Why Use Scientific Names?

Snake taxonomy for masochists: Everything you never wanted to know about snake names.

If you frequent any of the growing number of snake education and identification groups on Facebook, you’re probably used to seeing conversations like this:

Q: I found this snake in my yard. What is it?
A: That’s just Pantherophis alleghaniensis. Nothing to worry about.
Q: Uh, okay, but what is it?

The asker and the answerer are literally speaking different languages. Scientific names may not seem to be very helpful for anyone not familiar with them, so why should anyone use them? Aren’t common names good enough? What difference does it make? Don’t people just use scientific names to look smart? (Short answer: Maybe some do, but I don’t think that’s usually the case.)

What’s the problem with common names?

Where do I even begin?

Common names don’t always tell you much about a snake. I mean, blind snake are (more or less) blind, lined snake are lined, and smooth green snakes are smooth and green, but other names, like lyre snake, queen snake, massasauga, Kirtland’s snake, and Dekay’s snake don’t tell you anything about those animals, even if you know who Jared Kirtland or James De Kay were. (Patronyms are especially unhelpful.) Forest flame snakes have nothing to do with fire-bellied snakes, and good luck figuring out what a dragon snake is. (Seriously, dragon snakes are real, and they’re really weird. They don’t know what they are.)

Common names can be confusing, if not outright misleading. Corn snakes and fox snakes are actually rat snakes; they eat rats, not foxes or corn, but not all snakes that eat rats are rat snakes. Bullsnakes have nothing to do with bulls, tiger snakes have nothing to do with tigers, but tiger rat snakes are rat snakes and they eat rats. Bird snakes eat birds, but vine snakes don’t eat vines, and wart snakes neither cause nor cure warts. And despite the abundance of snake-eating-snakes, there’s no such thing as a “snake snake” — although arguably there should be — but lots of snakes eat other snakes, so you can imagine what a mess that would be.

Milk snakes don’t drink milk, and they eat rats, but they’re not rat snakes either; they’re actually kingsnakes. Longnosed snakes look like kingsnakes, but they aren’t, and their noses really aren’t very long.  Hognose snakes do have long noses, but they’re not longnosed snakes. Hognosed vipers have hog-noses, but they aren’t hognose snakes. Hognose snakes in the US (Heterodon) are sometimes called “puff adders,” but real puff adders are an African viper (Bitis arietans). There’s also a hognose snake in Africa (Leioheterodon madagascariensis), but it’s not a puff adder there either.

European adder (Vipera berus). Photo by Bernard Dupontby

European adder (Vipera berus). Photo by Bernard Dupontby

The adders in Europe are completely different from death adders in Australia, which in turn are completely different from adders in Africa. Africa also has night adders, which are vipers that look like harmless colubrids, but are neither harmless nor colubrids.

Not all snakes that live in trees are tree snakes, and tree snakes don’t always live in trees. Water snakes live in and near water, but not in the sea. Not all snakes that live in the sea are sea snakes, and not all snakes that live in the water are water snakes.

In Asia it’s common for people to use the name “king cobra” for true cobras, even though true cobras aren’t king cobras, and king cobras aren’t true cobras, but since king cobras are The King, they can pretty much do whatever they want. Let’s make it worse: “King cobra” should refer to only one species (Ophiophagus hannah), but that one species probably should really be five or ten different species, but that phylogeny isn’t worked out yet. At least “false water cobras” are honest about not being real water cobras; it would still be better if people just called them Brazilian smooth snakes, but nobody calls them that.

Cape coral cobra (Aspidelaps lubricus). Photo by Ray Morgan

Cape coral cobra (Aspidelaps lubricus). Photo by Ray Morgan

Coral cobras in Africa are neither coral snakes nor cobras. However, some references simply refer to all elapids as “cobras,” in which case they would be. (But they’re still not.)

Mexican burrowing pythons (Loxocemus) burrow, but they aren’t limited to Mexico, and they’re not even pythons. Bromeliad boas (Ungaliophis) — also known as “dwarf boas” — aren’t really boas.

Here in Costa Rica, the common name “mica” means whipsnake, which is used for several different long, thin snakes, including bird snakes (Phrynonax) and tiger rat snakes (Spilotes), which totally aren’t whipsnakes. (Whipsnakes in the Americas are harmless, but whipsnakes in Africa are venomous.) We also have “toboba gata” — a harmless colubrid called “lyre snake” in English — as well as  “toboba chinga,” which is a slender hognose pitviper.

In many cases, snakes have popular colloquial names, which vary by region, but don’t mean much to herpetologists. “Chicken snake” may be used to refer to almost anything that hangs around chicken coops. Pygmy rattlesnakes (Sistrurus) are sometimes called “ground rattlers”, and garter snakes (Thamnophis) are often called “garden snakes” (or “gardener snakes”).

A lot of “correct” common names are too generic: In the US, “water snake” could mean anything in the genus Nerodia, “rattlesnake” may mean any snake in Crotalus or Sistrurus, and “pitviper” refers to all snakes in the subfamily Crotalinae, and there are a couple of hundred different species of those.

When you consider all the snakes in the world, it gets much worse. All of the following names refer to completely different species in different parts of the world: rat snake, cat snake (or cat-eyed snake), racer, whipsnake, garter snake, sea snake, vine snake, tree snake, green snake, brown snake, black snake, hognosed snake, coral snake, false coral snake, tiger snake, grass snake, copperhead, cobra, king cobra, asp, adder, puff adder, mussurana, cribo, harlequin snake, and undoubtedly others I’m just not thinking of right now.

Garter snakes in the US (Thamnophis) are harmless, but garter snakes in Africa (Elapsoidea) are potentially dangerous elapids. Copperheads in the US (Agkistrodon) and in Australia (Austrelaps) are both venomous, but they are not even in the same family. Brown snakes in the US (Storeria) are harmless, but brown snakes in Australia (Pseudonaja) kill people, and quickly.

Eastern brown snake (Pseudonaja textilis). Photo by flagstaffotos [at] gmail.com

Eastern brown snake (Pseudonaja textilis). Photo by flagstaffotos [at] gmail.com

There are no species in the US that are properly called “black snakes,” but there are snakes that are black, mostly black racers (Coluber constrictor) and black rat snakes (Pantherophis obsoletus), but black rat snakes are no longer called black rat snakes. Black snakes in Australia (Pseudechis) are related to cobras, and they include snakes that are brown, including the king brown snake, which is brown in color, but not actually a brown snake. Even oddly-specific things like “centipede eater” might refer to Scolecophis or Aparallactus.

There might be more than one common name per genus, like with king snakes and milk snakes, which are both in Lampropeltis, or gopher snakes, bullsnakes and pine snakes, which are all Pituophis, or indigo snakes and cribos, which are all Drymarchon. On the other hand you can have more than one genus for a single common name, like with rattlesnakes (Crotalus and Sistrurus), mussuranas (Clelia and Boiruna), or vine snakes (Oxybelis and Ahaetulla).

Not all common names are created equal

Some common names are better than others. In the US, most species have standard common names, and there’s a reference — published by The Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles (SSAR) — that lists “official” common names: a freely-available download with the comically verbose title Scientific and Standard English Names of Amphibians and Reptiles of North America North of Mexico, with Comments Regarding Confidence in our Understanding, Eighth Edition.

Okay, okay, you win. How do we clean up this mess?

Scientific names are much more precise. They enable us to be clear about exactly which animal we’re talking about, while the only thing clear about common names is that they aren’t so clear. There are more than 3,700 species of snakes, and a surprising number of those don’t even have well-established, unambiguous common names, at least not in your language, so in many cases, scientific names are the only way to refer to a species.

(Note: Scientific names are not necessarily Latin names; they are usually Latin, but not always.)

You are already using scientific names

You might already be using scientific names without realizing it. Names like Gorilla, Hippopotamus, Chameleon, Iguana and Octopus are actually the genus names of those animals. The same with Alligator, Bison, Gecko, Hyena, Chinchilla, Rhinoceros, Llama, and a bunch of others. Other animals have common names that are very close to their genus names: gerbils (Gerbillus), rats (Rattus), and giraffes (Giraffa). Among snakes, both Boa and Python are genus names.

If you know any dinosaurs by name — Tyrannosaurus rex, Stegosaurus, Triceratops — all of those are scientific names. And you probably also know bacteria like Salmonella, Staphylococcus (“staph for short), E. coli (the abbreviation of Escherichia coli) and viruses like Ebola, Hepatitis, Rabies, Distemper and Influenza.

Nearly everyone has heard of the scientific name of our own species, Homo sapiens.

A quick taxonomy refresher

In biology, taxonomy is the science of classifying and naming groups of organisms. Together with phylogeny (evolutionary relationships) and systematics (diversification over time), it is our effort to organize living things according to their shared characteristics and relationships to one another.

Biological taxonomy is a hierarchical system, the current principal ranks (in zoology) being:



These ranks may be aggregated into ranks like superorder or superfamily, or subdivided into ranks like subfamily, infraorder, or clade.

All snakes are in the order Squamata, which also includes lizards and amphisbaenians (worm lizards), and more precisely, in the suborder Serpentes:



Within the suborder Serpentes, there are (presently) 19 families: Acrochordidae, Aniliidae, Anomochilidae, Boidae, Bolyeriidae, Colubridae, Cylindrophiidae, Elapidae, Homalopsidae, Lamprophiidae, Loxocemidae, Pareidae, Pythonidae, Tropidophiidae, Uropeltidae, Viperidae, Xenodermidae, Xenopeltidae, Xenophidiidae.

Colubridae is the huge family of “typical” snakes, which includes about half of all species. Most colubrids are harmless, but a few are medically important to humans.

You’re probably familiar with some of the elapids (family Elapidae), which include mambas, cobras, sea snakes and coral snakes. You’ll also recognize some of the family Viperidae, which contains the subfamilies Viperinae (true vipers, like gaboon vipers and sawscaled vipers) and Crotalinae (pitvipers, like rattlesnakes and cottonmouths).

