Most zoos are known for their diverse collections of animals from many countries for education, conservation, and the WOW factor. Zoos maintain a diverse collection of reptiles and amphibians, which includes venomous snakes from around the world. A great deal of responsibility is inherently required when a facility houses highly venomous snakes in a public setting. You can imagine that the safety factor needs to be ramped up to prevent escapes and therefore potentially deadly venomous snake bites to members of the public, as well as zoo personnel charged with caring for these snakes. How do zoos maintain a high level of safety? Let’s look at a typical set up.
In order to receive venomous snakes and house them in enclosures, zoos must have all of the necessary permits and inspections from various agencies assuring the public that all safety -related processes are being met. Simply receiving venomous snakes from delivery requires super safe containers that have redundant containers within containers. Explicit labels to identify container contents and displaying caution colors to avoid accidental unauthorized opening is always present. After safely opening the container, snakes are transferred to enclosures in a quarantine area to prevent any possibility of contagious diseases spreading to the main collection. Once cleared from quarantine, snakes are moved to exhibit enclosures. It is worth noting that in order for a zoo to maintain a venomous snake collection safely, part of their planned safety protocol is to keep antivenin at the zoo for each venomous snake for which antivenin is produced. Antivenin is kept in a refrigerator at all times and is replaced before it expires. Having antivenin on hand speeds up the response time to treat a venomous snake bite. Training zoo personnel to work with venomous snakes requires a process of repeated training to respond to a bite. Usually involving the entire staff in a snake facility, this process involves activating an alarm that sounds throughout the building to identify where the snake bite has occurred, enabling a faster response to the bite victim. The bite victim typically would remove the species identification tag from the enclosure and secure it to his body in case he becomes unconscious and is not able to identify the snake species involved. First aid at the onset may depend on the snake species involved. For example, a cobra bite may need a moderately tight compression wrap on the bitten extremity to impede venom flow while the bitten person is transferred to a hospital. Additionally, antivenin for that species is also transferred with the zoo personnel to the hospital. Antivenin must be given only under the charge of an experienced doctor under controlled conditions.
Handling venomous snakes safely requires specially designed tools that are essentially extensions of our arms and hands. Snake handling requires safety training initially with non-venomous snakes for personnel new to snake handling. Training in the safe use of hooks and tongs and combinations of these tools goes hand in hand with the use of specially designed transfer containers used to temporarily house a snake while exhibit enclosures are maintained.
Advanced training for venomous and non-venomous snake handling also incorporates the use of transparent plastic tubes in which a snake is encouraged to enter but restrained in a way that traps the snake inside the tube, preventing the head (and thus, the fangs) from extending beyond the tube. Tubing a snake safely is useful, although risky, but necessary for such things as visual inspections for medical reasons, determination of sex, administration of medications, measurement of length, etc. Snake restraint can also be accomplished using a squeeze box which uses a mesh lid to compress the snake into soft foam. Again, this technique also can be risky, which is why focused safety training by experienced venomous snake handlers is important. Techniques of snake handling are typically performed in small, controlled spaces which eliminates the potential for escape. Other safety equipment used includes face shields or handheld transparent shields for use with spitting cobras. Again, another handling risk requiring careful safety training. The prevention of snake bites in a zoo setting certainly is possible, but requires personnel to be inherently focused on safety training protocols along with regular snake bite response training. Knowledge and understanding of each species’ behaviors and potential for bites is key to safe snake handling and recognizing when not handling venomous snakes is prudent.
Adaptation Environmental Team: Bryon, Joe, and Kelly