Home | General Reptile & Amphibian Articles | Venomous Snakebites – My Experiences and Notes on Well-Known Victims

Venomous Snakebites – My Experiences and Notes on Well-Known Victims

Indian CobraTV personality Mark O’Shea’s recent King Cobra bite brought to mind the many experiences I’ve had as a snakebite responder for the Bronx Zoo.  Mr. O’Shea survived, but venomous snakes claim a surprising number of lives worldwide (4.5 million bites, possibly 100,000 deaths; please see article below).  Some bites, as you’ll see, occur in a most unlikely place –New York City!  As is fitting for my fair city, few were “routine” – guns, odd characters, suicides, and drug dealers all made appearances.

Zoos and Snakebite Emergencies

The Bronx Zoo cooperates with health authorities in the treatment of venomous snakebites.  Antivenin is typically stored at the zoo, not in hospitals.  A doctor called upon to treat a bite might not be able to identify the snake involved, and hence would be unable to administer the correct antivenin.  In the event of a bite, Bronx Zoo reptile keepers and other staff are summoned by zoo security, a hospital, or the NYPD. Usually, NYPD transports us to the hospital.

In years past, the Bronx Zoo reptile staff was trained to inject antivenin on site.  However, we now know that many people are allergic to antivenin, and the resulting anaphylactic shock can kill more quickly than many bites.

Today zookeepers learn emergency first aid, and if bitten would be taken to the hospital via police car.  Snakebite alarms are located near each appropriate cage. I once had venom enter my eye when an Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake struck the screen top of its enclosure. This is normally not a concern, as only Spitting Cobra venom affects eye tissue, but there were stitches in my eye due to a recent cornea transplant. Thinking this might allow venom into my bloodstream, I activated the emergency system. Putting myself in the NYPD’s capable hands, I arrived at Jacobi Hospital in record time.

Big Apple Snakebites

Late nights, men in their 20’s, and alcohol were involved in many of the bites I responded to while working at the Bronx Zoo. Yet several especially “bizarre” (being diplomatic here!) incidents lacked these common elements. For example, one young man decided to determine the sex of an illegally-captured Copperhead while driving – with his dog in the car!  Needless to say, he was bitten.

Vipera berus Fang
Another man, aged 45 or so, routinely carried snakes in his robe pocket, and was said to shower with a cobra!  He was bitten on 4-5 occasions, and several times arrived at the hospital via private chopper (he was wealthy with, some have suggested, a bit too much free time on his hands!). His closest brush with death came when he grabbed an electrified cattle fence during a rainstorm, after a Timber Rattlesnake bite.  Believing he could “de-nature” the venom, he instead succeeded in “de-naturing” his blood! The attending doctor commented that his blood was “not really blood anymore” – it lacked all clotting factors, and resembled that of someone struck by lightning.

I was sometimes called to Kennedy Airport to assist US F&W Service inspectors with imports.  On one occasion, an importer was bitten by an Indian Cobra and barely escaped with his life.  However, he then spent a chunk of that life in jail, as illegal weapons were found secreted below the snakes.

The two snake-related deaths that occurred during my tenure had unusual twists.  In one sad incident, a distraught young man committed suicide, apparently by inducing his “pet” rattlesnake to bite repeatedly. In the other, a suspected drug dealer was bitten by a small cobra that he was planning to use as a guardian of sorts. Believing the bite to be “minor”, he decided to “monitor it”. He passed away in his sleep that night.

A most interesting call came from the NYPD late one night. In the course of investigating the burglary of a food store in Flushing, they encountered 40 or so live, poorly-caged Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes; others were cooked and steeping in various liquids.

In the course of my career, I and/or my co-workers responded to 30-40 snakebite calls. I recall only one that involved a person being bitten while working outdoors. The culprit was a Massasauga or “Swamp Rattler” (Sistrurus catenatus), a rare species that I have yet to observe in the wild.

Venomous snakes may not legally be kept in private collections in NYC, but people can purchase them in nearby areas have no such laws.  Unfortunately, many do not realize that the process of getting antivenin to a victim can be quite lengthy, and even if one survives, permanent damage, including tissue and limb loss, may result.