At the species level, organisms are known by two-part binomial names, the first part being the genus to which the species belongs, and the second part being the specific name or the specific epithet. So, for example, an eastern diamondback rattlesnake is known as Crotalus adamanteus and ring-necked snakes are Diadophis punctatus.

San Bernardino ringneck snake

San Bernardino ringneck snake (Diadophis punctatus modestus). Photo by Mark Herr

Some species are further divided into subspecies, so ring-necked snakes are further divided into:

D. p. acricus — Key ring-necked snake
D. p. amabilis — Pacific ring-necked snake
D. p. anthonyi — Todos Santos Island ring-necked snake
D. p. arnyi — prairie ring-necked snake
D. p. dugesii — Dugès’ ring-necked snake
D. p. edwardsii — northern ring-necked snake
D. p. modestus — San Bernardino ring-necked snake
D. p. occidentalis — northwestern ring-necked snake
D. p. pulchellus — coralbelly ring-necked snake
D. p. punctatus — southern ring-necked snake
D. p. regalis — regal ring-necked snake
D. p. similis — San Diego ring-necked snake
D. p. stictogenys — Mississippi ring-necked snake
D. p. vandenburgii — Monterey ring-necked snake

Taxonomic organization reflects how closely-related different species are. For example, North American garter snakes (Thamnophis) and African garter snakes (Elapsoidea) are separated by 50 million years of evolution, a similar amount of time that separates cats and dogs. They share a common name, but are in completely different families and are not closely related.

Their positions in the taxonomic hierarchy, and the relationships they represent, help answer questions like, “Can this species reproduce with that species?” Different subspecies (under a single species) can often interbreed quite easily. Two species within the same genus — prairie rattlesnakes (Crotalus viridis) and Mohave rattlesnakes (Crotalus scutulatus), for example — may also hybridize, and sometimes this even happens in wild populations.

Beyond that, hybridization becomes pretty rare. Some closely-related genera, like Lampropeltis and Pantherophis may occasionally be made to reproduce together, but this is not something that normally happens, and it’s not usually possible. Hybridization across families doesn’t happen, so legends of black mambas (family Elapidae) hybridizing with black racers (family Colubridae) are pure fiction, as are claims of boas reproducing with lancehead vipers (a popular myth in Central America). Those pairings aren’t biologically possible.

Scientific names change sometimes

As we learn more about different species, their relationships to each other become more clear, and from time to time, their scientific names change. Taxonomy from 100 years ago is barely recognizable, and the methods by which relationships are inferred also changes.

Species that were once grouped by geography and morphology are now being re-examined based on DNA. Milk snakes (Lampropeltis triangulum), parrot snakes (Leptophis), cat-eyed snakes (Leptodeira), coral snakes (Micrurus), true cobras (Naja), king cobras (Ophiophagus hannah) and more are all presently under revision or have recently been revised. Eastern indigo snakes (Drymarchon couperi) were split into D. couperi and D. kolpobasileus, but that’s not yet universally accepted. Liophis were merged into Erythrolamprus. Pseustes is now Phrynonax — quite possibly the worst genus name in all of herpetology. (It sounds like a badly named medication: “Ask your doctor whether Phrynonax is right for you!”)

The “boa constrictors” in Mexico and Central America used to be the species Boa constrictor, but are now Boa imperator, but they’re still commonly called “boa constrictors,” which is now the scientific name of a different species from a different region.

Eyelash viper (Bothriechis_schlegelii). Photo by Geoff Gallice

Eyelash viper (Bothriechis_schlegelii). Photo by Geoff Gallice

When the scientific name for a species changes, the old names by which it was previously known become synonyms. For example, eyelash vipers, known as Bothriechis schlegelii since 1989, have the following historical synonyms:

Trigonocephalus schlegelii (Hoge, 1966)
Bothrops schlegeli (Hoge, 1966)
Bothrops supraciliaris (Stuart, 1963)
Bothrops schlegeli supraciliaris (Duellman & Berg, 1962)
Bothrops schlegelii supraciliaris (Taylor, 1954)
Bothrops schlegelii schlegelii (Taylor, 1954)
Bothriechis schlegelii (Cuesta Terron, 1930)
Trimeresurus schlegelii (Mocquard, 1909)
Lachesis schlegeli (Boettger, 1898)
Thanatophis colgadora (Garcia, 1896)
Lachesis schlegelii (Boulenger, 1896)
Lachesis nitida (Günther, 1895)
Bothriechis schlegeli (Günther, 1895)
Thanatos torvus (Posada Arango, 1889)
Thanatos schlegelii (Posada Arango, 1889)
Thanatophis torvus (Posada Arango, 1889)
Thanatophis schlegelii (Posada Arango, 1889)
Bothrops schlegelii (Jan & Sordelli, 1875)
Teleuraspis schlegelii (Cope, 1871)
Teleuraspis nitida (Cope, 1871)
Teleuraspis nigroadspersus (Cope, 1871)
Bothrops (Teleuraspis) nigroadspersus (Steindachner, 1870)
Bothrops schlegeli (Jan, 1863)
Teleuraspis schlegeli (Cope, 1860)
Lachesis nitidus (Günther, 1859)
Trigonocephalus schlegelii (Berthold, 1846)

These changes reflect how understanding of the species (and its relationships to other species) develops over time and, to some degree, how herpetologists battle it out over how best to classify it. 

The bottom line

Scientific names reduce confusion. You may think they suck, but they suck far less than common names, and they’re really not that hard to learn.


Special thanks to Andrew Durso, Bridgette Gigi, and Tony Daly-Crews, whose suggestions help turn this brain-dump into something more like an article.

Got Venom?

By Ellen Marshall

Ellen Marshall has been writing since a young age and has been published in “Morbid Curiosity” magazine [Ed: surprise = zero] as well as being a contributor on the “Film Threat” and “Cinefantastique” websites. She has many friends who are herpetologists and owns a very handsome, Indonesian blue tounge skink named Turbo.

The “average” person runs screaming from things that creep, crawl and can potentially kill you with all manner of venomous wrath… Herpers are NOT those kinds of people (“Herpers” are people fascinated by herpetology, not people with herpes. A common misunderstanding.) They are a rare breed, who specifically seek out experiences with our reptilian neighbors, despite the inherent danger. They see the power and beauty in those scales, claws and fangs and they respect the long evolutionary path that created these incredible creatures.

I had the opportunity to talk to two of the most interesting men on the planet (sorry Dos Eqqis guy), Ray Morgan, a California-born documentary filmmaker and producer, who currently resides in Costa Rica and is involved in world-wide reptile education, and Dr. Bryan Grieg Fry, world renown scientist and Associate Professor at Queensland University in Brisbane, Australia, where he leads their Venom Evolution Laboratory, about the documentary film “The Venom Interviews”.

“I got to be the dumbest guy in the room!”

EM — I’m curious to know how the collaboration with so many experts for “The Venom Interviews” project came about and how did you get guys like Dr. Fry on board?

RM — I was a private reptile keeper and not really part of the herp “community.” I wanted to find people to be in the documentary who weren’t in it for their egos, but for their love of the work and the animals. I made about 100 cold calls and ultimately, the group of 35 people that were in the film were highly educated PhDs, biologists, herpetologists and keepers, so I was in the center of all of this knowledge and I got to be the dumbest guy in the room!

BGF — Ray contacted me about it and I instantly leapt at the opportunity.

EM — Ray, what inspired you to make the film?

RM — I was really disgusted and troubled by the way reptiles and their handlers were being portrayed in the media. Venomous reptiles in particular are an interesting subject, so why fictionalize and sensationalize it? The idea was to get rid of the hyperactive host and haunted house themed music to see if I could still end up with a compelling story.

EM — Dr. Fry, with so much misinformation and the rise of irrational, fear-based, TV and social media channels perpetuating negativity, especially towards venomous snakes, how do you, as a scientist and academic, counteract those attitudes and perceptions?

BGF — Through an unflinching commitment to accuracy. Such as disagreeing strongly with people saying that we should not refer to harmless rear fangs as venomous even though they are, for fear of scaring the public.

EM — So, in all of your years of research, lab work and field experience with venomous reptiles, what’s the one thing (or things) that has surprised you the most about them?

BGF — Our most surprising, recent discovery was that of the venom of the long-glanded blue coral snake with its tremendously unique action upon the nerves, turning them on instead of turning them off like other neurotoxic snakes do.

EM — The film is obviously a hit with the herpetology and venomous reptile community, how has the feedback been outside of that and why do you think the doc would appeal to a wider audience?

RM — That’s really the $64,000 question… It’s been well-received by people with an interest in nature and science and shows like “Planet Earth.” The film also features REAL people, who actually do this work. They are likable characters who are cool, interesting people that are very genuine. I think it can have a ripple effect that goes beyond professionals and hobbyists to that next tier audience.

EM — Were there any interesting bloopers or encounters with reptiles or other creatures during the filming of the documentary?

BGF — The first footage of me for “The Venom Interviews” had to be reshot later on as I looked like a skeleton. It was just after the surgery to repair my broken back and I looked absolutely awful. Like an absolute ghoul. It was also ruined by this African Gray parrot in the background that just would not shut up.

RM — Yes, the facility where we did the interview with Bryan had LOTS of birds and parrots who were very loud and noisy. We had to move them into a different room, but we could still hear them.

“This documentary was a passion project… I made the movie that I wanted to see.”

EM — Anything else you want people to know about this film?…

RM — The documentary took a year to film and over 4 years to edit. I wanted to ask deeper questions, the kind of stuff that people in the audience would ask if they could sit down and have a beer with these guys. This documentary was a passion project… I made the movie that I wanted to see.

For more information about “The Venom Interviews” documentary, visit the film’s website http://thevenominterviews.com/ or the Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/groups/The.Venom.Interviews/

Are Hognose Snakes Venomous?

