be retreating to someplace cooler.  They were doubtlessly smarter than I was.  Still, I was reluctant to go back to camp already with so little to show for myself.  I decided to cross a small river and search the opposite bank for a few minutes; then, I’d go back to camp, rest through the hottest part of the day, and then return to the field when it got cooler.

  With some difficulty, I climbed across the river on a narrow fallen log, and then staggered up the steep clay embankment on the opposite side.  I was just on the level ground again, not even having had time to straighten up, when I looked in front of me.  There, not ten feet ahead of me in the trail, was a snake, the single biggest I’d seen since coming to Africa.  Its skin was a drab olive gray, fading to pale white on the underside.  Its eyes were cold and black, like twin marbles set inside its coffin-shaped head.    My field guide was in my pocket, but I didn’t need to reach for it.  After all, you don’t spend any amount of time in the African wilderness without learning what a black mamba looks like.

The mamba lay half-coiled in the middle of the trail, its head raised slightly, looking straight at me.  It was a massive animal, probably ten feet from the tip of its snout to its tail, but in that moment it far bigger than that, approaching the size of a python.  It took me a moment to register the snake’s presence, and then I instantly backed up as far as I could without tumbling back down the embankment into the river.  I remembered hearing one of the old bush guides tell me, “Everyone thinks they’ve seen a mamba, but most of the time, they’re cracked.”  So I stared hard, expecting to suddenly see a branch or a vine, or maybe an abandoned garden hose that someone had hauled out into the middle of the bush – but it was still a snake… and that snake was still a black mamba. 

It would be hard to over-exaggerate the role that the black mamba has in the psychology of the African bush.  It inspires fear in people that no other dangerous animal – neither lion nor leopard nor buffalo – can match.  Some tribes said that mambas were the returned spirits of mighty kings of old.  Other tribes would abandon a village if a mamba took up residence in it.  One of the most venomous snakes on earth, the mamba’s potent neurotoxin can cause paralysis and death with just a drop or two.  Combined with its lightening speed – often considered the fastest snake on earth -, great size, and nervous, irritable nature, it’s a very formidable creature.  Ever since coming to Africa and expressing interest in snakes, I’d been flooded with stories of mambas.  I’d heard of them slipping down chimneys at night and systematically killing everyone inside.  I’d heard of them racing down motor cars and attacking the drivers.  All of these stories I’d dismissed (and still do) as legends.  I wasn’t too sure at this particular moment, though.  I was easily within striking distance of what many considered the most dangerous snake in the world.  He had me dead to rights.  It was downright terrifying… but also thrilling.

After assuring myself that the snake wasn’t preparing itself for a sudden rush, I decided that one of us needed to get out of the other’s way.  I wasn’t about to impose upon the good will of snake any more than I already had, so I walked off into the grass, cutting a wide arc around the mamba.  I’d gone maybe thirty feet before I felt the urge – I couldn’t be so close to such an amazing animal without going back for a picture.  So I turned around and walked back to where the snake had been, but it was already gone, having slithered into the tall grass.  I sat down on a log near the river and thought of all of the tall tales that everyone had told me the fearsome black mamba - about vengeful snakes hunting down innocent, unsuspecting humans.  I decided that everyone was full of crap.  As close as we’d been just a few seconds before, I reasoned that if the snake had wanted me dead, I’d have died already.

After college I went on to become a zookeeper, working with all sorts of animals but taking a special interest in reptiles.  I’ve taken it as an opportunity to introduce people to animals that they might otherwise hate or fear – snakes most of all – and shown them that they aren’t evil monsters, hungry for human blood… they’re just animals, just like us, doing their best to survive.  Some people are willing to be convinced, others can’t make room in their hearts and minds for snakes as anything other than legless killing machines.  

To them, I can tell one simple truth – from the age of twenty onward, every day of my life has been a gift to me from one benevolent mamba.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Species Fact Profile: Gila Monster (Heloderma suspectum)

Gila Monster
Heloderma suspectum (Cope, 1869)

Range: Southwestern United States, Northwestern Mexico
Habitat: Desert
Diet: Small Mammals, Birds, Lizards, Eggs
Social Grouping: Solitary
Reproduction: Mate in the spring.  Female lays up to 12 eggs in in underground cavity in July or August.  Eggs incubate approximately 10 months and emerge in May
Lifespan: 20-30 Years (Captivity)
Conservation Status: IUCN Near Threatened