Those at Greatest Risk

The overwhelming majorities of snakebite victims live in the rural tropical regions, and encounter snakes in the course of their daily activities.  Up to 1.5 million people are bitten in Sub-Saharan Africa alone, with over 7,000 deaths and 14,000 limb amputation resulting (only 10% receive antivenin).  Please see this article for further information.

The USA presents a very different picture. Here, pet owners and people disturbing wild snakes are the typical victims.  Bites to people working outdoors are not common – in 21 years of responding to snakebites in the Northeast, I dealt with but one such incident.

I know of two NYPD officers who were bitten by snakes while poking through rubble during investigations.  Fortunately, one involved a Kingsnake and the other, if it was delivered by a venomous species (the snake escaped) was a “dry bite”.  As often occurs, both victims were so nervous that several classic signs of envenomation appeared.  This reaction is not limited to those unfamiliar with snakes.  I’ve attended several bites that involved, shall we say, insecure young men with a misplaced sense of machismo – none held up the “tough guy act” after being bitten!

Zoo-based reptile keepers handle many snakes in the course of their careers (via snake hook – hands are for TV personalities!).  Bites occur, but are rare, all things considered.  However, working closely with dangerous animals is a risky business, and even the most retiring of creatures can surprise the most experienced of herpetologists…witness Steve Irwin’s tragic death while filming a stingray (possibly a Cowtail Ray, Pastinachus sephen) in 2006.

“Well-Known” Snakebites

Lachesis mutaOf course, not all bites occur under the unusual circumstances I’ve described.  Well respected biologists are not immune.  In fact, two snake species were not known to be venomous until they killed prominent herpetologists! (Please write in for details).  More recently (2001), noted herpetologist Joseph Slowinski was killed by a Multi-banded Krait (Bulgaris multicintus) while on field research in Myanmar in 2001.

The recent King Cobra bite to Mr. O’Shea occurred during a feeding accident at a UK zoo.  Mr. O’Shea, believing that the fangs had not broken his skin, continued his presentation until becoming dizzy (Marlin Perkins, of Wild Kingdom fame, actually took notes on the progression of his symptoms after being bitten by a Gaboon Viper at the St. Louis Zoo! Luckily, he was found, unconscious, by a keeper.  I’m in no position to criticize such an accomplished man, but….!). Mr. O’Shea is expected to make a full recovery.  I’ve dealt with captive and escaped King Cobras – they are in a class by themselves; please see A Close Call with a King Cobra for details.

Legendary snakeman Bill Haast was bitten hundreds of times, and routinely injected venom into his body in hopes of building up immunities.  His unique story is related here.



Further Reading

Worldwide Snakebite Statistics

Eastern Diamondback, World’s Largest Rattlesnake

Steve Irwin

Mark O’Shea Bitten by Cobra

Joseph Slowinski Snakebite Report

Indian Cobra image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Julie Anne Workman
Vipera berus Fang image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Piet Spaans


  1. avatar

    I am a venomous snake keeper and I was bitten by a Montivipera xanthina (Ottoman viper) yearling. The venom melted my thumb and caused internal bleeding all around my body. Thankfully I recovered with no permanent damage. Every venomous snake bite is a medical emergency and should be treated that way. Thanks for a great article.

    • avatar

      Hello Yasim,

      Thanks very much for relating your experience…glad all turned out well. It’s very important for folks to hear first-hand accounts, so your input is much appreciated.

      Best regards, Frank

  2. avatar

    Although not nearly as experienced with snakes, especially venomous species, I did have one harrowing experience as a boy (although at the time, I had no idea what I had gotten myself into). We routinely would catch garters, ratsnakes, watersnakes, and the like in Southern New Jersey where I grew up for fun. One morning, while in the garage, I saw a very small snake moving across the floor. I grabbed a bucket and shooed the little fellow into it to take a look. I had no idea what type of snake it was, so held on to him until the afternoon – I had an uncle that seemed to “know everything,” and hoped that when he arrived he could identify the animal.
    The whole identification process became much easier when he arrived. As we opened the bucket, we heard a very distinct rattling sound – and there was our little visitor, perfectly coiled in it’s defensive strike position, little rattler up and all. Of course, we both made the comment, “it’s too small to be dangerous.” Definitely the kind of ignorance that could lead to a serious bite! Luckily, we decided to keep our distance and release it before getting ourselves into any more trouble.
    I still had tons of fun backyard herping as a kid, but was definitely a bit wary from then on before shooing unknown animals into a bucket!