Executive Summary:

  • Yes, hognose snakes are venomous.
  • No, hognose snakes are not dangerous.
  • Venomous does not (necessarily) mean dangerous.

Which hognose snakes are we talking about?

For the purpose of this discussion, “hognose snakes” include Heterodon in North America, Lystrophis in South America, and Leioheterodon in Madagascar. It does not include hognose pitvipers (Porthidium) in Latin America, or any other viperid or elapid.

The three genera of hognose snakes are all members of the family Colubridae, the taxonomic junk drawer of “typical” snakes, whatever that means. With a few notable exceptions, colubrids are harmless to humans. Although a surprising number of them are rear-fanged, only a handful are of any medical importance whatsoever to people.

What’s the problem?

The debate in online reptile forums over whether hognose snakes should be considered venomous is surprisingly common. Quite a lot of the debate seems to stem from a need among reptile enthusiasts to reassure the general public (and sometimes each other) that hognose snakes present no threat to humans, which is correct. There is a widespread concern — and not without justification — that if hognose snakes are labeled “venomous,” people may be more likely to kill them and lawmakers may be more likely to place restrictions on keeping them. Both of these things are, unfortunately, probably true. (At least one US state prohibits keeping Heterodon, having failed to make an intelligent distinction between “venomous” and “dangerous.”) So to discourage these kinds of irrational overreactions, the herp community is eager to make it clear — correctly — that hognose snakes are harmless.

This earnest desire to paint these adorable, good-natured snakes in the best possible light leads to some word games and mental gymnastics, and some beliefs that simply aren’t connected to reality. For example, advocates continually characterize symptoms associated with hognose snake bites as “allergic reactions,” insisting that venom can’t possibly be the cause. This logic is backwards, for a couple of reasons. First of all, genuine allergy is an immune response, and it can be much more dangerous (not less!) than the effects of a relatively weak venom. I would much prefer to endure the relatively mild effects of a mild venom than have an allergic reaction to it. Secondly, actual allergic reactions to bites from rear-fanged snakes are virtually unheard of.

Another common word game revolves around the insistence on calling what hognose snakes produce “modified saliva” rather than venom, as if that’s a meaningful distinction. It’s not, and it’s silly. Evolutionarily speaking, all venom is modified saliva, and the stuff hognose snakes deliver via their fangs is not ordinary saliva. This is the same kind of strained linguistics that leads the makers of the diabetes drug Byetta (exenatide) to insist that the peptide comes from gila monsters’ saliva, rather than venom. Evidently, “venom” just sounds too scary to be associated with anything we might want, be it a medication or a pet.

All of this is, however, largely a matter of perception management — asserting what we wish were true, regardless whether it’s actually real. I argue that the better answer is to educate people, not to propagate misinformation.

What does it mean to be “Venomous”?

Without getting into the whole poisonous-versus-venomous debate, most definitions of venomous are pretty consistent:

  • “(of an animal, especially a snake) secreting venom; capable of injecting venom by means of a bite or sting” — oxforddictionaries.com
  • “(of an animal) having a gland or glands for secreting venom; able to inflict a poisoned bite, sting, or wound” — dictionary.com
  • “producing venom in a specialized gland and capable of inflicting injury or death” — merriam-webster.com

Venomous Reptiles and Their Toxins defines venom as “A secretion produced in specialized cells in one animal, delivered to a target animal through the infliction of a wound and that disrupts endophysiological or biochemical processes in the receiving animal to facilitate feeding, defense or competition by/of the producing animal.”

There’s an important factor that is not part of the definition of venomous: whether they are dangerous to humans. That has nothing whatsoever to do with whether an animal is, in fact, venomous. Most snakes that are venomous, physiologically speaking, are not medically important to humans, and this is true of all but a handful of venomous colubrids.

So, with regard to whether hognose snakes should be “considered” venomous, it’s not a matter of opinion or consensus; it’s a fact of their physiology. They have specialized glands, known as Duvernoy’s glands, separate and distinct from their ordinary salivary glands, that produce venom. Duvernoy’s glands differ from the venom glands of viperids and elapids in that they are smaller, usually lack a central lumen, and lack well-developed muscles to eject venom under pressure, but nevertheless they are one of several types of venom glands snakes have. And while their venom is not exceptionally toxic to people, hognose snakes are absolutely capable of delivering bites that become symptomatic — although not medically important — in humans.

Hognose snakes have small, faintly grooved fangs located roughly under their eyes, along which venom is delivered. The fangs aren’t hollow, so venom flows along them, rather than through them. Because their fangs are small and not right at the front of their mouths, there’s a persistent belief that they have to chew in order for the fangs to engage what they’re biting. This isn’t quite true. Snakes’ mouths open surprisingly wide, and generally they have no trouble getting their fangs into a prey item or a finger. However, what is generally true is that, without well-developed muscles to eject venom under pressure, it takes some time and chewing to deliver a decent dose of venom. For this reason, with most rear-fanged snakes, a quick bite is a dry bite.

Venomous versus Dangerous

For the purpose of this discussion, the terms “dangerous” and “medically important” mean a threat to life or limb. Thus, bites may be “symptomatic” without necessarily being “dangerous.”

Hognose snakes’ fangs are tiny, they don’t produce much venom, and their bites usually don’t cause significant symptoms in humans, although occasionally they do. So, while hognose snakes are indeed venomous and can deliver symptomatic bites, they are not dangerous.

The Point

The important distinction is between dangerous and harmless, not between venomous and nonvenomous. So while hognose snakes are venomous, they’re still harmless.

Further Reading

  1. Un cas d’envenimation humaine par un colubridé de compagnie, un Heterodon nasicus (A case of human envenomation by a pet colubrid, a Heterodon nasicus)
    French | English (Google translated)
  2. Venomous” Bites from Non-Venomous Snakes: A Critical Analysis of Risk and Management of Colubrid” Snake Bites
  3. Basics of Snake Fangs on Andrew Durso’s unparalleled blog “Life is Short, but Snakes are Long”
  4. First reported case of thrombocytopenia from a Heterodon nasicus envenomation
  5. Venomous Reptiles and Their Toxins: Evolution, Pathophysiology and Biodiscovery
  6. Natural History of the Western Hog-nosed Snake (Heterodon nasicus) with Notes on Envenomation
  7. Effects of Duvernoy’s gland secretions from the eastern hognose snake, Heterodon platirhinos, on smooth muscle and neuromuscular junction
  8. Envenomation from the Bite of Heterodon nasicus (Serpentes: Colubridae)
  9. Venomous bites by nonvenomous snakes: an annotated bibliography of colubrid envenomation
  10. Induced bite from a hognose snake (German, with photos)

Solving Snakebite in Sub-Saharan Africa

For a long time now, South Asia — and India in particular — has been cited as the world’s epicenter of snakebite mortality and morbidity, but the region is not alone. The problem of snakebite in Africa is comparable in scale to that in India. And while reliable epidemiological data are hard to come by, the best estimates are that Africa may have as many as 30,000 snakebite deaths per year (with some estimates closer to 50,000), plus hundreds of thousands of permanent injuries and amputations. Both deaths and disabilities exact terrible economic and social costs.

So it was big news when Sanofi Pasteur ceased production of Fav-Afrique, probably the most important antivenom used in Sub-Saharan Africa, due to its being unprofitable to produce. News of the crisis grew more urgent when they later announced that supplies would soon run out. Africa became increasingly desperate for a solution to its snakebite problem.

Understanding the Problem, and Solving It

Without a doubt, the hardest part of solving the snakebite problem in Africa is the fact that it isn’t just one problem; it’s a collection of problems:

  • Antivenom is the definitive treatment for snake envenomation, but the areas with the worst snakebite problems have continual shortages.
  • When antivenom is not available, medical professionals may not be trained to use it. If snakebite victims do not expect antivenom to be available, they often won’t go to a hospital for treatment, but resort to traditional remedies, which fail to help or make things worse.
  • Where the right antivenom is available, it usually costs more than people can pay.
  • Making antivenom cost-effective means making a lot of it, and you can’t make a lot if nobody is buying it.

All of these problems interact with each other, so the real challenge is addressing all of them, all at the same time, which means:

  • Antivenom manufacturers have to made high-quality antivenom, against the right species, in huge quantities.
  • Someone needs to buy that antivenom and get it to hospitals where it’s needed.
  • Medical professionals need to be trained to use it.
  • Snakebite victims need to go to the hospital to get antivenom.

Addressing all of these problems in parallel appears intimidating, but it’s been done. Success stories in countries like Mexico and Burkina Faso have demonstrated that it’s possible.

La Société Africaine de Venimologie (the African Society of Venimology, “ASV”) is an association of African physicians and experts in related fields around the world, who specialize in the treatment of snakebite and train healthcare professionals throughout Africa to do the same. Last summer, Dr. Leslie Boyer and I began a project in cooperation with ASV to produce a series of videos to help them deliver training to doctors and nurses throughout the continent. We’re fortunate to be working with many of the most respected experts in the field, including Dr. Jean-Philippe Chippaux and Dr. Alejandro Alagón, whom many readers will know of in connection with their work related to venom, snakebite treatment and antivenom production.

The training modules will be available in French, Spanish and English, with versions subtitled in all three languages. They will cover general topics, like public health, sourcing and policy, as well as specific clinical topics like patient assessment, administering antivenom, symptomatic management, and post-hospital follow-up care. There will also be modules on the medically important snakes of Africa and the manufacturing of antivenom. We hope to release one module each month (maybe two, if we can work that quickly!), from now through this coming summer.

The modules will be distributed online (first on Vimeo, and then later on YouTube), and they will be available free to everyone in the world.

Preview: “Snakebite and Treatment in Sub-Saharan Africa”

Direct links to all languages

Other Links

Response to “Self-immunization with Snake Venom”

This post is a response by Dr. Sean Bush of East Carolina University’s Brody School of Medicine to the preceding article, Self-immunization with Snake Venom

Republished with permission.