  • The largest lizard in the United States: a stout-bodied lizard, body length up to 56 centimeters.  Generally weight 350-700 grams, but some specimens have weighed over 2 kilograms. Limbs and tails are short and thick, feet end in heavy claws
  • Bony, round scales resemble small beads, black with patterns of yellow, pink, or orange
  • Able to consume enormous meals, sometimes 50% of their own body weight.  May only need to feed a few times per year.  Fat can be stored in the tail
  • Spend much of their time underground, primarily active in the spring
  • Prey is detected by smell; like snakes (and unlike many lizards), the tongue is used for olfaction
  • Along with the closely related beaded lizard (Heloderma horridum), the Gila monster is often considered the only venomous lizard on earth (some authorities consider the Komodo dragon and other monitor lizards to be venomous as well)
  • Venom is produced in modified salivary glands in the lower jaw, is transfered into the victim as the lizard chews, running through grooves on the teeth
  • Rarely envenomate their prey, instead using venom for defense.  Bites are extremely painful to humans, but rarely life-threatening
  • Proteins from Gila monster venom are being used in medication to treat diabetes
  • Two subspecies which can be identified by their patterns: the reticulated Gila monster (H. s. suspectum), which has a net-like pattern, and the banded Gila monster (H. s. cinctum)
  • Named after the Gila River; the Latin name translates to "Suspicious nail-skin", referring to both the nail-like scales on the skin and the fact that its describer, Edward Drinker Cope, suspected that the species was venomous.
  • Legally protected across its range, but sometimes killed out of fear, also some illegal collection for the pet trade

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Carnivals of Cruelty

As a species, our history with venomous snakes is a long, multi-faceted, and often violent one.  We've worshiped them and persecuted them, killed them and been killed by them.  A perfect example is the most iconic of American reptiles, the rattlesnake.  The rattlesnake served as one of the first national symbols of the fledgling United States, it's virtues extolled by Ben Franklin - "She never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders: She is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true courage."  

Patriotism aside, they are still dangerous animals, potentially lethal ones, and have been feared and hated accordingly.  Some species are now endangered, and efforts are being made to restore them, largely by changing public perception, which is never an easy task with venomous animals.

Through all of our interactions with rattlesnakes, there is no aspect more bizarre, more controversial, and, in my humble opinion, more twisted than that of the Rattlesnake Round-Up.

The first rattlesnake round-up was held in 1939 in Okeene, Oklahoma, when Orville von Gulke decided it would be a great way to educate the public while reducing the number of what he saw as a local pest species.  They are now held in several states, with the largest being in Sweetwater, Texas.  

A rattlesnake round-up is, for lack of better word, a celebration of killing.  Rattlesnakes are rounded up in large quantities, brought into a carnival-like atmosphere, handled, posed for pictures, weighed, measured, poked, prodded, and then killed.  Their skins and meat are sold, their body parts made into trinkets and souvenirs.  Even snakes that are not killed outright are often highly stressed as a result of the handling and lack of proper care.  Profits often go to local charities, which is nice, but I can't help but wonder if there is a better way to raise money for a good cause than by slaughtering countless animals.  I mean, I know the Girl Scouts already have the cookie market cornered, but really?  This is all that's left?

The removal of vast numbers of rattlesnakes from the wild for slaughter has serious ecological consequences, to say nothing of the obvious ethical ones.  First of all, you're removing a lot of predators from the wild, which can cause a decline in those species (the western diamondback is the rattlesnake that bears the brunt of the round-up trade).  Secondly, you're doing this with who-knows-what impact on their prey?  Rattlesnakes are predators of mice and other rodents, which can not only overpopulate and destroy food supplies, but can also carry a variety of diseases, such as hantavirus.  Thirdly, rattlesnakes are often captured through a process called gassing, where gasoline is dumped down burrows, the snakes being driven out by the fumes (technically outlawed, still practiced).  Rattlesnakes aren't the only animals living in those burrows, however - a host of other species do to, including endangered ones, such as the indigo snake and the gopher tortoise.  

Finally, there's the question of what impact round-ups have on their human visitors.  Cruelty to animals is degrading for those who participate it, desensitizing them to brutality towards other living things.  Plus, all of that cavalier snake-handling can lead to more bites, which is the exact sort of thing a round-up was meant to prevent (and then they go and beg antivenom from the local zoos and hospitals, depriving accident victims and professional caretakers of their supplies).

When I first visited the Dallas Zoo, years and years ago, the first thing I saw when I stepped into their excellent Reptile House was a display on rattlesnake round-ups for all to see, complete with some pretty graphic pictures.  It was a gutsy move, I thought - Dallas is, after all, a fairly conservative city in the heart of Texas, one of the last strongholds of the round-ups.  It's likely that more than a few of the residents who strolled through those doors had been to a round-up before.  Secondly, zoos tend to attract lots of parents with kids, an audience never known for their appreciation of gory photos (the parents, anyway... the kids tend to love them).  The exhibit could easily have lead to a backlash against the zoo.  Still, the zoo apparently felt that it was more important to advocate on an issue than it was to sweep it quietly under the table.

