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.