Melissa Kaplan's
Herp Care Collection
Last updated January 1, 2014

Giant Snake (and Lizard) Bites: Open Letter to Emergency Responders

Alternatives to killing the reptile when it won't let go.

©1996 Melissa Kaplan


I wrote and mailed this letter off to the local law enforcement, fire, animal regulation and humane societies in the aftermath of yet another news story about a case of a snake whose head was cut off because the individuals responding to the emergency call had no clue as to what to do. Needless to say, if the owners had a clue, they likely wouldn't have been bitten in the first place...

August 22, 1996

Dear Emergency Responder,

This morning's news again brought to light an incident where emergency responders inappropriately dealt with a snake bite situation by cutting off the snake's head with a hacksaw.

Snakes have recurved teeth. They cannot be pulled off or pried off. Hitting and punching them will not make them loosen their hold. Trying to wedge your fingers into the corners of their mouth (as one would to a cat or dog to get them to open) will only result in the responder getting pricked with the rearmost teeth. If anything, such actions will result in the snakes clenching their jaws yet more tightly while intensifying their hold on the person.

Cutting their heads off is senseless. Reptiles can be easily encouraged to release their bite by pouring a small amount of alcohol into their mouths. To ensure the safety of the snake, responder, and the person being bitten, the snake's head should be pointed downwards. This will ensure that the liquid does not spill into their open glottis (airway) and so get aspirated into their lung(s). If this were to happen, an immediate effect may be renewed panic or thrashing on the part of the snake; a late effect would be a respiratory infection.

Ideally, alcohol made for drinking (liquor) should be used rather than isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol. Rubbing alcohol is toxic. Vinegar has worked in some instances and can be tried first if no liquor is handy. It does not take much alcohol to effect the release. Generally speaking, the snake will noticeably pause in all movement for a few moments after the alcohol is poured onto the tissues inside the mouth (pouring it on the head or body does not work). It will then move to disengage its teeth (most snakes have two nested rows of teeth in the upper jaw) by working its jaws, retracting its head from the bite zone once it is free. If you don't have any form of liquid alcohol handy, try ammonia, either liquid or in the little ammonia-soaked pads wrapped packets for use when people feel faint.

To easily unwrap a snake from any person or object, you must start working from the tail end, unwrapping or uncoiling the body, working your way up towards the head. If you start at the head and try to work towards the tail, the snake will easily be able to resist. Even a large, strong python who is not thrilled with all the commotion and multiple hands on it can be unwound when you start from the tail.

Myths and atavistic fears to the contrary, most snakes are not dangerous, nasty or vicious. The majority of bites that happen in captivity happen because of something the owner has--or hasn't--done. Many people try to restrict their reptile's growth by restricting feeding. Many reported large python bites happen during feeding or are by snakes who are obviously underfed and ravenous. Note that the snake in this week's incident in San Diego involved a Burmese python previously owned by a man who was financially unable to care for it, sold to another man who was financially unable to provide for it. The only time I have ever been lunged at by an otherwise tame Burmese python is when it was hungry.

Compounding the San Diego situation is the fact that the man did not keep the snake in an enclosure or even in a secured room. Without a warm place to go to of its own, the snake sought out the warmest thing it could find - the couple's bed. The wife may have felt something in her sleep and brushed at it with her hand. The movement of something warm near its face may then have triggered a feeding reflex in the hungry and now warm snake, so it bit at the closest thing to it, in this case, her buttocks.

As far as I have been able to ascertain, most bites resulting in calls to emergency response agencies, whether animal control, paramedics or law enforcement agencies, are from or involve people who have no prior experience with snakes and who are not connected with any local herpetological societies. If the responding agency does not confiscate the snake, the owners should be referred to the local herpetological society or reptile veterinary specialists for education and training in proper husbandry and safety.

Further information on reptile care and related topics may be found at my website. Lists of herpetological societies and reptile veterinarians for several states, including California, may also be found at my website.

If you would be interested in giving your emergency responders some experience handling and manipulating a variety of large snakes and lizards, please contact me or your local herpetological society.

/s/ Melissa Kaplan

It is my hope that emergency responders reading this will print it out and pass it on to colleagues and other local agencies. I hope, too, that herpers will write their own letters to their local emergency response agencies or get their herpetological societies to do so.

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