I sometimes feel way too prone to see things from all sides, which can make it hard for me to take a stand on issues.  SeaWorld and orcas in captivity?  Still undecided.  Circuses - good or bad?  Eh.  Free contact vs protected contact for elephants?  You're asking me?  With that being said, it takes a special issue for me to feel very firm.  Rattlesnake round-ups are evil, and they are wrong.  I'm not saying that all of the people participating in them are evil, but they are all certainly wrong.  I'm not opposed to hunting, or culling, or people wearing snakeskin boots.  I am opposed, however, to the mass slaughter of a species without any concern for its environmental impact, and I'm certainly opposed to doing it in a celebratory carnival atmosphere.

Fortunately, I'm not alone.  The tide seems to be turning slowly against rattlesnake round-ups, and more counties and cities are ending theirs.  Others are replacing them with more serious, educational rattlesnake programs, which teach people about snakes without endangering the former or slaughtering the later.  There may yet be hope human-rattlesnake relations yet in this country, even if it's only an uneasy peace.

Until then, I'll hope that the day comes when we look at rattlesnake round-ups like we do the Roman games in the coliseum, or bear-baiting, or several other once-acceptable acts of animal cruelty - just another embarrassing, unfortunate episode from the past.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

From the News: El Nino brings venomous sea snakes to California's coast

Happy Reptile Awareness Day! (I swear, there's a day for everything now...).  And wouldn't you like to be made aware if your home state was about to get visited by one of the deadliest snakes on the face of the earth?  

That's what California gets to look forward to as a recent El Nino event has brought sea snakes - close relatives to the cobras and mambas - washing up on beaches.  Although they possess an extremely potent neurotoxin, sea snakes are very placid and unlikely to bite which, combined with the fact that they are nearly helpless on land, makes them one of the less-scary members of their family.  

Still, even the gentlest of snakes will bite if prodded or harassed by a curious beachcomber.  If you don't know what a snake is, it's always best to play it safe and leave it alone.  

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Book Review: The Snake Charmer: A Life and Death in Pursuit of Knowledge

"Joe himself was baffled by this enthusiasm... 'I can't even explain why I'm interested in venomous snakes.  I've been that way ever since I was a little kid.  I always loved snakes, but for some reason the sight of a rattlesnake or a copperhead really got me excited.  There's no way I can explain that.  It can't be a gene.  How could a gene like that ever survive natural selection?'"

I've always felt that it's wrong to stereotype people by their race, their religion, their gender, or their sexual orientation.  It is, however, perfectly acceptable to stereotype animal people by what species they work with.  To that extent, Joe Slowinski was a textbook snake-scientist.  Depending on who you asked, he was easily one of the most brilliant - or reckless - or both - herpetologists in the field.

In The Snake Charmer: A Life and Death in Pursuit of Knowledge, Jamie James tells the tory of Joseph Bruno Slowinski and the path that lead with from the midwest US suburbs where he was born to the barely explored jungles of Myanmar, where he wound up with one of the world's deadliest snakes dangling from his finger (I'm not spoiling the story - it tells you in the subtitle).  In between, Slowinski has a meteoric career that takes him across the globe on a quest to understand snakes, especially some of the world's most venomous species.

James introduces us to a precocious child prodigy, one who as a child seemed to have a gift for understanding the natural world, and one who eventually climbed up the ranks of academia before winding up at the prestigious California Academy of Sciences.  Joe Slowinski is as likable of a protagonist as any novelist could have invented if they'd dared, and his enthusiasm for all things serpentine is infectious.  Even the driest of systemic biology sounds interesting enough through his eyes.

At the same time, his obsessive machismo and desire to show off his snake-handling skills puts him in constant danger.  His careless was about on par with Grace Olive Wiley, the eccentric former curator of reptiles at the Brookfield Zoo, who's fondness for free-handling hots eventually cost her her life. After reading how he gets himself bitten in the finger by a pygmy rattlesnake that he drunkenly brought into a bar, you just know that this story isn't going to have a happy ending.

The Snake Charmer is Joe Slowinski's story, and it's a fascinating one about a young man who made his mark on herpetology and could have made an even greater one, had circumstances been different.  It's also the story of all herpetologists, however, especially those who find themselves drawn towards the deadliest snakes on earth.  James doesn't sugarcoat Slowinski's faults - fortunately, because they're what help make him such a fascinating individual - but he does help us understand what makes a person what he was - a young boy, full of passion for something wild and dangerous and mysterious, who never wanted to grow up.

James compares Slowinski and his colleagues as foot soldiers in Darwin's army.  Unfortunately, every army has its casualties.