July 4, 2016 – 7:30pm

Dear Ray,

Thank you for an intelligent summary of the state of the art of self-immunization with snake venom. Your insights apply to many snakebite interventions, from The Extractor to Fab antivenoms.

I concur that self-immunization has never been properly subjected to the Scientific Method. In short, the Scientific Method involves these steps: (1) Ask a question (2) Find out what is known (3) Develop a hypothesis (4) Test it (5) Analyze results (6) Draw conclusions – i.e., accept or reject hypothesis (7) Report your study (especially the methods. The methods must be reported in a way that the experiment can be reproduced by another scientist).

Many theories seem to make sense but when hypothesis tested, turn out wrong. For example, “The Extractor,” once recommended by the Wilderness Medical Society, was subjected to hypothesis testing. Two concomitant experiments concluded, “Snakebite suction devices don’t remove venom—they just suck.” [Bush SP. Annals of Emergency Medicine. 2004. 43(2): 187-188.]

Another long-term debate just got resolved through a properly done experiment in human subjects. Fab antivenom is efficacious for copperhead envenomation. [Gerardo CJ, et al. The efficacy of early fab antivenom versus placebo plus optional rescue therapy on recovery from copperhead snake envenomation (abstract). Toxicon. 2016. 117: 102.] I enrolled patients into this multi-center clinical trial. The most interesting thing about this study is that it was PLACEBO-CONTROLLED.

Here is another multi-center placebo-controlled trial involving a venomous animal: “Dart RC, Heard K, Bush SP, et al. A Phase III Clinical Trial of Analatro® [Antivenin Latrodectus (Black Widow) Equine Immune F(ab’)2] in Patients with Systemic Latrodectism (abstract)” to be presented at the North American Congress of Clinical Toxicology in September.

The gold standard in clinical science is the prospective, double blind, placebo-controlled Randomized Clinical Trial (RCT).

Why is the fact that these studies were placebo-controlled so interesting in the context of self-immunization with snake venom? It means a placebo-controlled study could be ethically done in a group of volunteers consenting to participate in an experiment on self-immunization.

There are a lot of things to consider…

For one thing, the aforementioned RCTs used venomous species with very low mortality rates. That’s likely how they got ethics approval. It also required the investigators use clinically important endpoints, such as pain scales or limb function at specific time intervals. So far, that’s all easy enough to do for self-immunization.

For another thing, there were clinically important questions to answer. Was antivenom effective for copperhead or black widow spider envenomation? This is important because antivenom has side effects and costs. On the other hand, envenomation can cause residual disability or refractory pain. Sometimes envenomation can cause death, but sometimes anaphylaxis to antivenom can, too.

Further, there is presently an epidemic of opiate/opioid (pain-killer) over-prescription and use in the US. If antivenom reduces the opiate requirement and chance of addiction, then that’s a good thing.

A gold standard experiment is not always necessary to change clinical practice. It only takes a few bad outcomes to kill a drug or first-aid intervention. Sometimes it only requires one case. For example, there was a case of fatal anaphylaxis to black widow spider antivenom in the early 1990’s. At that same time, the medical community knew of no fatal cases of black widow spider envenomation. Therefore, the majority of clinicians simply did not use antivenom for black widow spider envenomation. They felt the treatment was worse than the disease.

Some things seem so counter-intuitive that you shouldn’t even have to do the experiment, such as cutting and sucking, electric shock, cryotherapy… Yet all have been considered for treatment of snakebite.

Bryan Fry’s quote is great: “The plural of anecdote is anecdotes, not data.”

However, after enough anecdotal cases, you do obtain data. First you have a case series. Some of these get published in the peer-reviewed medical and scientific literature. It’s not the gold standard, nor does it utilize the scientific method (unless you are able to somehow compare to historical controls). If you see many anecdotal cases, let’s say dozens or hundreds, eventually you might do a retrospective analysis. Still retrospective studies are not the top tier of scientific rigor. However, retrospective studies can be helpful in developing a hypothesis for testing. Now we are getting closer to answering a question using the Scientific Method!

Even an anecdote is an observation. Case reports can change clinical practice (as above). The converse is also true: RCTs do not always change clinical practice. I am still shocked at what happened to Anavip. In the venomous world, business decisions and legal proceedings sometimes supersede the best medicine. [Bush SP, Ruha A-M, Seifert SA…et al…Boyer LV. Comparison of F(ab’)2 versus Fab antivenom for pit viper envenomation: A prospective, blinded, multicenter, randomized clinical trial. Clinical Toxicology. 2015. 53(1): 37-45. http://dx.doi.org/10.3109/15563650.2014.974263]

These are just some of the challenges anyone who wants to explore self-immunization with snake venom is up against. Keepers of hots generally do not trust physicians, and physicians generally do not trust keepers of hots. There are good reasons on both sides. I know because I am one of both: a physician keeper of hots.

I am also an established clinical scientist with a well-established publication record. Search PubMed for Bush SP if you want to get an idea.

If we are going to answer Ray Morgan’s questions, we are going to have to “science the shit out of it.” [The Martian] We are also going to have to medically manage the fuck out of it.

Let’s take a few steps through the Scientific method. Suppose we want to do an experiment involving self-immunization with snake venom (SISV). One must enter into an experiment with an open mind, as free from bias as possible. We will need ethics approval (e.g., via an Institutional Review Board). We need to get approval to use venom as an Investigational New Drug. We will need to select a venom. There should be good reasons for the venom we select. I believe a monovalent immunity is best to start with (i.e., a single species). We would want to use the simplest venom possible. We will need to come up with a research question to answer and a meaningful hypothesis. We need to sort out a sample size. There needs to be an experimental group and a control group. The groups should be similar at baseline. Anyone with a significant exposure to the venom chosen would have to be excluded, although there could be caveats to this. For example, someone bitten by a Viperidae may still be eligible to participate in a study that involves Elapidae. Or maybe someone bitten by a garter snake could still be included. We will need to define what “exposure” means. Does it mean natural or artificial injection of venom? Or could it mean snake handling? For the record, a dangerously venomous snake has never bitten me. We will try to be blind to which group is getting venom versus placebo. That may be hard to achieve if the venom causes an easily detectable difference at low doses. In that case, it will be a limitation. All scientific experiments have limitations. Nevertheless, we will conduct the experiment with as much rigor as possible. We will collect data meticulously, analyze it, and draw conclusions. We will want to publish in a peer-reviewed medical journal.

Some experiments are not possible. For example, for rare conditions it is hard to enroll enough subjects (i.e., insufficient sample size). That’s a challenge for coral snake studies. More on that later…

There is another challenge unique to snake envenomation that makes it hard to develop active immunity against. With certain vaccinations, take viral for instance, the immune system has a chance to respond while the virus replicates. It’s a relatively slow process. Envenomation, in contrast, can bolus a large venom load very quickly. There is no time for the immune system to “remember.” It has to be ready for a full load immediately. Essentially, the self-immunizer has to be constantly and fully immune to be ready for the big bite. This requires frequent boosters, possibly on the order of every 2 to 4 weeks.

Methods for immunizing animals to make antivenom are proprietary. SIers aren’t willing or able to share their methods. These are added challenges, but I believe I am getting a good idea how to do it. For example, I think it’s going to take about 6 months.

I welcome constructive suggestions. The only way I can find the holes in my theory is through the critique of others. When I find the holes, I can patch them or ditch the experiment (if convinced).

Now let’s take a few steps through the medicine of it. Naturally, we would want to monitor the experiment closely. All preparations for any worst-case scenario would need to be immediately at hand (including but not limited to): appropriate antivenom, epinephrine, airway and alternative airway equipment, diphenhydramine, a doctor, and nurse. Any emergency physician worth his or her board certification and any stethoscope-wielding nurse worth his or her RN can manage anaphylaxis if it happens right in front of them with all medications and equipment readily accessible.

The practice of medicine is part science, part art. Add in committees, administrators, insurance companies, attorneys, and you get the most bizarre “dance” imaginable. And then there are the patients… Many of you know how hard it is to be a patient with an exotic venomous bite. Physicians often have little clue how to help you. Should they trust the medical advice (even if it is spot-on) of a patient, who would keep an illegal hot?

What does a physician do in absence of evidence? What is known about the cross-protectivity of crotaline Fab antivenom against a Bothrops sp. envenomation? Precious little. The experiments have not been done. There are anecdotal cases. I have been involved in the treatment of a few. Recently I helped a toxicologist manage a Brazilian lancehead (Bothrops moojeni) envenomation with Crotalidae Polyvalent Immune Fab (ovine) in Illinois. I coauthored a case report involving management of a Brazilian lancehead envenomation in Nebraska. That was about the extent of my experience with that species. I had also served as expert witness in a legal case involving the unsuccessful treatment of an urutu envenomation with Fab antivenom in Ohio. As I reviewed that case, I began to wonder if that was a failure of efficacy or dosing. Years later, an urutu bite presented to my ER – you know, “Venom ER.” The real Venom ER. I treated that patient with the antivenom I had in my ER: CroFab. Meanwhile, I looked for more specific antivenom and was able to find none in a timely fashion, not even expired Antivenin (Crotalidae) Polyvalent. Even if I had found some, would I (should I) have used it? Anyway, I presented the case at Venom Week in Hawaii, and the abstract is published [Bush SP, Phan TH: Experience with Crotalidae Polyvalent Immune Fab (Ovine) for a non-North American Rattlesnake Envenomation. Presented at Venom Week, Honolulu HI, 2012. Toxicon 2012. 60, 224.] So now there are two bits of data. Can we draw any firm conclusions? No. However, if more cases occur, eventually we will have a series. Maybe a meta-analysis can be done and serve as the foundation for a study.

