Deadly snake bites museum handler

Associated Press, 12/29/97 16:52

NEW YORK (AP) - He meant to give the viper some water.

It took some blood instead.

A handler at the Long Island Reptile Expo & Museum was hospitalized in stable condition Monday after being bitten by a 4-foot West African Gaboon viper.

The snake, which boasts two-inch fangs loaded with venom that can eat human muscles down to the bone, attacked Robert McDonald, 24, of Bethpage, as he changed the snake's water on Sunday.

``There is no explanation,'' said museum general manager Richard Nuzzi on why the viper decided to strike. ``It could have been leftover scent from the rodents he had been fed.''

McDonald's arm and hand swelled enormously as the venom spread. He was treated at Jacobi Medical Center with a serum known as ``antivenin'' oxygen, pain killers and antibiotics, and doctors operated on the hand to reduce pressure on the arteries and nerves, said Dr. Daniel Forsberg of Jacobi's department of plastic and reconstructive surgery.

It's too early to tell whether McDonald will lose his right arm, said Nina Johnson, a spokeswoman for the Bronx hospital.

The Gaboon viper, whose brightly colored hide resembles an Oriental carpet, is one of the deadliest of venomous reptiles, said Dr. John Behler, a herpetologist at the Bronx Zoo.

The viper's bite is especially dangerous because its fangs are long, and they can rotate 90 degrees, ensuring a deep injection of venom. The venom attacks blood and muscle tissue as well as the nervous system.

The reptile museum, in Hicksville, Long Island, houses more than 3,000 live exotic reptiles and amphibians.

McDonald, an employee there for about two years, should have removed the snake from its exhibit case before reaching in for the water dish, Nuzzi said.

Nuzzi, without elaborating, said the museum properly trains its staff to handle all animals including some two dozen poisonous varieties.

He said the Gaboon viper will remain in its exhibit.

Officer Bill Bendel, a spokesman for the Nassau County Police, said the museum has proper permits for all its reptiles. Poisonous reptiles are banned as pets under New York law,

One of the last known cases involving a Gaboon viper bite was in 1983, when a 16-year-old nearly died after being attacked by two Gaboon snakes that he tried to pilfer from the National Zoo in Washington.

``Snakes usually have to be mishandled or provoked to attack a human,'' said Joe Grieco, president of the New York Herpetological Society.

Jacobi hospital, in collaboration with the nearby Bronx Zoo, has been the region's snake bite treatment center since the early 1980s. It has treated about half a dozen reptile bites this year, some involving people who keep dangerous snakes as pets.

© Copyright 1997 Globe Newspaper Company

Return to Table of Contents