Monday, October 19, 2015

How Not to Die - Surviving a Venomous Snakebite

Venomous snakes often rank among the deadliest animals in zoo and aquarium collections.  In one important way, however, they are safer to work with then big cats, elephants, or bears.  A tiger or bear will maul you, and elephant will crush you, but a snakebite generally doesn't prove lethal immediately.  You have time to get treatment.  In other words, you have a chance.  Many zoos with venomous species train incessantly for venomous snakebites, keep antivenom handy, have relationships with local hospitals, and have panic alarm buttons around their reptile houses.

But what if you aren't a zookeeper, or a hobbyist?  What if you're some guy (or girl) who is out for a walk and wham! - gets tagged on the leg by a venomous snake?  What should you do?  What should you not do?

1). Take a page from Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - DON'T PANIC.  Venom travels through the blood.  Panic makes the blood move faster.  The more panicked you are, the sooner the blood will carry the venom through your body.  For that same reason, don't move if not necessary.

2.) Call 911.  Obviously.

3.) Don't make it worse - do NOT attempt to kill or capture the snake.  Instead, get away from it to safety.  If you are with a companion who has just been bitten, make sure you don't get bitten too.  There is no situation so dire that you can't make it worse by adding a second victim.

4.) Before you go, however... identify the snake.  Knowing what bit you is key in providing the authorities with the knowledge of what antivenom to give you, if you require any at all.  If you can't tell what it is, get some descriptors - color, pattern, identifying traits, shape of body and head.  Size may be helpful, but not as much as the other factors.  Snakes of a given species can be highly variable in size, and besides, many people are poor judges of body length in snakes, especially when panicked (see Step 1).

5.) Keep the bitten area below the heart to reduce the speed it travels through your body.

6.) Remove rings, bracelets, watches, and any other constricting jewelry, especially on the bitten appendage.

7.) DO NOT - provide alcohol, apply ice, put on a tourniquet (a loose bandage is fine to cover the wound and keep it clean) and whatever you do, ignore the cowboy movies and bad jokes DO NOT CUT AND SUCK!

8.) Be aware of symptoms, especially numbness, blurred vision, vomiting, dizziness, or anything else out of the ordinary.  Treating venomous snakebites often means treating the symptoms

The venom of a venomous snake often comes in one of two varieties, each primarily associated with one of the two major groups of venomous snakes.  Hemotoxic venom (usually associated with rattlesnakes, copperheads, and other vipers) destroys red blood cells and causes tissue damage.  Neurotoxic venom (seen most often in cobras, mambas, kraits, and other elapids) attacks nerve tissue.  Basically, one melts you, the other paralyzes your organs.  Neither is fun.  Some snakes, like the Mojave rattlesnake, have a cocktail of both kinds of venom.

Venom is scary stuff, but you don't have to live in fear of venomous snakebites.  The United States experiences 10-15 venomous snakebite fatalities a year... many of them involving alcohol (and snakes don't drink!).  Others involve careless handlers with their personal pets, often exotic species for which hospitals are unlikely to have antivenom in stock.  To keep safe from bites, wear boots and thick socks while hiking in snake country.  Avoid putting your hands in crevices or cavities without looking, as snakes love to hide in these places.  If you see a venomous snake, leave it be.  There are lots of venomous snakes in the world, but none that wants to push a confrontation with humans.  Speaking of which...

For all of the grief that we give them, venomous snakes often do one last little kindness to humans.  That's called a dry-bite, in which a venomous snake will bite a person, but not inject their venom.  Makes sense, really - venom is biologically expensive for snakes to produce, and they want to save it for its intended purpose - subduing prey.  By giving a dry-bite, a snake may scare the willies out of a harassing human and convince said person to leave it alone, while at the same time saving its precious venom for another day.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Sharing is Caring

When I call another zoo, especially when I'm speaking to someone I've never met before, there's nothing I hate more than having to preface what I'm about to say with, "This isn't a prank call."  I have to do that fairly often, because usually when I'm cold-calling another zoo for advice, it's because something really weird is happening at mine.

Take this summer, for instance.  I took a call (which did not preface that it wasn't a prank call) from a woman who was convinced - convinced! - that she had a banded krait in her wood pile.  For those you are unacquainted, the banded krait, a close relative of cobras and mambas and coral snakes, is one of the world's deadliest snakes.  It originates in Southeast Asia.  No, the woman didn't have any pictures she could send.  No, she wasn't looking at it now, just a quick glimpse.  Yes, she was positive, because after she saw it, she typed "black snake yellow stripes" into Google, and that's what came up.