My biggest criticism of the most prominent self-immunizers (with few exceptions) is that they do not publish or even share their methods in a manner that is reproducible. That’s not science, and it’s not helping anyone but yourself (if even that). There are a lot of reasons SI could just appear to be effective. Some bites are dry. Rates vary by snake family and even species. (E.g., Australian elapids have a high dry bite rate whereas rattlesnakes have a low dry bite rate – less than 10 percent in my experience and studies). Also, in a clinically significant proportion of bites, only a minimal or moderate amount of venom is introduced. Who knows how many of those folks would do just fine with or without SI. Further, SIers often use captive specimens and apply the “bite” in an artificial way. They may press the snake’s fangs to their skin, and this may restrict the flow of venom in some way.

One would expect self-immunization to mitigate some effects of envenomation. Animals develop immunity to venom. Why wouldn’t humans? However, even modern crotaline fab antivenom doesn’t mitigate all effects of envenomation (e.g., myokymia). Perhaps this is because antibodies do not recognize certain components for some reason or the species is not used to develop the antivenom or theories, theories, ad nausea. I have wondered why crotaline fab antivenom is not as effective for C. helleri as it is for C. scutulatus and come up with some theories of my own. [Bush SP, et al: Crotalidae Polyvalent Immune Fab (Ovine) Antivenom is Efficacious for Envenomations by Southern Pacific Rattlesnakes (Crotalus helleri). Annals of Emergency Medicine. 2002; 40(6): 619-624.]

Occasionally science moves my leaps and bounds, but more often it moves in increments. I would not suggest start with a Bitis sp. It would be hard to obtain ethics approval to do a prospective, interventional experiment in human subjects in which the outcome measured is mortality or digit loss.

Ray also brings up a good question about “resistance” versus “immunity” and “self-inoculation” versus “self-immunization.” When we give antivenom to a patient with a snakebite, are we merely giving that patient resistance or are we giving passive immunity? Or something else, like tolerance? What is the proper term for it? I believe it is passive immunity. When self-immunizers use snake venom to build immunity, I believe they intend to develop active immunity. There are issues with that, which I will expand on shortly…

Certain animals have protease inhibitors, which give them a sort of resistance to venom. Are self-immunizers developing protease inhibitors? I doubt it.

Inoculation is a fine word, but so is immunization or vaccination. It might be appropriate to call it sub-clinical envenoming. I just threw the UK term in there to say it is partly a matter of semantics. It’s also partly a matter of what is really going on.

Whatever we call it (i.e., “self-whatever”), we might consider having a hot nurse administer the venom, toxin, immunogen, or whatever you want to call that. We could have an entire debate on semantics, but we want to do an experiment, right? By “hot nurse,” I am being “genderist” – I am talking about my wife (of course). She really is a nurse, and she really is hot. Some of you may prefer a hot nurse (male or female – whatever your preference). Sorry, no trans-gendered nurses though – only because they might find it hard to use a public bathroom in North Carolina. Isn’t politics embarrassing?

A little more medicine for Ray and others: if we choose an appropriate species, kidney injury can be avoided. We will give extra fluids to our subjects to be sure. Livers are surprisingly resilient, and few act directly on brain tissue (although secondary injury through bleeding or clotting or hypotension are very real risks). There are two sides to the “thinning” effect of venom on blood. More on that in just a bit…

Still more medicine: Aseptic technique could be used to reduce the risk of bacterial infection, and venom is bacteriostatic. Risk of viral transmission from a snakebite is not known to occur (e.g., you can’t get rabies from a snakebite). However, if you go a step further and start talking about transfusing the self-immunizer’s serum to others’ with snakebites, there are heaps of viruses to consider (HIV, hepatitis, and many, many more). Plus there are issues of blood compatibility. I’m not even going to go any further into that right now. This is where it starts to sound like quackery.

I was most surprised to learn from Ray that self-immunization with snake venom “…has not yet landed any in a grave…” Really? That’s interesting. Antivenom has. Legit snakebites have.

It is notable that no one in private labs self-immunizes. Is that because allergy is so common in this population? That would be a good reason. Or is it because self-immunization is considered quackery? Well, that could be sorted out through science. Allergy to venom or developing an allergy to venom through the process of self-immunization is a real risk. Allergy is a form of immune response. Anaphylaxis, or Type 1 hypersensitivity, is a like an immune response on steroids. Actually that’s a bad choice of words. Steroids are used to treat allergic reactions.

If you come to my ER with a snakebite, you will get rapid, well-rehearsed emergency response. Sadly, that is not true for all ERs, and even less so for an exotic bite. Not everyone goes to the trouble to learn, rehearse, stock, etc.

As for obtaining the venom for self-immunization, one does not have to extract the venom oneself. There are resources, like the National Natural Toxins Research Center, who can supply you with the venom of your choice.

I can imagine problems for which self-immunization is the best available solution or preferable to passive immunization with antivenom. For example, the only commercially available coral snake antivenom in the U.S. is no longer manufactured and is running out. No one has been able to replace it at the time of this writing. So what does the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) do? Extends the expiration date for over 10 years. What medicine would you want to take that is over 10 years expired? Would you even drink bottled water that was 10 years expired? Coral snake antivenoms are being developed, but snakebite medications slither slowly, at a snail’s (or more apropos, at a snake’s pace) through the FDA. I hearsay Coralmyn may not be effective for Micrurus fulvius because M. nigrocinctus was used. I don’t believe this has been experimentally tested, and I have offered to help test it. At least one other coral snake antivenom is in development, [https://www.clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT01337245?term=coral+snake&rank=1], but the investigators are not talking yet. I get the impression that enrollment is slow. That means this study will take a very long time to complete. Maybe I need to move to Florida to help with enrollment? Or maybe I should consider self-immunization. For curators of zoos who keep eastern coral snakes or for keepers of a “Native Snake Display,” who likes to show it at Venom Week V WITH A CORAL SNAKE, perhaps active immunity to eastern coral snake venom might be prudent. As it is, I can only say I have all vipers native to North Carolina in my display. I would like to say I have all venomous snakes of North Carolina in my display. It’s important to get antivenom administered before paralysis begins because of way the venom affects the synapse. What better way than to have continuous active immunity? Still there is a lot to work out in terms of experimental design, like how do you measure outcome? Pulmonary function studies? Historical fatality rates? Other ideas?

Here’s another idea. Compare self-immunizers with copperhead venom to “self-immunizers” with placebo. Increasing doses of venom would be used until the venom effects were intolerable in the control arm. There would, of course, be an antivenom rescue arm.

Still…why are we doing this? Consider the following. In the U.S. a course of antivenom costs a minimum of $15,000 (even for a copperhead bite, which has a survival rate with or without antivenom of 99.96 percent) and can easily exceed $100,000 for a rattlesnake bite. Just for the antivenom. Sometimes insurance doesn’t pay or only partially pays. We know antivenoms are safe and effective, but the cost is off the snake hook. These extreme costs drive people to go to extreme measures. I told one of my patients, who had a bill in excess of a quarter of a million dollars, “Just don’t pay it.” Couldn’t self-immunization, if properly done be much less costly? Many venoms are cheap. Just check the price list at NNTRC. Wouldn’t it be nice to circumnavigate Big Pharma, Big Money, et cetera?

There is substantial evidence that venom contains many pharmacologically beneficial properties to humans. For one thing, whole venom is used to make antivenom. Further, there are many pharmaceuticals originally derived from venom: ACE-inhibitors, used to lower blood pressure in patients with high blood pressure, was discovered in Bothrops jararaca. Eptifibatide (Integrilin), used to keep heart arteries open after a heart attack is stopped using balloon angioplasty, was discovered in Sistrurus miliarius (Pigmy rattlesnake). So a medicine derived from Pigmy rattlesnake venom prevents post-procedure heart attacks. This excites me because this is a snake native to North Carolina! How cool is that? I am 50 and take a baby aspirin a day because that’s what my doctor told me to do. Class I evidence supports it. What if I just use a little Pigmy rattlesnake venom each day? It’s a helluva lot more exciting than taking a baby aspirin. There are others, look on PubMed for Markland FS. If you are too lazy to do that, just look up this one article [http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16707922]. In short, this guy has been researching Contortrostatin (from copperhead venom) for its activity against breast and ovarian cancer.

Wouldn’t it be cool if a bunch of women self-immunized with copperhead venom were found to have a lower rate of cancer than the general population? Now I am dreaming…

Whatever has gone on before, published or not, has not resolved the debate. I agree with Ray that as it’s being done today, it makes no progress toward answering the questions it raises.

Let’s do the experiment and do it right!

I have a lot more thoughts on the topic, but right now I’d better get out and see some fireworks!

To be continued. Hopefully!


Sean P. Bush, MD, FACEP
Professor of Emergency Medicine, with Tenure
Department of Emergency Medicine
Brody School of Medicine
East Carolina University
3 ED 342
Vidant Medical Center
600 Moye Blvd
Greenville, NC 27834
Mailstop #625
(252) 917-9311 – mobile

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Self-immunization with Snake Venom

Few topics in venomous herpetology generate debate as contentious as that around self-immunization. The subject is so divisive and the opposing opinions hurled with such ferocity that it’s the only topic I specifically called out as having “worn out its welcome” in the posting guidelines for The Venom Interviews group on Facebook. (There’s an exception for peer-reviewed research published in credible journals, but I’m not sure that exception has ever been used.) This rule arose as a practical necessity in response to the certainty with which self-immunization discussions descend into loud, angry bar fights that monopolize the group for days at a time. I suppose it’s ironic to have written an article that’s off-limits for discussion in my own group.

I don’t expect this article will change the mind of anyone already invested in an opinion about self-immunization. But since there are a lot of people who are just hearing about it for the first time and are unsure what to believe amidst all the noise, I thought it might be helpful to try to examine the subject objectively, with as little prejudice as possible.

Here are the topics I’ll try to cover:

  • What is self-immunization?
  • Why is the debate so nasty?
  • Does it work?
  • Is there any application for it?
  • Has it produced new discoveries?

