You’re hiking on a Koreshan trail when a sharp and splitting pain suddenly hits your calf. You glance down to see two puncture marks in your skin, with little drops of blood seeping from them, and that’s when you hear the chilling sound of a loud rattle that makes the hair on your arms stand straight up. You can’t see the snake, but as your heart begins to race and beads of sweat begin to form on your brow, you know you only have a matter of time before the symptoms of its venom start to show. A snake bite is something that few people have experienced, but Zack Marchietti, a zookeeper at the Naples Zoo whose specialty is snakes, says the snake bite isn’t all bad.
“I’ve been bitten by the snakes here tons of times. It hurts, but the hype is worse than the bite,” said Marchietti, as he carefully places Slice, an Eastern Diamondback rattlesnake back into his transport box after showing him at the “Snakes Alive!” show. “Luckily, I’ve never been bitten by a (poisonous) snake.”
The sound of the rattle on a two-foot long snake like Slice is enough to put fear in the heart of anyone who stumbles upon him, but one strike from his venomous fangs is enough to stop a heart. Thankfully, antivenin exists to help with snake bites, but where does it come from?
Surprisingly, Antivenin (commonly called antivenom) is created from the venom of snakes and is particular to each type of snake. In order to make it, a snake handler milks a healthy snake for its venom by pressing its fangs onto a covered vial which is then chilled to separate the excess water in the venom from the venom itself. Then it is injected (in small doses) into an animal like a horse, which creates the antibodies needed to create the antivenin.These antibodies, like the ones that help us fight the common cold, are then pulled from the horse and used to create antivenin.The process sounds easy enough, and with the wide variety of snakes in Florida alone, every facility, like the Naples Zoo, should have antivenin on hand.
Marchetti says it’s not that simple.
“We don’t have the antivenin here. Only the Miami Dade guys have it,” Marchetti says. “If we are ever bitten by a snake, we have to call in the ambulance and there is a process that we go through.” The process includes the transportation and administering of the antivenin, which, surprisingly, is in short supply despite the booming snake population.
In order to make one pint of antivenin, a venomous snake has to be milked over 1,000 times which can be both dangerous for handlers and costly. One snake bite takes several vials of antivenin to help your body fight the venom and according to the VIPER Institute at the University of Arizona, each vial can cost as much as $14,000 each.
“First of all, antivenin is not a magical cure all, be all. It is made of antibodies, like a vaccine,” Dr. Syed Hassad says. “The antibodies can’t cure you, but they can help prevent further damage from being done.” What’s more, antivenin doesn’t work against all types of venom which can affect different parts of your body. Venom from Slice, for example, would attack your nervous system which slows movement, whereas the venom from a Copperhead snake would damage the respiratory system which can stop your breathing. And interestingly enough, if you’re bitten by a Copperhead, you could survive without antivenin if you were surviving on a breathing machine.
The type of snake makes a huge difference on how the bite is treated, but what to do after a snake bite remains the same. Florida Gulf Coast University Biology professor, John Herman, says that with any kind of venomous snake bite, you want to limit how fast the venom spreads through your tissues. “If you apply a tourniquet or use suction (like trying to suck out the venom), then you will be damaging your tissues, making it easier for the venom to spread. The best thing to do is relax – easier said than done – and wait for medical attention.”