My director did not want me driving an hour away to try and catch a snake by myself, so I listed the very more likely options of what it could have been and gave a brief safety lecture.  Then, more out of guilt and worry than anything else, I called two larger zoos with larger reptile houses and explained the situation.  "Dude, it's not a krait", was the predictable reply.  I know, I know, I said, but just in case, if it is (which it isn't) and the worst happens (which it won't)... who has antivenom for that sort of thing?

It was then that I learned about the Antivenom Index maintained by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums in cases like this.  It was also then that I realized how scant some of the antivenom stocks in this country are.  This in turn led me to an interesting question.  Do zoos and aquariums have a moral obligation to share antivenom with the public in case of a venomous snake bite?

Antivenom is a wonderful, potentially life-saving tool for venomous keepers.  It's also expensive, has a short shelf-life, and may be required in large quantities to save a bitten individual.  Gram for gram, it might be one of the most valuable substances in the zoo.  Zoos and aquariums keep it in stock so that they can protect keepers who are working in their collections - keepers who are well trained and work in a professional, scientific atmosphere as part of the facility's mission.  If some drunken yahoo gets bitten by his pet cobra, or while trying to catch a rattlesnake in his backyard, and they use up the zoo' antivenom, that leaves the keepers unprotected in case they get bitten.

Most hospitals keep antivenom for native venomous snake species.  In cases of exotic bites, zoos and aquariums are the first to get the call.  Keepers and curators have taken different stances on the issue.  The situation may be different in the case of completely accidental, innocent bites, like the young boy bitten by a pygmy rattlesnake in Oklahoma.   How should zoos and aquariums draw the line?  Always help?  Never help?  Help depending on the circumstance of the bite?  Depending on the species of snake involved? Help, but bill the person for the antivenom?  And if they can't afford it? When a venomous snake bites, time is precious.  You don't want to be having a town-hall debate when someone needs antivenom, NOW.

I never heard back from krait lady, so either A) it wasn't a krait and she was too embarrassed to call back or B) it was a krait, it killed her and her entire family, and no one has visited her home to find the bodies yet.  Somehow, A seems more likely.  At any rate, I didn't end up needing to call in any antivenom for her.  If I did have some on stock, I can't imagine myself refusing it to her, or anyone, regardless of the circumstances. Despite grumbling from various folks, I've never heard of a zoo refusing treatment to anyone bitten by a venomous snake.  In one case, I know of a zoo that provided antivenom for a Gaboon viper bite to the person who broke into their reptile house, stole Gaboon vipers, and got bitten.

At hope that he, at least, got stuck with a bill for that one.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Species Fact Profile: Aruba Island Rattlesnake (Crotalus unicolor)

Aruba Island Rattlesnake
Crotalus unicolor (van Lidth de Jeude, 1887)

Range: Aruba
Habitat: Rock Heaps, Scrub
Diet: Rodents, Birds, Lizards
Social Grouping: Solitary
Reproduction: Mating season September through January.  Males compete for females by wrestling, never using venom.  Female gives live birth to 5-9 young, which are independent (and venomous) from birth.  Sexually mature at 4 years for males, 5 years for females
Lifespan: 15-20 Years
Conservation Status: IUCN Critically Endangered, CITES Appendix III

  • Short and stocky, body length 95 centimeters, weigh 900-1400 grams.  Males tend to be slightly larger than females
  • Very light coloration, sometimes appearing almost white, other times light brown or pink.  (Latin name means "One-Colored Rattlesnake").  There is a slight keel to the scales, and in some individuals diamond-shaped markings, which typically don't show up well on the background color
  • Nocturnal during the warmer months; during the rest of the year, it is active in early morning and late afternoon
  • Finds prey using heat-sensitive pits between the eyes and nostrils; strike and kill prey using venomous bite, then swallows hole
  • No predation in the wild has ever been observed, but natural predators likely include caracara, osprey, and other birds of prey.  Like other rattlesnakes, they have a rattle at the end of their tail to warn potential predators to steer clear
  • Previously considered a subspecies of Crotalus durissus, the Neotropical rattlesnake
  • Endangered due to its very small range, much of which has been disturbed or destroyed due to resort development, deforestation, and loss of vegetation due to introduced goats

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Zoo Joke: Snake Bite

I'm recycling this joke that I posted last year - it just fit so much better with this month's venom theme.

Two zookeepers are working in the Reptile House.  One of them opens up an exhibit door (without looking carefully first!) and is bitten directly in between the legs by an angry king cobra.  Panicking, his colleague rushes to the curator's office to ask for instructions.

"You're in luck," the curator said upon hearing the news.  "This isn't the first time that this has happened here, and we've worked out our protocol so it's foolproof.  Are you ready?"

"Yes!"  exclaimed the zookeeper, "Just tell me what I need to do to save him!"

