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by Whit Gibbons

September 1, 2013

A recent photograph I was sent for identification was an eastern diamondback rattlesnake. This brought to mind the story of my own most terrifying experience with the largest species of rattlesnake in the world. The terror started the moment I saw a spray of yellow venom moving toward my unbelieving eyes.

On a field trip to the Everglades, someone noticed the snake, almost seven feet long, emerging from a palmetto stand. Picking up a dangerously venomous snake involves risk, even for a herpetologist. Nonetheless, when I saw this imposing animal stretched out on the sand, I wanted to catch it, and did.

As we approached, the snake did not rattle but merely looked at us and slowly flicked its long, black tongue. Perhaps it was more curious than alarmed, wondering if we were uninformed about its eminence as America's most dangerous snake and its ability to deliver a lethal bite. Diamondbacks can deliver 10 times as much venom as a copperhead, and it is five times more potent.

For educational purposes I wanted the students to have firsthand experience with our largest venomous snake. But I reminded them that no one should pick up a venomous snake without good reason and without proper training.

Thinking I knew what I was doing, I wanted the students to get a close-up view of a live rattlesnake, to see the fangs, touch the rattles. Using a metal snake hook, I pinned the head firmly against the ground and grasped the snake around its neck behind the pair of enormous venom glands. Many U.S. snakebites occur after someone picks up the snake, so I was very careful when I lifted the giant off the ground, supporting its thick body on both forearms. Snakes make good teaching props, and no student had to be told to pay attention.

After letting the students see the yellow eyes with their black, elliptical pupils, I wanted to show them the enormous fangs. The hollow hypodermic syringes that deliver the venom were an inch long. When a rattlesnake closes its mouth, the hinged fangs fold neatly inside. But with mouth open, in striking position, the fangs extend outward from the front of the upper jaw. I used the snake stick to open the mouth and reveal the white fangs. Then I made a mistake. I relaxed my grip.

The snake jerked violently, whipping its entire body back and forth, and abruptly moved its head down, forcing the fangs onto the snake stick. Although startled, I managed to hold on to the twisting snake. But I was unprepared as venom erupted into the air, inches from my face. My eyes closed by reflex.

Feeling a wetness on my face and eyelids, I nearly panicked. Had I closed my eyes in time? Lurid thoughts of African spitting cobras that spray blinding venom toward the eyes of an attacker came to mind. Will rattlesnake venom cause the same problem? Is it the same as being bitten? I did not know but assumed the worst.

Standing with eyes closed, I waited for a stinging sensation while the snake continued to struggle. The now-constant buzz of the upset rattlesnake I was holding was interrupted by the occasional uneasy question from an awed audience. Was I all right? Had venom gotten in my eyes? Someone carefully wiped venom from around my eyes and off my face with a handkerchief.

Finally, I blinked, and could still see. No venom had touched my eyes. I set the snake on the ground and stepped away. It immediately drew itself into a coil and raised its head proudly, inviting me to try again. Then, still rattling, it slithered away into the palmetto stand. The yellow diamonds sparkled against the brown body. My purpose in picking up this marvelous animal had been to teach the students. As can happen in such situations, the teacher also learned a lesson, taught by the king of America's venomous snakes. I no longer pick them up by hand.

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