Special Report filed by AAF Correspondent: AnonymousAnimal Attack Files Special Report
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Animal Attack


More Info:

Paradise Lost

What to do and what not to do if a poisonous snake strikes.


Books Relating to this Report:
A Field Guide to Snakes of Florida

Rattlenakes: Portrait of a Predator

Venomous Reptiles of North America

Handbook of Clinical Toxicology of Animal Venoms and Poisons


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American Man-killers

Mountain Lion Alert

Great Books about
~Amphibians & Reptiles in 3-D

A Field Guide to Snakes of Florida

Rattlenakes: Portrait of a Predator

Venomous Reptiles of North America

Handbook of Clinical Toxicology of Animal Venoms and Poisons


Animal Underworld: Inside America's Black Market for Rare and Exotic Species

Every Creeping Thing: True Tales of Faintly Repulsive Wildlife

Death in Yellowstone

Wildlife (photography)

Jellies: The Story of Jellyfish

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    Deadly rattlesnake bites are rare

By Timothy O'Hara STAFF WRITER

Wednesday, September 20, 2000

FLORIDA - Rattlesnakes are one of the most feared reptiles slithering the planet, but people have a greater risk of dying from bee stings or a lightning strike.

About 8,000 people in the United States are bitten by snakes each year. Roughly 12 of those bites result in death, said Jennifer Houha, a reptile specialist for the American International Rattlesnake Museum in Albuquerque, N.M.

Most bites are what experts call "dry bites," in which no venom is released, she said. A majority of those bitten are people who handle rattlesnakes as an occupation or have snakes as pets.

These statistics make the death of a 2-year-old Lakewood Ranch boy this past weekend seem even more unusual. Derrick Lema died after being bitten Friday night by a 4-foot Eastern diamondback rattlesnake.

Yet, as rare as fatal snakebites are, the boy's death has worried residents of Manatee's rapidly growing eastern suburbs -- where houses and back yards are appearing in areas that just months ago were woods or farmlands.

"We walk at night and there are snakes all over the place," said Kathy Mylott, an eastern Manatee resident with children ages 7 and 9. "I don't let my kids play in the back yard."

County officials are wondering if encounters with deadly snakes in Manatee's eastern suburbs may become more frequent.

"We are forcing the snakes out of their natural habitats," Emergency Medical Services spokesman Larry Leinhauser said. "You will get more run-ins after it rains, because they are looking for higher ground."

Yet experts stress that most people are not in danger from rattlesnakes, if they take precautions.

Biting by a snake is a defensive reaction and should not be considered an act of aggression, Houha said. They strike when they feel they cannot escape. The snake's rattle is designed to warn larger animals or potential foes, experts say.

"They will try to get away from you at all costs," Houha said. "They are afraid of people."

Derrick Lema's father responded to his son's scream. No one saw the snake bite the boy, how close the 2-year-old may have been to it or whether he startled the snake. The boy may not have recognized the snake as a threat.

The Eastern diamondback is the largest species of rattlesnake. The largest on record was 8 feet long.

It can be identified by its dark brown or black colors in a diamond-shaped pattern, outlined by a row or cream-colored or yellow scales. It can venture into salt water and take refuge in holes, burrows and stumps.

Eastern diamondbacks have a large striking distance, about half the body length. Though their venom is not very toxic, they inflict deep puncture wounds and inject a large quantity of venom.

Run-ins with rattlers, water moccasins and other venomous snakes will increase with the continued growth in eastern Manatee County, Leinhauser said. Nesting areas and rocks for sunning have been replaced by tract homes and jungle gyms.

Mark Puhalovich, who lives near the River Club Golf Course off State Road 70 in eastern Manatee County, knows all too well about run-ins with rattlesnakes. He was hospitalized for two days after being bitten by an Eastern diamondback.

In September 1999, he was walking from his garage to his pool when he was struck by a rattlesnake in a mulch bed. He could not see the snake, which is known for being a master of camouflage.

"It felt like someone whacked me in the back of the leg with a 2-by-4. Then I felt a puncture and then an intense burning," he said.

He tried to smash the snake with a 5-gallon bucket filled with chlorine, but it slithered away. Within two hours, his leg swelled to three times its normal size. He had to wait more than four hours before getting the antivenin because doctors were unsure what kind of snake bit him. Doctors recommend that people kill snakes that have bit them and bring them in.

He required three weeks to recover from the bite, Puhalovich said.

Days later, two rattlesnakes that wandered onto the River Club Golf Course were killed.

However, snakebites are still rare. Manatee County averages less than five a year. Derrick Lema is the first person to die in the county from a snakebite in at least 17 years, Leinhauser said.

Biologists and snake experts warn people about killing snakes unnecessarily because snakes play an important role in the ecosystem. Rodents and the diseases they can carry are controlled to some extent by rattlesnakes and other reptiles, Houha said.

Leinhauser urged people to report venomous snakes to the county so the snakes can be moved. Leinhauser is one of about a half-dozen people who are certified by the state to remove snakes. The workload for Leinhauser and others varies. Sometimes, snake handlers are called out three times a week. Other times, they may go a month before receiving a call.

Experts believe that educating people about venomous snakes will help keep them from being senselessly killed. Leinhauser warns eastern county residents about being careful when picking up bags, old tires and boxes from their garages and storage units.

Lakewood Ranch's community services office will start passing out literature on snakes, alligators and other wildlife to new residents when they pick up their keys. The information was already available at the office but had not been distributed widely, said spokeswoman Lisa Rubinstein.

Rubinstein said she is contacting environmental agencies to get more information about snakes to pass on to Lakewood Ranch residents.

Paramedics do not carry antivenin, but nearly all hospitals in Manatee, Sarasota and Charlotte counties have the serum.

Manatee County residents can have snakes removed by calling the county switchboard at 748-4501.

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