"Ok, first thing you have to do is have him show you the bitten area," the curator explained.  "Then, get a sharp knife and make an incision over the bite.  Then, you need to put your mouth on it - forming a tight seal - and suck all the venom out and spit it out.  Make sure you don't have any cuts in your own mouth first, otherwise the venom will get into your blood and you'll die."

"Oh... and that's, um, that's the only way to save him?"

"The only way," confirmed the curator, sagely.

The keeper mumbled a "thank you", and then returned to his bitten colleague.

"What did he say, what did he say?!?" asked the bitten keeper, shaking with fear.

"I'm sorry, man," said his friend, patting him on the back.  "He said you're probably going to die..."

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

From the News: OKC zoo Helps Save Toddler

Photo Credit

A timely administration of the Oklahoma City Zoo's antivenom helped save the life of a small child who was bitten by a pygmy rattlesnake.

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Serpentine Safety Net

When working with dangerous animals, it's only logical that zoos and aquariums take whatever steps possible to mitigate the risk to their keepers. With some species, its means never sharing a space with the animal.  When that's not possible, the danger can be lessened with training - both of the animals and the keepers.  And, for venomous animals, when the worst happens, there is always that last safety net - antivenom.

Antivenom (sometimes also called antivenin) is a biological compound used to treat the bite or sting of a venomous animal.  Essentially, it's an antidote to a venomous bite, obtained from the venom of that very species.  Venom is collected from the species in question through a process called "milking," in which you basically get the snake to bite something that collects the venom.  The venom is then diluted and then injected into another animal - a sheep, a rabbit, a horse.  The venom is dilute enough that, instead of the traditional response (i.e., dying), the envenomated animal is able to produce antibodies to respond to the venom.  These antibodies are then harvested, and can be used to treat future venomous bites in people.

It works a lot like a vaccine, in that a weakened initial infection is used to develop immunity for a more serious future infection.  The major difference is that vaccines are often administered early to head off the outbreak of a disease.  Antivenom is usually applied after the person has been bitten, and seeks to transfer the immunity from one organism to another.

An antivenom can be a monovalent (effective against one, single species) or a polyvalent (effective against several, usually closely related species).  The bite of a king cobra, for instance, is treated with a monovalent, effective against king cobras and king cobras alone. On the other hand, the bites of a wide variety of North American pit-vipers - the several species of rattlesnakes, along with copperheads and cottonmouths - can be treated with CroFab, a polyvalent that was derived from antibodies harvested in sheep.

Antivenom has its disadvantages, to be sure.  It's expensive to produce.  It has a relatively short shelf-life.  Some people have allergic reactions.  And it can take a heck of a lot of it to treat a major snake bite.  Its management is very complicated, leading some zoos to wash their hands of venomous species altogether, except maybe local native species, for which local hospitals will likely already have antivenom.

To help confront the challenges of dealing with antivenom, in 2006 the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the American Association of Poison Control Centers collaborated to develop an Antivenom Index, showing what facilities have antivenoms for what species.  In an emergency, doctors and zoo directors can contact the list and rush antivenom to where it is needed the most.

In one last quirk of venom protection, a small handful of animal handlers (none I've ever met, I admit) will actively envenomate themselves with small doses, trying to build up a natural immunity.  The process is called Mithridatism, after Mithridates VI, a Greek king who lost his father to assassination by poisoning and didn't want to follow suite.  According to legend, he began ingesting small amounts of poisonous substances in an effort to build up immunity to any toxins his rivals might slip into his food or drink.  It has been theorized that Mithridatism is what allowed the Russian monk Rasputin to survive poisoning attempts; at any rate, it's been practiced by venomous handlers all over the world, from snake charmers to venom milkers.  It's effectiveness is limited, and is not effective against all types of venom and poison.

That and it can also kill you in the end.  Not a recommended method.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Playing with Fire

"It's like heroin," my boss explained to me as he pushed a key into the lock, then motioned for me to step back.  "The more you use, the bigger a dose it takes to give you that rush.    The hotter the snake, the hotter the thrill."

I don't know how much he knew about heroin, but I knew that he knew a lot about hot snakes.  Within seconds of finishing his little speech, my boss opened the cage in front of him.  Five seconds later, the end of his snake-stick held a writhing snake, long and lean, charcoal grey above and ashy pale below.  A black mamba, one of the most feared snakes on the planet, notorious for its speed, its generally bad temper, and its highly potent neurotoxin.  Still green around the gills and new on the job, I wasn't allowed to mess around with venomous snakes yet, certainly not mambas.  I was allowed, however, to watch and learn.

