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Accounts of My Two Venomous Snake Bites


James D. Bear

Bite Number One - Crotalus lepidus klauberi

I've been working with snakes in general for several years, within the span of 8 years since my induction to the hobby I had finally encountered what most herpers fear. The hot bite. And so it begins......

Back in 1995 I had a collection nearing 360 animals, quite a few of which were venomous. In particular, the Banded Rock Rattlesnake (Crotalus lepidus klauberi) was a mainstay in the collection with nearly 80 specimens retained from 14 localities. This particular year had produced approximately 40 offspring, most of which hailed from the Franklin Mountains. Working with so many different species of snakes you become accustomed to doing feedings at whatever time is appropriate for the snake as well as safety of the household. I had a routine of feeding hots at night, it was a typical night of feeding the neonate klauberi.

Holding a pinkie mouse at the end of a 13 inch pair of forceps, I would wait for the strike from the juvenile rattler. After the strike, they think they have actually killed what is already dead. This particular instance, the female klauberi (6 weeks old) passed the pinkie and rode up the forceps and the experience of a lifetime unfolded. She sank one fang into my right thumb and one fang rest upon my finger nail. Doesn't sound too bad... well it is when the one fang that has penetrated is stuck under the corner of my finger nail! She unloads 4 healthy bites worth of venom and its all downhill from there.

After realizing what had just happened I immediately told my brother-in-law, Jason, that I received a bite from a lep. He asks if I want him to call 911. I said "Just wait and see what happens". It hurts, the pain begins to escalate to a constant, searing pain. The area of the bite feels as though it is submerged in boiling oil, there is NO relief from the pain. None, its just constant and intense. The swelling begins within a few minutes of the bite. Still thinking I was going to be ok, I figured I would go lay down and calm myself. This occurs roughly 5 minutes into the ordeal. Laying down I start to feel numbness, well, actually the feeling of my entire body "falling asleep". That sensation you get when a body part goes numb from lack of blood to the nerve endings.......yeah, that's the feeling from head to toe. Now I'm beginning to become a little more concerned, this feeling was also compounded by the inability to pass air into my lungs. Place a 200 pound weight on your chest as your laying down.....try to breathe, its not happening without serious effort. I proceed to drag myself off the bed and run bathwater in the hopes of increasing more body fluid to disperse the toxins. Seemed like a good idea, when I sat in the water I started to black out, I stood and told Jason to call 911 "I'm not going to make it". Just after those words were spoken, I lost bowel control and collapsed unconscious to the floor, a mere 17 minutes after the bite!

I remember being dragged into the living room and placed on the stretcher. Through the moments of losing consciousness, I remember telling the paramedics what I was bitten by (giving the scientific name) and arguing with them as they kept asking if I had been drinking. I do not drink alcohol (seriously, I don't), being lucid enough to also explain the polyvalent solution they need to have ready at the ER, they still asked the same questions. I was rushed into the ambulance, placed on oxygen and continued to pass in and out of consciousness. I recall the paramedic giving some of my vitals to the trauma unit that we were enroute to. One vital was my blood pressure...sixty over forty. Yeah, that did not sound good at all. During all this, the extreme pain was now from my thumb engulfing my hand and working its way toward the rest of my arm. My arm had swollen to three times its normal size. After being set up with IVs and given shots of adrenaline, we arrive at the hospital.

Rushed into a room of nearly 30 doctors, they all started working on me. I immediately received fluids and a test for the antivenin. Antivenin was administered once the reaction test cleared, several units were pumped into me within the first hour. One of the trauma techs had informed the doctor that I had already used 6 vials of antivenin and that was all they had. They had to search for more......none was available in the entire city. A redeye flight out of Albuquerque would bring 14 more units of the polyvalent solution. However, that is all going on when the ER doctors realize that they cannot elevate my BP. The venom is now affecting systematic functions. I was still unable to pull in air, my body was freezing cold (96 degrees) and I was very, very weak. They decide a central line is what I need. A central line is a 6" steel needle, rather large, introduced into your heart to give an adrenaline to stop the heart from seizing. The central line is punched through the rib cage.......yes, no anesthesia.. just pushed through the ribs. As if I wasn't in enough pain.... they did this ! Thankfully they did, I could care less about the pain. I really feared my death was soon to happen. I was wrapped in two heating blankets to stop the violent shaking, I insisted the room was FREEZING cold, the doc explained it was my blood being thinned by the venom. Eventually they get me stabilized and transfered me to ICU, nearly 10 hours later.

I spent 4 days in intensive care, the first day was agonizing. The pain from the bite was still very strong and they were drawing blood every hour because my platelets would not return to normal. The area of the bite had swollen so severely that my knuckles were concave to the surrounding tissue. My thumb was black, discolored and starting to rot. They had discussed an open fasciotomy, cutting open the area of the swelling to relieve the pressure. Compartment syndrome was the fear driving this, I was adamantly against it. Luckily, it never came to this. My finger tips still retained enough blood to discourage the surgeons from the procedure.

Eventually my fingernail fell off, the areas of dead tissue also removed itself. I have permanent damage to my right thumb and nail. The bite has affected several things in my system. I am now severely allergic to... yep you guessed it, rattlesnake musk. Anything dealing with the musk of snakes (particularly crotalids) I have bad allergic reactions. My eyes swell shut, nose runs profusely... I keep alot of benadryl around ! I also lack the stamina I had before the bite. Several months after the incident I would still receive bruises sporadically on my body. The venom still at work, floating around in the body, still destroying tissue.