What is self-immunization?

In the context of this article, “self-immunization” (“SI” for short) is the practice of injecting snake venom in an attempt to cause one’s body to produce a titer of antibodies sufficient to at least partially mitigate the effects of envenomation by the chosen species.

Some of those who practice SI do so outside the public eye for practical reasons. Others see themselves as scientific pioneers, blazing new trails for science in the tradition of medical self-experimenters like Walter Reed,  Albert HofmannStubbins FfirthAugust BierMarie CurieBarry Marshall, Elizabeth Parrish, and, of course, Bill Haast. There’s also a small subset of practitioners for whom self-immunization is a public spectacle.

Medical self-experimentation has a fascinating and colorful history. Its track record is mixed, producing both important advancements and catastrophic failures, and it has always been contentious. The flaws in evidence collected by self-experimentation are nicely summarized in Wikipedia’s article on the subject:

“Self-experimentation has value in rapidly obtaining the first results. In some cases, such as with Forssmann’s experiments done in defiance of official permission, results may be obtained that would never otherwise have come to light. However, self-experiment lacks the statistical validity of a larger experiment. It is not possible to generalise from an experiment on a single person. For instance, a single successful blood transfusion does not indicate, as we now know from the work of Karl Landsteiner, that all such transfusions between any two random people will also be successful. Likewise, a single failure does not absolutely prove that a procedure is worthless. Psychological issues such as confirmation bias and the placebo effect are unavoidable in a single-person self-experiment where it is not possible to put scientific controls in place.”

Self-immunization differs from most other instances of medical self-experimentation in that it is not performed by medical professionals. At present, SI is performed, apparently exclusively, by people without formal education in medicine or immunology, and this is evident in some fundamental flaws in their approach — the absence of things like baseline measurements, controls, double-blind trials, etc. The seriousness of these flaws seems to be underestimated or ignored by practitioners, and there appears to be little clarity around how hypotheses are formed and tested, how data are collected and interpreted, and how conclusions are drawn. By any measure, it’s a stretch to characterize current SI practices as “citizen science.”

Why is the debate so… venomous?

Aside from the issues related to SI directly, the nature of the debate itself is fascinating. While many scientists and most herpers seem to have shallow reservoirs of diplomacy, SI is a uniquely potent catalyst for dooming virtually any discussion to vitriolic ad hominem attacks, straw man arguments, and general mayhem.

What is it about this particular topic that makes it seemingly impossible to discuss rationally? After years of observing people argue over SI, it’s often possible to see the triggers that send the discussion off the rails. Opponents of the practice mock its proponents the moment they display some egregious misunderstanding of the science they believe they’re doing. Proponents often invite this ridicule with credulous, uncritical acceptance of half-baked hypotheses until they are disproved — the exact opposite of evidence-based skepticism. Proponents respond with anecdotes, and they deride the opponents as purists, elitists and “haters” (for those still using tween vocabulary), who are impeding progress and stifling discoveries with their silly, uncompromising insistence on rigor.

Each side is openly suspicious the other’s motives. Opponents dismiss the proponents’ claims of “doing science” as a disingenuous cover for desperate, reckless bids to feed their egos with the amazement of admirers who don’t know any better. They are accused of trying to emulate Bill Haast, who had a medical necessity to protect himself 70 years ago, while that medical requirement isn’t the same today.

Meanwhile, proponents reflexively reject these criticisms, claiming that they are nothing but petty jealousy, that the naysayers are secretly bitter than they cannot exhibit such impressive feats of immunity. Skepticism is interpreted as attacks against the practitioner personally or against a personal hero (i.e., Haast). Inevitably, the argument deteriorates into explicit challenges to the opponents’ bravery, masculinity, or general badassery, and all hope for rational dialogue is lost. (Prediction: Responses to this article will follow the same trajectory.)

While the personalities involved and the scientific potential should be two distinct issues, from a practical standpoint, they are hard to separate. The discussion of SI is often overshadowed by the behavior of some (but certainly not all!) who practice it. It’s hard to be a credible public face of something that claims to be a scientific endeavor while, for example, conflating facts and opinions, being unclear what peer review means, misunderstanding what constitutes an experiment or observation, or — and I’m not kidding — challenging people to fights for disagreeing. (Since this article is about the practice and not the personalities involved, I’ve opted not to name names.)

Does it work?

Short answer: It depends.

Whether self-immunization works depends on how you define works. For any sufficiently specific definition of working, it should be possible to let data answer the question. Therein lies a central problem with SI today: As of the time of this writing, objective data on the subject are conspicuously thin, and this is especially remarkable given the extraordinary claims made in its absence. Not only are data lacking, but there’s not much to indicate that data-collection is getting any better.

However, it’s not necessary to abandon skepticism to concede that self-immunization appears to mitigate the effects of some at least some components of at least some venoms to a point where symptoms are reduced, perhaps even greatly reduced, possibly even to a degree that an otherwise potentially fatal bite is survived without antivenom. In the absence of real data, these are bold assertions, but they don’t conflict, in principle, with what’s known about immunochemistry: venom is introduced, B cells make antibodies against it, and those antibodies neutralize the toxins to which they’ve been raised.

Yes, it would be possible to fake the claimed results. For example, one could use venomoid snakes or snakes that were so unhealthy that their venom production was severely compromised. A more rigorous science observer might not be so generous, but I’ll take the risk of saying that I don’t think that outright deception like that is generally what’s happening.

Aside from the anecdotes of individual practitioners, belief in the potential protective capability of self-immunization is bolstered by various studies by the US military, including programs that tested immunization against the venom of Naja naja in humans (1963) and toxoids of Deinagkistrodon acutus, Bungarus multicinctus, Protobothrops mucrosquamatus, P. elegans and Trimeresurus stejnegeri in rabbits and mice (Yoshio Sawai, 1968), often cited as the “habu studies” along with its predecessors involving Protobothrops flavoviridis and Gloydius halys. (Taxons made current for clarity.) Each of these studies reported that immunization had some prophylactic value.

Not all venom toxins are created equal. Perhaps counter-intuitively, the simple toxicity (murine LD50) of a venom is almost certainly less important than what that venom does and how much of it there is. At least some neurotoxins seem to be mitigated by SI, and some toxins that affect blood coagulation might be as well. On the other hand, it seems highly improbable that even a high titer of antibodies would be a match for a massive dose of ferociously cytotoxic (tissue-destroying) venom from a large viperid like Bothrops or Bitis, which would completely overwhelm any antibodies in the tissue at the bite site.

At best, resistance is a better descriptor than immunity, and self-inoculation is a better use of the “SI” acronym than self-immunization.

So the interesting discussion is not so much around the century-old science of whether SI works, but rather whether there’s any legitimate application for it.

Is there any application for it?

Without dismissing it outright, the fact that hyper-immunity might be possible does not automatically make it the best option for protection against envenomation. Whether self-immunization is a good idea should be more a matter of data than opinion, but the dearth of data leaves opinions to fight for themselves.

Is it possible to construct hypothetical scenarios in which hyper-immunity might be useful? Are there situations in which the potential benefits outweigh the risks? Much of the difficulty in answering that question is that there is too little consensus on risks and too little high-quality data on the benefits.

The known risks are not trivial. They include the things we know venom can do, like cause kidney, liver and brain damage. How much damage can it do in tiny doses? Unknown.

There’s certainly the risk of miscalculating the dose, and this error has landed a handful of aspiring self-immunizers in the ER. As far as I am aware, it has not yet landed any in a grave, but that’s more a testament to their doctors’ heroics than to the safety or predictability of the practice.

There’s a risk of taking a more-severe-than-expected bite, overestimating one’s immunity, delaying treatment, and realizing too late how bad the bite was. Delays in treatment could easily lead to more complicated treatment, a longer recovery, and a higher probability of permanent injury, like loss of digits or worse.

There are other risks, like allergy, abscess, and bacterial or viral infection, and quantifying those risks is essentially impossible.

So is there any scenario where self-immunization is worth the risks, the pain, and the general unpleasantness of regular self-inoculation?

I know of several cases of venom-collection professionals who work with species for which there is no antivenom available, and in some of these cases, they work with species that can be extremely dangerous. The small handful of people who actually make a living extracting venom have, on average, about one accident every 30,000 to 50,000 extractions. In these cases, I could understand if these people reasoned that the potential benefit might outweigh the risk. However it is notable that none of those in the major private labs have chosen to self-immunize. All of the major private venom labs in the US — those with a statistical certainty of being bitten — opt for rapid antivenom rather than self-inoculation. Even in those instances where envenomation does happen, there is no clear evidence that the risk:benefit of SI is superior to rapid, well-rehearsed emergency response.

The situation Joe Slowinski faced on expedition in Myanmar is also cited as a possible application. Joe was surveying a remote area, days from medical care, when he was bitten by a small krait (Bungarus multicinctus). The team’s plan to equip themselves to manage such an accident fell apart on arrival in the country, and they decided to press on with the expedition regardless. Despite their heroic efforts, Joe’s team were not able to save his life, and he died the next day. Would self-immunization have saved him? There’s no way to answer that with any certainty. Some have cited Complete and Spontaneous Recovery from the Bite of a Blue Krait Snake (Bungarus Caeruleus) (1955) about Bill Haast’s survival of envenomation by a blue krait to suggest that it could have. But even if that were true, Slowinski’s situation was exceptional in every conceivable way, and it would be difficult to argue that self-immunization under his unique circumstances is a basis for more general application.

There are also cases where antivenom exists, but the person is allergic to it. Is self-immunization a solution in these cases? Again, that’s hard to say, but hospitals are equipped to manage anaphylaxis, and they are infinitely more rehearsed at doing that than they are at treating envenomation, especially exotic envenomation, deliberate or otherwise. It’s tough to make the case that self-immunization is the best way to manage these cases.