In this case, it was over too quick to watch.  Before I could even register the snake's presence, my boss had extricated it from its enclosure and transfered it to a large plastic trash can, the lid of which he carefully secured.  I was now clear to clean and service the exhibit.

I was to see repeat performances often during my time at that zoo.  Cage for cage, it was probably the deadliest building in any zoo in the country, with the two species of mambas being joined by eight species of cobra, a dozen species of rattlesnake, bushmaster, Gaboon viper, and a host of other venomous snakes.  Some were the only specimens of their kind in captivity... which was usually a sign that the antivenom for that species wasn't especially well-developed yet.

Venomous snakes are easily among the most terrifying of zoo animals to work with.  A tiny bite, so small that you might not even feel it, can have lethal results.  Sure, other zoo animals - lions and polar bears and what not - can kill you outright.  Those animals we typically don't go in with.  The concept of training reptiles is still fairly new and not widely practiced, with snakes being the least-often trained.  Usually, if you need to take care of a snake exhibit, you either do it with the snake present or, as my supervisor demonstrated with the mamba, you take the snake out first and secure it somewhere safe.

It's possible to free-handle a venomous snake, what I call Steve Irwin Style - pick it up with your bare hands,  maybe grasping it behind the back of the head to keep your fingers safe.  That's generally what I call a "Very Bad Idea."  The speed, agility, and strength of a snake can astonish - for such relatively small animals, they seem to be made of pure muscle.  Besides, the most secure place to hold a snake is behind the head which, ipso facto, means that, prior to grabbing it, you have to have your hands very close to the head... which is, of course, the bitey-end.

More often, venomous snakes can be maneuvered using tools.  The most common is the snake-stick, a long metal rod terminating in a hook.  I've used snake-sticks as long as a pencil for managing baby snakes, and I've used ones as long as my body and with a shaft thicker than my wrist to move giant pythons.  The tool is a versatile one - you can use it to scoop a snake up, to push it back, to pin the head down so you can grab it, or to lift up a piece of exhibit furniture under which a snake may be hiding.  When I studied snakes on the savannah of East Africa, I took my trusty snake-stick with me.  It went wherever my hands dared-not venture.

Other tools include tongs, operated by a trigger at the other end of a long metal handle, which can be used to grasp a snake, or plastic tubing, which snakes can be induced to crawl through, allowing themselves to be handled on the outside.  Heavy duty gloves can add an extra layer of protection, but reduce your dexterity.  Keepers working with spitting cobras often wear goggles or welding masks to protect their eyes.  At any rate, if you work with venomous snakes, there is going to be a time when there is nothing but air between you and an animal like a king cobra, which is capable of killing an adult Asian elephant with one bite.

When the time came for me to work the hot species, I definitely understood what my boss meant about the feeling.  When I first opened the pygmy rattlesnake cage and heard that faint buzzing sound, I immediately felt a charge that wasn't there when I worked with any other snakes in the zoo.  The pygmies were short and fat and didn't sit well on the hook; I almost dropped one on the floor of the reptile house as I transitioned them from exhibit to holding cage.  I got the same charged, tense feeling as I moved them back minutes later.  It was worrying - and this for a species with such a small, weak venom-yield that it's not considered physically capable of killing an adult human.  I couldn't imagine what it would be like to work a taipan.

In time, I got to be more comfortable working with venomous species, though I never did graduate to the especially deadly species.  I'm okay with that, though I certainly do admire and applaud the skills that my supervisor and the senior keepers were able to demonstrate when they worked the hot snakes in the zoo.  I enjoyed taking care of venomous snakes - it made me feel like a little bit of a hero whenever I closed the door behind them - but I never wanted to do it so often that I took it for granted or got cocky.

When you play with fire, you play carefully.  Otherwise, you get burned.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Species Fact Profile: Gaboon Viper (Bitis gabonica)

Gaboon Viper
Bitis gabonica (A.M.C. Dumeril, Bibron, & A.H.A. Dumeril, 1854)

Range: Sub-Saharan Africa
Habitat: Rainforest
Diet: Rodents, Ground-Dwelling Birds
Social Grouping: Solitary
Reproduction: Mate in rainy season (September through December), viviparous (live birth), 30 or more offspring born after 7 month gestation period, no parental care after young are born
Lifespan: 18 Years (Captivity)
Conservation Status: Not Listed