    • avatar

      Hi Jared,

      Great to hear from you, thanks. The Timber Rattler and Copperhead are the only 2 venomous species in NJ (of 23 in total) and both are still to be found there. Glad you kept your distance…there’s some evidence that, for some species, the venom toxicity of youngsters is more powerful, drop for drop, than adults (as they cannot inject as much). I’ve sometimes been thrown off by newborn rattlers as well, since their patterns vary and the rattle is a mere “button”.

      Keep up the good work at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum,

      Best, Frank

  3. avatar

    I work mostly amphibians, a lot of which are seriously toxic, but you have to go out of your way to be poisoned. I do, however, get to be all macho when doing presentations with them. “You see this newt I am holding? It can kill you”, the audience gets this frightened or alarmed look upon their faces, I pause for a second and continue, “but you have to try to eat it for that to happen”. I then go on to explain how amphibians use toxins/bright colors to defend themselves from predation.

    That being said I have on occasion had the opportunity to free-handle a few venomoids, but have yet to be bitten by any.

    I have been envenomated by some scorpions. They were mildly toxic, so no big deal. It was a fish that gave me my worst envenomation though. I was cleaning a tank in the aquarium store I used in work in some years ago. I had my hand in the tank and its occupants, strawberry catfish, went into a panic and one nailed me with one of its spines. The pain was excruciating and traveled up my finger and arm and into my chest. I was serious concerned at that point. I thought oh crap I am going to die at work, this sucks! Turns out another employee got tagged earlier in the week and survived. So, I didn’t even get to go home early. Bummer.

    • avatar

      Hi Kurt,

      Nice to hear from you, I hope all is well. Thanks for the post, helpful for my readers to have personal accounts.

      Fish can be quite dangerous, and, as you’ve seen, are often available in the pet trade. I’ve often seen Fossil Cats Heteropneustes fossilis offered for sale; in the wild, they have caused serious, perhaps fatal envenomotions. As with scorpions, we know little about the effects of the venom of many species. Allergic reactions are also a concern..I’ve had several reports of very serious events caused by scorpions that are generally believed to be harmless.

      Please be careful with venomous snakes proported to have been rendered harmless (“venomoids”), surgically or otherwise. I’ve dealt with 2 serious bites administered by such snakes, and always counsel against the practice.

      Best regards, Frank

  4. avatar

    I had a former boss get stung by a lionfish, Pterois volitans. The idiot used to clean the salt-water tanks by disturbing the substrate and getting all the sediment floating out. So picture a tank that is now cloudy and you can see much in it. He grabbed what he thought was a piece of coral, it wasn’t. They had no clue what to for him at the local hospital. I guess they had to contact the NE Aquarium for advice.
    After that incident, he never cleaned a tank like that again. LOL

    The two venomoids I handled were a copperhead and a king cobra.

    • avatar

      Good one! A co-worker of mine once grabbed a huge electric eel, thinking it was an anaconda, in the field – he also changed techniques after that…

      King Cobra – not me!

      Stay well, Frank

About Frank Indiviglio

Read other posts by

Being born with a deep interest in animals might seem unfortunate for a native Bronxite , but my family encouraged my interest and the menagerie that sprung from it. Jobs with pet stores and importers had me caring for a fantastic assortment of reptiles and amphibians. After a detour as a lawyer, I was hired as a Bronx Zoo animal keeper and was soon caring for gharials, goliath frogs, king cobras and everything in-between. Research has taken me in pursuit of anacondas, Orinoco crocodiles and other animals in locales ranging from Venezuela’s llanos to Tortuguero’s beaches. Now, after 20+ years with the Bronx Zoo, I am a consultant for several zoos and museums. I have spent time in Japan, and often exchange ideas with zoologists there. I have written books on salamanders, geckos and other “herps”, discussed reptile-keeping on television and presented papers at conferences. A Master’s Degree in biology has led to teaching opportunities. My work puts me in contact with thousands of hobbyists keeping an array of pets. Without fail, I have learned much from them and hope, dear readers, that you will be generous in sharing your thoughts on this blog and web site. For a complete biography of my experience click here.
Scroll To Top