Each of these scenarios is highly unusual, and even for those cases, at the very least it would be reasonable to involve an immunologist with the training and expertise to direct and monitor the process.

So while there might be some theoretical application under some truly exceptional circumstances, in practice that’s not how SI is being used. More often than not, it’s being done to facilitate unnecessarily risky handling and demonstrate the ability to withstand intentional bites rather than protect against accidental ones.

There is a fatalistic — but patently wrong — saying among some amateur herp enthusiasts about being bitten that “it’s not a matter of if, but when.” This is simply false. There are well-established tools and techniques for safe, hands-off maintenance of venomous collections that reduce the risk of envenomation to nearly zero. There are plenty of examples of people who have worked with venomous snakes for 30 or 40 years (and more) without ever being bitten. There is no reason to consider accidents inevitable. They’re not. Therefore, SI as protection in the context of general husbandry is insurance against risk-taking that isn’t necessary to begin with. It is the herpetological equivalent of buying expensive, unnecessary insurance against your own drunk driving.

Dr. Bryan Fry summed it up nicely: “Indeed for most of the people self-immunising, a significant portion of their risk of envenomation comes when milking the snakes to obtain venom for self-immunisation. Circular logic at its finest.”

Ultimately, it’s hard to imagine any problem for which self-immunization is the best available solution or preferable to passive immunization with antivenom. The practice boils down to taking significant risks for benefits that are almost certainly unnecessary.

Are there other benefits?

Short answer: None have been demonstrated.

“The plural of anecdote is anecdotes, not data.”
— Dr. Bryan G. Fry

Beyond resistance to envenomation, SI discussions are riddled with wishful thinking and questionable claims about the supposed health effects of injecting venom. It’s easier to be unequivocal about these claims: There is no evidence whatsoever that the human body can somehow accept whole venom — a biocidal cocktail that evolved to kill things — and by some unknown mechanism, magically transform it for its own benefit. There is no support for the assertion that whole venom provides any health benefits whatsoever, either generally or as a treatment for any specific condition. (Immunotherapy with bee venom is beyond the scope of this article, but it’s a whole different process with different objectives.)

A popular response to this objection is something like, “But you can’t prove it doesn’t work!” Sorry, that’s not how evidence works. It’s actually the opposite of how evidence works. It is nonsensical to assert that venom might have <whatever> effect unless there’s some evidence that it actually does. This is critical-thinking 101: Absence of contradictory evidence is not evidence that all hypotheses are possible. It has not been proved that I cannot dead-lift 10x my own weight, but it’s not reasonable to assume that I might be able to do it just because ants can.

“But it did <whatever> for that guy!”

First of all, it probably didn’t do <whatever> for that guy. It’s more probable that <whatever> was a coincidence, a wrong observation, or an effect of some other cause that was wrongly attributed to venom. These stories don’t even make good anecdotes, let alone compelling evidence.

The fact that Bill Haast lived to be 100 years old (and reportedly was rarely ill) is frequently cited as anecdotal evidence that self-immunization could contribute to long life and all-around good health, but that’s a tenuous conclusion. Lots of people live to be 100, and none of them inject snake venom. The 2010 US Census reported more than 53,000 centenarians, and it’s probable that their longevity is attributable to well-understood factors like heredity, general health, weight, diet, activity and exercise, lifestyle, hygiene, stress, and community. The fact that one of these lucky, long-lived folks happened to inject himself with snake venom is not compelling evidence that the venom deserves the credit. This is confirmation bias. There are even occasional smokers who live to be 100, but nobody is in a hurry to credit tobacco for their longevity.

Still, there are adherents with unshakable belief that training (or “boosting!”) the immune system with venoms might have beneficial effects, despite the absence of any evidence to support this. Various other ideas — the notion that you can use venom to exercise the immune system like a muscle (a bad analogy), preserve youth, and boost your energy — have no scientific support whatsoever.

Has SI produced any new discoveries?

Short answer: No.

Long answer: Still no. The modern idea of using antibodies to deal with toxins and pathogens dates back well over a century, at least to the pioneering work of scientists like Edward Jenner (1749–1823), Albert Calmette (1863–1933), Vital Brazil (1865–1950), Clodomiro Picado Twight (1887-1944). While antivenoms have been improved and refined over the decades since they were conceived, the basic idea hasn’t changed: challenge an immune system with venom, allow it to produce antibodies, and then use them to treat someone poisoned with a venom those antibodies can deal with. Whether the antibodies are raised in a horse, a sheep, or a person, the basic idea is the same. SI today is doing little beyond re-creating immunologic effects that have been understood for over a century. It has not, thus far, contributed anything really new to the body of knowledge on the subject, and it appears unlikely to do so.

But could it? Possibly. Maybe. Who knows? SI raises some interesting questions. However, as it’s being done today, it makes no progress toward answering the questions it raises.

The Most Common Myths About Coral Snakes


Those of us who work with venomous snakes get a lot of questions about coral snakes, and we find ourselves correcting the same misunderstandings over and over again. The purpose of this post is to address some of the common myths about these colorful little snakes.

Executive Summary:

  • Coral snakes are front-fanged, not rear fanged.
  • Coral snakes do not have to chew to envenomate.
  • The “red-on-yellow” rhyme is not 100% reliable, especially outside the US.
  • Venom toxicity does not correlate very well with “dangerousness.”
  • Yes, antivenom for coral snakes is back in production.

New world coral snakes

Coral snakes are members of a large family of venomous snakes called Elapidae. This is the same family that snakes like cobras, mambas and sea snakes belong to. Members of this family are called elapids, and aside from sea snakes, coral snakes are the only elapids found in the Americas, where there are more than 60 species in three genera: Micrurus, Micruroides and Leptomicrurus.

The US has only three species of coral snakes: the eastern coral snake (Micrurus fulvius), the Texas coral snake (M. tener), and the Arizona coral snake (Micruroides euryxanthus).

Rear-fanged or front-fanged?

Short answer: Front.

A common misconception about coral snakes is that they are rear fanged, but they’re not. One of the things that coral snakes have in common with all the other elapids is that they are front-fanged snakes, just like cobras, kraits, mambas and taipans.

Micrurus fulvius skull

Eastern coral snake (Micrurus fulvius) skull

Elapids are different from vipers like rattlesnakes in that their fangs don’t fold back, so they have to be pretty small to fit inside their closed mouths. In fact, coral snakes’ fangs are so small that they’re actually a little hard to see.

A common assumption is that coral snakes have to chew on you to deliver venom, but that’s not true either. This idea may have originated from the fact that coral snakes bite and hold their prey, which for most species is other snakes. This holding and chewing behavior is common among almost all snakes that eat other snakes, but it probably has more to do with not letting their prey get away than it does with needing to chew to deliver venom.

So, while it’s pretty hard to get bitten by a coral snake, they can deliver a dangerous dose of venom with just a quick bite. And while they are small snakes with small mouths, they can bite pretty much anywhere; they don’t need to get you between the fingers as you’ll sometimes hear. Any exposed skin is all they need.


Short answer: You can’t always trust the “red-on-yellow” rhyme.

Quite possibly the most misunderstood thing about coral snakes is how to identify them, and particularly how to tell them apart from harmless snakes that look similar. There’s a popular rhyme that everyone seems to know that has for decades been a popular way of telling them apart: “red-on-yellow, kill a fellow” and “red-on-black, venom lack.” There are lots of variants of those rhymes floating around, and those might not be the exact ones you’ve heard, but all of the versions have the same idea: that coral snakes can be identified by red bands touching the yellow ones.

In some places, this can be helpful in telling coral snakes apart from species like scarlet snakes and scarlet king snakes and some milk snakes. But here’s the important thing to remember: While the rule might be helpful most of the time, it’s not 100% reliable. There are some important exceptions. For example, in the Southwestern US, there’s a little nonvenomous species called a shovel-nosed snake, which has red and yellow bands together.

Western Shovel-nosed Snake — Chionactis occipitalis

Sonoran Shovel-nosed Snake (Chionactis palarostris) — photo credit: Larry Jones

But that’s not the only exception. Coral snakes’ colors and patterns aren’t always typical. There are conditions like melanism — where the snake is mostly black — or albinism — where it’s lacking black pigment.

Texas coral snake (Micrurus tener; melanistic) — photo credit: Tyler Sladen

Texas coral snake (Micrurus tener; melanistic) — photo credit: Tyler Sladen

Texas coral snake (Micrurus tener; albino) — photo credit: Chris Harrison

Texas coral snake (Micrurus tener; albino) — photo credit: Chris Harrison

Texas coral snake (Micrurus tener; anerythristic) — photo credit: Matthew Morris

There can be regional variations. For example, the coral snakes in the Florida Keys have little or no yellow, which might lead someone to misidentify the snake if they were relying on the old rhymes.

Eastern coral snake (Micrurus fulvius; regional variant) — photo credit: Richard Bartlett

Eastern coral snake (Micrurus fulvius; south Florida variant) — photo credit: Richard Bartlett

And on top of all that, sometimes there are individual coral snakes whose pattern is just abnormal — or what’s called “aberrant” — and in these cases, the rules just don’t work at all.

Micrurus fulvius (photo credit: Dave Strasser)

Eastern coral snake (Micrurus fulvius; aberrant) — photo credit: Dave Strasser

Outside the US, things get much more complicated. Throughout Latin America, there are lots of nonvenomous snakes that look like what we think of as “typical” coral snakes, including a few that have red and yellow bands together. Some of these harmless mimics are very convincing. At the same time, there are a bunch of coral snakes that don’t have the “typical” pattern.

Micrurus mipartitus

Venomous: Red-tailed coral snake (Micrurus mipartitus), Central America — photo credit: Jörgen Fyhr

Neckband Snake (Scaphiodontophis annulatus), Costa Rica — photo credit: Kris Haas

Nonvenomous: Neckband snake (Scaphiodontophis venustissimus), Costa Rica — photo credit: Kris Haas

They may have no red at all, or no yellow at all, or they may have red and black bands together, or they may have patterns that are nothing like any of these! Here are (some of) the different coral snakes just from Brazil!