To sum it all up, I used 14 vials of antivenin at a cost of $16,000 for the 4 day stay and the trauma visit...$6,000 for 14 vials of antivenin flown down from Albuquerque, have permanent damage to my thumb, as well as my resistance to allergens, and a major reduction in stamina. Wow, what a dangerous hobby. Many people unfamiliar with the hobby ask me what happened to the snake that bit me. I explain, she was placed back into her container, back into the rack and that was all. No, I did NOT kill the snake for doing what was natural. She was going after the pinkie mouse, she just liked the big pinky (my thumb) at the end of the forceps... and who could blame her. I admit I may have been negligent by not using long enough utensils as well as not removing the scent of the mouse from my hands. I have learned from that experience as we all should, but accidents can and will happen. I managed to walk away from mine. And to this day, I still have a passion for snakes...venomous and non-venomous. When a NASCAR driver slaps the wall and wrecks, he doesn't just hang it up and find something else to do. What drives the NASCAR driver is passion and desire. Everything in life has risk involved. You can't live a real life without taking the risk. And yeah, history does repeat itself...

Bite Number Two - Atheris cerataphora

During the summer of 1999, we began working with a few arboreal vipers, Atheris and Bothriechis. I had acquired a two Atheris cerataphora from a friend, both females about 20 inches in length. We housed them in our normal arboreal enclosures which was a vertically oriented rubbermaid tubs with dowels for perching. In a typical routine that had been done nearly on a nightly basis however, I erred in judgement during a feeding of one of the female cerataphora.

I held a large hopper for the Atheris to feed upon, by way of 13" forceps. She struck with great enthusiasm and held her prey while perched on the dowel. As usual, as I closed the container she startled and dropped her meal. I gave her about 20 minutes to relocate the meal and consume it. The time had elapsed and she was still perched and not making any further attempt at retrieving her food. I reached in with the forceps to grasp the hopper and offer it a second time. Then disaster struck, in the form of a Usumbara Bush Viper launching across the tub and sinking its fangs into my thumb!

She left a mere 2 inches of her body length coiled around her perch while the remainder was sent flinging in the air at her new prey item...ME ! One fang landed on the finger nail the other a mere 1 mm from the previous bite by the klauberi. Once again the pain began, its a horrible, non-stop, burning pain. My first reaction was to load up on Benadryl™ to slow the affects of the histamines and Tylenol™ for the intense pain in my hand.

I made a phone call to my wife and my best friend Anthony to let them know what had just happened, Tony hung up the phone and was on his way over. I already knew there was no antivenin for this genus and almost felt it a waste of time to seek help at the emergency room. There had been very few fatalities regarding the Atheris group, in particular virtually none from victims in its home range (of course they probably have a limited resistance to the toxins).

I sat on my living room sofa...hoping for the best and praying I'd make it through ok without help. About fifty minutes go by and aside from the pain in my hand and arm, the only other thing I notice is blistering throughout my body. Small red blisters began to appear on my arm, chest, stomach, legs...virtually everywhere. It was about this time Anthony made his way into the house. He insisted I go to the ER and I resisted. He asked if I had seen myself in the mirror and how bad I looked. I hadn't bothered to get up since I had first sat down after the bite. Tony grabbed my arm and lifted me up and forcefully guided me to the bathroom. It was then I saw what was frightening him. I was actually bleeding from my tear ducts and gums. That changed my mind and we then made the drive to the ER to seek help. On the way we notified them of what bit me and for them to be ready.

Upon my arrival, I was immediately taken to a room with everything already waiting to be administered. They gave me a lot of fluids (4 bags to be exact) and more pain medicine. I had already had enough Benadryl™ to probably last me the rest of the night! After four hours I felt great, mind you, I felt great...didn't mean the affects of the venom had subsided. Tony playfully informed me that I looked like "I'd been shot at and missed and shit at and hit!". He wouldn't even allow my wife to visit me because of my condition. My wife, Danielle was frantic worrying about what had happened but was being assured by Anthony that I'd be OK.

The doctor who treated this bite was the same physician who took care of me during my klauberi incident. His words to me were "Your next one may put you in the grave. Perhaps you should find a new hobby!" "I don't think so buddy. This is what I love and who I have become. It's my passion, I'll never stop keeping herps...venomous included." I made it through this bite, suffered some damage to my vision and tissue damage to my thumb but other than that all is well. I had to learn another lesson with the hots...never under estimate the striking distance. To this day I use the LONGEST hemostats and hooks I can use. There is nothing more embarrassing than getting nailed by a hot, although accidents do happen.

I should have used more precaution in working with arboreals and given greater respect to their striking distance. Its been nearly 9 years since that bite with no further incidents happening. I plan to keep it that way too.

Venomous snakes will always be a fascination for me and we plan to keep them around...till I'm gone!

Editorial Note

Sadly, history did again repeat itself with James Bear. On January 24, 2008 prior to SWCHR publishing the above accounts of his two snake bites, he was again bitten by another venomous snake. This time it was by a Timber/Canebreak Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus). This third bite proved to be fatal for James. He died on January 29, 2008 after spending five days on life support in the Intensive Care Unit at a hospital in El Paso, Texas. Due to the nature of the situation and the tragic death of James Bear, we have published the above accounts of his first two bites with only very minimal editing.

Additional information concerning the fatal bite along with a tribute written by Joey Bear can be found posted in SWCHR's Discussion Forums on the Venomous Snakes Focus Group forum. The direct link is James Bear - Snake Bite.

Date submitted 14 Feb 2008
Submitted by Joey Bear

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