Avoiding Animal Bites

Bites from a beloved herptilian pet, while relatively infrequent, are always a possibility, so retailers and pet owners alike need to know how to both avoid and treat animal bites.


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Whenever I sell a new pet to a family, be it snake, hamster or water turtle, I always offer these parting words of wisdom: “Assume that at some point you will get bitten.” If I sold puppies and kitties, I would say the same thing—and the consequences of one of their bites is generally both more painful and dangerous. This revelation sometimes startles people, but I have never lost a sale by saying it, and it frames the purchase in a way that acclimates the family to a worst-case scenario, one that probably will not happen.

That said, and in a store in which dozens of reptiles are being held by the general public on a daily basis, bites rarely ever occur. The reasons are two-fold: my staff is well trained on how to handle herp-human interactions, and most of our wards are loathe to bite a person.

Here are some basic principles in introducing reptiles to the uninitiated: 


a) Choose the right animal. If someone asks to hold a Nile monitor or yellow rat snake or red eared slider, my answer is a polite but firm, “No.” These are all animals that are nervous and defensive, and very likely biters. I gently persuade the customers toward a less volatile choice. Just yesterday I had a very nice woman ask to buy a Tokay gecko for her son. “Gee, don’t you like your kid?” I asked. She looked perplexed. “But my boy loves geckos!” We soon determined that her son loves leopard geckos, a very different kettle of fish.

b) Give the customer some basics on handling. For instance, with snakes, I always convey that a good snake handler uses one hand to support and make the snake comfortable, while using the other to corral the snake and control where it is headed. I also mention to let the snake hold the person rather than vice versa. Never grab or squeeze a snake. With small lizards, I recommend gently but firmly cradling the lizard in one’s hand. With larger specimens, I show how, by putting one hand under the chest and neck area, and the other around the pelvis, one can easily support and control the animal. And always remember to let people know not to grab a lizard by the (often easily removable) tail.

c) Never let any animal go face-to-face with a customer—or yourself, for that matter. In the event of a random bite, the eyes are about the only place serious damage can be done. 

d) Never leave a customer holding an animal unattended. I have seen that situation devolve in any number of scary directions, including passing the animal on to other people unprepared for the experience, and worse. 

Truth be told, lizard and snake bites are very different experiences. Firstly, snakes bite for one of several reasons: they are either afraid or in pain (a quick bite-and-release), or they have mistaken a person for food, in which case they might bite and hang on, even proceeding to wrap and constrict. Few snakes have particularly strong jaws, and thus the bite itself is typically more surprising than painful. Snakes’ teeth curve back, so if one bites and hangs on, the jaws need to be pushed slightly forward so as to release the bite. Done correctly, the worst one will experience is a row of pinpricks, perhaps accompanied by some bruising if the snake is large. Pulling the snake backwards from the bite will tend to flay a person’s skin, with much more serious results. The good news here is that snakes have very clean mouths, and their bites almost never infect. 

Lizards, on the other hand, have relatively filthy mouths, and even a minor bite from a small lizard should be treated prophylactically with a topical antibiotic. Their teeth tend to be duller and their jaws stronger—a consequence of their tendency to crush prey in their jaws—resulting in a dirtier and more painful bite. The good news here is that neither snakes’ nor lizards’ bites are anywhere near as bad as bites from humans.

In my 30-plus years of doing live performances with snakes—I would estimate that would be something on the order of 6,000 shows—I have had exactly three bite incidents. Two were corn snakes and one was a boa. Here’s one of the most important points I can make: in all three incidents, I was able to talk both the kids and parents down from being upset to considering the bite as a sort of badge of honor within just a few minutes. Should a bite occur, be prepared to both physically (a first-aid kit should always be handy) and psychologically deal with the problem. You cannot convince somebody to not be hysterical if, in fact, you are hysterical. Act swiftly, act calmly, and take control of the situation. 

One side note here: as well as a first-aid kit, one other supply should always be on hand, particularly if you are dealing with large and/or tenacious reptiles. That would be a bottle of alcohol—I prefer rum, but that’s just me. Nothing convinces a reptile to let go better than a splash in the mouth.

We know that the bite itself is almost always without real significance, but the incident may be a different story. Here is an example of how that can be. One day a few years ago when I was out of the store, a Ball python bit a little boy on the cheek. If you know anything about Ball pythons, you will know how incredibly unlikely and surprising this occurrence would be. As I was not there, my manager handled the situation and thought he had it under control. 

As it turns out, the family, who had left the store smiling and in seemingly comfortable shape, opted to take their son to an emergency room. They also filed a claim with our insurance company, which paid out on it without ever consulting with us. In 30 years of carrying the same policy with the same company, this was only the second claim that had ever been filed against us (the first did not relate to animals in any way). But because of the nature of the claim, our company refused to renew our policy. The consequences of buying a new policy with a different company had the effect of raising our rates by nearly a third. This has been an onerous price for us to pay, all based on the unwarranted fears of an uneducated insurer.

I am relating this story neither to scare you nor to grouse about our fate, but simply to impart to you the importance of doing things the right way. 

I’ve been bitten a lot, primarily because, like most serious reptile keepers, I have become inured to the bites, most of which rate in seriousness way behind paper cuts. People often ask me what is the most painful bite I have ever suffered. I have been bitten by 14-feet long pythons, large monitors, any number of small snakes and lizards, and even a tortoise. If I were to rate the bites I have received in order of pain, number four would be the bite of a 12-foot python who was intent on eating what he hoped was a rabbit but was in fact my hand. Number three was a Tokay gecko who grabbed me by the skin above my knuckle and refused to let go. Number two, also a knuckle bite, was from a large rat. Number one on our hit parade, kids, was an easy one to dance to. In fact, I was dancing around the store yelping and crying for about 15 minutes. It was a pinch, actually, on the flap of skin between my index and middle fingers. From a small hermit crab. Weird world. 


Owen Maercks has enjoyed being immersed in the world of professional herpetoculture for nearly 30 years. His store, the East Bay Vivarium in Berkeley, Calif., is one of the oldest and largest herptile specialty stores in the U.S.

 

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