  • Largest of the Old World vipers, with an average adult length of 1.2 meters (up to 2.2 meters), weighing up to 10 kilograms; males and females look alike, but females are heavier
  • Longest fangs of any venomous snake, up to 5 centimeters long, with highest venom yield of any snake; females have proportionally shorter fangs than males
  • Base color is brown or purple with pattern of yellow hourglasses or triangles along the back with heavy speckling/stains, excellent camouflage for lying amid the leaf litter
  • Males compete for females by wrestling, trying to pin each other to the ground, never using their venom on one another
  • Sluggish in movement, locomotion is "walking", inching forward like a caterpillar
  • While primarily feeding on rodents, their large size means they can swallow animals as large as rabbits, monkeys, porcupines, and even royal antelope
  • Nocturnal, spend the days in hiding and emerge around sunset, lying still and waiting for prey to cross its path
  • Two subspecies: nominate, from Central, Eastern, and Southern Africa; B. g. rhinoceros, from West Africa
  • Generally unaggressive if left alone; if threatened, will give a very loud hiss and may bite.  Their venom contains hemotoxin and neurotoxin; human survivors have had affected limbs amputated 

Monday, October 5, 2015

Sporcle Quiz: Venomous, or Poisonous

Some animals are venomous.  Some are poisonous.  Some are both... but we left them off of this quiz for the sake of convenience.  Can you identify whether the following animals are Venomous or Poisonous?

Friday, October 2, 2015

Venomous vs. Poisonous, or, How to Exasperate a Reptile Keeper

I made it a few steps out from the back of the Reptile House before the crowd gathered.  It took that long for the first parent to notice the Chilean rose-haired tarantula crouched in the palm of my hand, and with one "Hey, look what he has!", I had half the zoo assembled around me.  Visitors edged closer, some excited, others wary, asking questions and coming in close for pictures.   One little girl approached and I knelt down, holding the hairy spider low for her to see.

"Is he poisonous?" she asked, face screwed up with concern.

"Not even a little," I said cheerfully.  Those assured, she started to smile.  "She is, however, venomous..." Her smile died suddenly.  "But only a little!" I said.  

The crowd instantly gave me a little more space.

There are few ways to annoy a zookeeper more than using the wrong name for an animal (well, I mean, you could throw rocks... or hop fences... or, well, actually, there's lots of things that annoy us more.  Disregard).  The "Venom" vs "Poison" debacle is included with that.  This one is especially irritating to many zookeepers because it seems that the improper usage is plastered everywhere in pop culture.  Even scholarly works and serious journalists sometimes use the wrong terms.  Heck, I've seen zoos and aquariums use the wrong terms.  It drives keepers nuts.

That being said, it never really bothered me much.  I was willing to take advantage of a teachable moment with the tarantula, but hearing visitors call a snake or spider "poisonous" never really got me too worked up.  After all, where are they supposed to learn the difference?  I don't remember it ever being taught in school.

Anyway, this month I'm going to be talking a lot about venomous (and poisonous!) animals, so I figured it would be best to just have the difference spelled out here.

"Venomous" vs "Poisonous," Explained With Adorable Talking Animals
Web comic by Rosemary Mosco explains the difference between venom and poison

Venomous Animals are ones that inject a toxin into their victim (be it predator or prey), using fangs, stingers, or other weapons.  Examples of venomous animals include spiders, scorpions, king cobras, wasps, and, just because, the duck-billed platypus.

Poisonous Animals administer toxins through touch or absorption or ingestion.  Many amphibians, such as poison dart frogs and cane toads, are poisonous, as are some butterflies, blowfish, and a surprising number of birds (and by surprising, I mean the fact that there are any).

In simple words - venomous means it bites you, you die; poisonous means you bite it, you die.  

Poisonous VS. Venomous

It's a pretty accurate summation.  Some animals, like the snake eluded to in the first cartoon, are both.  They have a venomous bite, but their flesh may also be poisonous if ingested.  Also, just to be clear, being poisoned or envenomated won't necessarily kill you, but it will have some sort of effect on your body.  Get it?  Got it?  Good...

With that out of the way, we can move on in.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Hot Stuff, Coming Through

Working with wild animals in a zoo or aquarium setting has always been my dream job.  There is, however, also an element of danger to it.  Large carnivores, such as big cats, bear, and crocodilians, pose the most obvious hazard, but danger can come from other quarters as well.  Large herbivores can be equally dangerous with their horns and hooves and sheer size.  Birds can be surprisingly fierce, as anyone who has ever had to run for their life from a cassowary can attest.  I've never trusted primates at all.

And then there are the hots.

Within the animal care community, both professionals and amateur pet owners, "hot" is slang for "venomous", and "hots" are the venomous snakes, spiders, scorpions and other toxic species.  They pose a unique danger to their caretakers, often because, unlike lions and gorillas, their keepers work with them directly, with no protective barriers.  The powers of their venoms vary considerably.  Some species are technically venomous but pose no real safety risk to humans.  Others are unquestionably lethal.

This month, we'll be exploring the world of venomous and poisonous animals and how keepers care for them in a zoo setting.  Enjoy!