Coral Snakes of Brazil — credit: Marcus Buononato

Coral Snakes of Brazil — credit: Marcus Buononato

Confused? Don’t worry. There is one rule that always works, 100% of the time, and that’s this: If you’re not 150% positive about what a snake is, it’s best to just leave it alone.

Just don't touch the snake

Just don’t touch the snake

How dangerous are coral snakes?

Short answer: Not as scary as you think, but don’t be stupid.

I won’t tell you that coral snakes aren’t dangerous, because nearly all of them* have the potential to deliver serious — often life-threatening — envenomation. They’re not snakes you need to be messing with unnecessarily. However, they are not by any means snakes you need to be terrified of. Coral snakes bites in the US are rare (only around 100 per year, 70% of those in Florida), and unless you grab one or step on one with bare feet, your chance of ever being bitten by one is close to zero.

The US doesn’t have many snakebite fatalities. Out of roughly 6,000-8,000 venomous bites reported each year, less than one out of a thousand is fatal. (It may actually be closer to one out of every two thousand.) Of the bites from native species that are fatal, virtually all are from pitvipers, primarily rattlesnakes. I could find only two reports of fatal coral snake bites in the US since antivenom was introduced in 1967: one to a man in Florida in 2008 who did not seek treatment, and one to a five-year-old child in Texas in 1970.

So, how dangerous are coral snakes? The answer to that question is not simple, but the discussion is interesting. It is true that coral snakes’ venom is among the most toxic of all snakes in the US, when measured drop for drop. (Only tiger rattlesnakes and type-A mohave rattlesnakes have more toxic venom.) But drop-for-drop toxicity isn’t the whole picture, and in fact it’s probably not even the most important factor. While coral snakes’ venom is very toxic, they produce it in tiny quantities. An adult coral snake might deliver 10 or maybe 15 mg of venom, whereas an adult diamondback rattlesnake might deliver 300-400 mg or more.

To underscore the importance of volume, consider some examples:

  • A honey bee’s venom is in roughly the same range of toxicity as some rattlesnakes.
  • A yellow-jacket wasp’s venom is comparable in toxicity to a gaboon viper’s.
  • A harvester ant’s venom is three times as toxic as a black mamba’s.

In all of these cases, the insect’s sting is nowhere near as dangerous as the snake’s bite, and that is because the volume of venom they deliver is so small. So while coral snakes can potentially deliver a life-threatening bite, the chance of a properly-treated bite actually being fatal is almost nil.

When it comes to the complexity of treating venomous snakebite, the volume of venom is generally a bigger factor that its toxicity. Compared to most pitviper bites, coral snake bites are generally less complicated to treat, have better outcomes, and cause fewer long-term problems.

There is another factor that works in the favor of people bitten by coral snakes, and that is the fact that their venom tends to act relatively slowly. While a pitviper bite will usually begin to manifest symptoms (pain) immediately, bites from coral snakes may not become symptomatic for several hours — often four to six hours or more — after the bite. So while all venomous snakebites are medical emergencies that must be dealt with immediately, coral snake bite patients typically have plenty of time to reach medical care before things start getting really bad.

The situation with coral snake antivenom in the US

In 2008 Pfizer stopped production of the only FDA-approved coral snake antivenom in the US. All of their existing coral snake antivenom is now long past its original expiration date. However, the FDA has tested representative batches of the antivenom each year and extended its expiration another year. So, yes, the antivenom that’s out there still works. However, that supply is dwindling. Pfizer is in the process of re-starting manufacturing of the antivenom. Additionally, there is a new coral snake antivenom from the University of Arizona undergoing clinical trials at several hospitals in Florida. It is hoped that one or both of these antivenoms will be available again by the time the existing stock expires or is exhausted. (For more about this, see “Coral Snake Antivenom” in the bonus clips of The Venom Interviews.)

Update: In October, 2016, Pfizer announced that its coral snake antivenom (formerly Wyeth’s) was back in production and available to order. Clinical trials of the new antivenom are effectively on hold for now.

* Arizona coral snakes of the genus Micruroides are tiny snakes. There are no records of fatalities for that species or, as far as I’ve been able to find, even a very serious bite from one. That said, you don’t want to be the first one, so leave them alone too.

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Antivenom Should be Required for Private Keepers

(This article was originally published by Kristen Wiley of Kentucky Reptile Zoo and is reproduced here with permission.)

In light of recent events and conversations here on Facebook and elsewhere, Jim and I decided it was time to make a post about private individuals keeping venomous snakes. In general, neither of us have a problem with it — it is certainly possible for private keepers to do a great job and be safe and responsible — however we do have a big problem with the fact that most private keepers do not have their own antivenom. Please note that we are talking here about private keeping in the US — we are aware that in some other countries, especially some in Europe, the government actually does have foreign antivenom to treat private individuals. That is not the case in the US.

Antivenom is not a luxury. It is the necessary safety net that should be REQUIRED to keep venomous snakes, especially those not native to the place where they are being kept. It is not a mystical potion that is unobtainable by mere mortals. I am going to address several excuses why people say they can’t get it here.

1. It costs too much.

Wrong. It is not prohibitively expensive, and if the cost of it is prohibitive, guess what, you can’t afford to keep venomous snakes. Here are some real prices: Thai Red Cross neuro or hemato polyvalent — $60/ vial. Only keep Naja kaouthia and don’t need the polyvalent? The monovalents are $40/vial. South African Polyvalent: $315/vial. Costa Rican Polyvalent I haven’t bought in a while because we’ve had Bioclon, but maybe $100-150/vial these days. In general you need 10 vials to be safe. 20 for a king cobra. Maybe you will need more in a very bad bite, but if you have at least that you can at least get started, and that will be enough for the vast majority of bites. Between those three companies you can cover the vast vast majority of snakes kept in private hands. So the most expensive one is SAVP — that’s a little over $3000. I bet most people with serious collections have more than that in cages alone. Keep in mind that antivenom does not need to be replaced every year — all the ones I listed above have 3- to 5-year expiry dates, so that is not an annual expense.

2. I can’t get it.

Wrong. YOU CAN! The problem is it is a pain in the ass because you have to deal with the FDA, a government agency, and there are forms to fill out and it is intimidating. However, in my experience the FDA is not interested in making things hard for people trying to keep antivenom for emergency use, which is what this is. I have called them and gotten help when I needed it or had questions. You can too! I will be happy to send anyone who asks the pdf we have that gives some guidance on how to get your own antivenom. I know a couple of private keepers who have done this and now keep their own stock.

3. Even if I get it, the hospital won’t use it.

Nope. If you have an IND, the Dr. is obligated to use it. Sure they may be worried- I myself have had one who was very hesitant. But if you are keeping a bunch of exotic venomous snakes, you have to send a letter to the hospital and let them know what you have and that you have the antivenom legally. Give them some notice so you don’t seem like a Yahoo with a snake fetish when you show up. Develop a relationship if at all possible. You’ll have to have a sponsor anyway for the IND- you can use that physician as a contact to get in touch with the hospital ED folks. You also need a written protocol that can be handed to the ED when you arrive. Joe has some! If you expect expired antivenom to be used on you, you MUST also have a signed release stating you want it used on you. No doctor is going to risk his/her medical license by giving expired product.

4. I don’t need it because I will never get bit.

Yeah, but what if you do? There is a reason car insurance is required even if you are a very safe driver. Things happen. People make mistakes — even you. Idiots could distract you. Equipment could malfunction. I personally have had both a hook and a grabstick break during use. The hook breaking was interesting. Not in a good way. The point is everyone makes mistakes, and shit happens. Be prepared for it.

5. It’s my life. I’m not affecting anyone else if I get bit.

Unless you are a hermit with no living family or friends this is not true. If you die or are severely injured, who is going to take care of you during your rehab? Won’t your mother be sad? Do you support kids? Who is going to do that if you can’t work for a period of time? Also, if you use a zoo’s antivenom, YOU ARE AFFECTING THE PEOPLE AND ANIMALS AT THAT ZOO. I do not keep antivenom for you. I keep it for myself, my husband, and my hard-working employees. If any of us make a mistake (see above about everyone making mistakes) it is MY responsibility to make sure we are ok. When you use our antivenom, you are making us choose between working the animals without our safety net, or letting the animals languish because we really shouldn’t be working them without antivenom. Last year we provided some Echis antivenom to an idiot who was freehandling his Chlorechis. At that time we were working on an order of Echis venom. So should we put our business on hold so someone can play with their pet? Should the researcher have to wait a few months to conduct their research so someone can think they are ‘one’ with their venomous snake?

6. Venom One will take care of me!

This is only true if you are in Florida, preferably south of Tampa. Venom One does an admirable job, but they can’t get antivenom to you in Pennsylvania or Arizona or Ohio very quickly. Plus, if you are in one of those states, your tax dollars are not supporting them. I don’t want this to happen, but it seems to me that sooner or later the taxpayers in Miami-Dade county are going to realize their tax funds are going out of state or to people who are behaving dangerously on purpose, and the funding is going to go away. At the very first Venom Week, a quite prominent doctor was very adamant to Jim and I that he did not believe they could cover any place but south and maybe central FL. Antivenom should be administered in two hours to be its most effective. It takes that long to get admitted, have the ED call them, and for them to get on their way. If you are more than maybe an hour by helicopter, you are too far away to rely on them.

Keeping an animal that can kill you is a great responsibility. If you choose to keep without antivenom, know that in my opinion you are irresponsible, reckless, and have no respect for those of us who endeavor to do it properly. I don’t care how long you have been keeping or how knowledgeable you think you are, or how many people in the community support you. We as a group are looking at this wrong, we have developed a culture of recklessness and I for one am tired of it.

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