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Toxblog bloghoved

How not to handle dangerous snakes

My passion for venomous animals? ‘It’s complicated’. At times, my fascination can override my most primal instincts, such as avoiding messing with a lethal snake. I am a passionate toxinologist, but my journey to where I am now has (in retrospect) been riddled with poor judgement and bad decisions. Yet, somehow, my arguably Klods Hans inspired approach brought me here to Denmark… So, I must have done something right after all.

In any case: ‘what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger’, and I have been close to getting killed on numerous occasions! So, with these adventures in my backpack, I will share my experiences with snakes and share some first-hand advice on how to avoid dying of snakebite, while introducing myself as the new writer for Toxblog.

Illustration: Timothy Jenkins & Chris Eijsbouts

The new face of ToxBlog. Travelling through California after an antibody conference (left). Enjoying the summer holidays in the South of France and jumping into the Mediterranean Sea wearing the Tropical Pharmacology Lab towel (right).

Unlike the previous writer for Toxblog, I am not Denmark’s Coolest Engineer and, as was correctly pointed out in the previous blog post, I am no engineer at all. However, I do work on developing new kinds of antivenoms against a wide range of toxic animals. My passion for snakes and my interactions with them date back to right after I spawned (was born). My parents, in a desperate attempt to get some much needed and deserved respite from my constant yearning for attention, bought me a large green IKEA snake that was a cross between a python and a cobra. It didn’t really solve the original problem (I still was a little terror), but it did have a life-changing effect on me. It ignited my love for snakes and my perpetual desire to know all there is to know about them.

Illustration: Nicole Jenkins (left) & Cairns Tropical Zoo (right)

My love for snakes. Four-year-old me in Indonesia holding a Burmese python (left) and me holding a black-headed python in Australia 15 years later.

This early snake passion of mine was constantly fuelled, thanks to my travel crazy parents. I was fortunate enough to see a wide variety of snakes in their natural habitats and zoos around the world. One of my favourite childhood memories is the first time I got to hold a snake. I still remember feeling the power and grace that these amazing creatures possess. The beauty of being a child is that everything is magical and, as long as the parents’ phobias do not interfere, the intrinsic fear of snakes that everyone is supposedly born with is entirely absent in children.

However, until my second visit to Australia at the tender age of 11, I loved all snakes equally, irrespective of the danger they posed. On September 1st 2004, I saw my first venomous snake in the wild. It was a red-bellied black snake and not just any red-bellied black snake – no – it was THE most awesomenest, super-fantastical specimen ever observed by anyone (at least that is what I believed at the time). So obviously, it made a good impression on a young toxinologist in the making.

The red-bellied black snake is, like all venomous snakes in Australia, an elapid. Just like cobras and mambas, it has a predominantly neurotoxic (nerve attacking) and myolytic (muscle destroying) venom cocktail at its disposal.

Nevertheless, all I could think about was how beautiful and peaceful this snake looked. Thus, despite my parents’ warning, I tried to get as close as possible to observe, photograph, and film this gorgeous reptile.

Luckily for me, this species is known to be very placid and calm, and deaths are rarely reported (the latter might also have to do with people dying before they get into hospital, but let’s move past that).

What I wasn’t thinking about at the time was what would happen, if I happened to stumble across the one red-bellied black snake that wasn’t relaxed and nonchalant. What if it was having a bad day? What if it had trouble at home with its snake girlfriend (or boyfriend!)? What if the mouse it tried to catch last night escaped…? Well things wouldn’t have been too great for me, if it decided to give me a love bite.

If I had been bitten, what was likely going to happen is that initially I would have seen swelling at the bite site, ulcers forming, and would have felt significant pain (surprise, surprise…). Furthermore, some of its toxins would have prevented my blood from clotting, which would potentially cause bleeding. Other toxins would have started to aggressively destroy muscles around the bite site. All in all, not super nice aka. ‘træls’ in certain parts of the Danish Queendom.

Luckily, Australia is one of the best places to be bitten by a venomous snake, since they have some of the best antivenoms in the world and most of the toxic effects are reversible. So, as long as I would have gotten to a hospital within a few hours and received antivenom, I would have been able to leave the hospital after a few days without any major long-term effects (except perhaps for the long-term effect of my parents not allowing me to get close to snakes ever again).

I am still rather happy, though, that my red-bellied black snake fell into the ‘placid and calm’ category, and that the described scenario is entirely hypothetical. A slight scare might have been beneficial in the context of my future decision making.

However, I did not get scared (or scarred) for life, and I could bask in the joy of observing my first venomous snake in the wild. It was at this moment that I began to have a particular fascination for venomous snakes.

Illustration: Timothy Jenkins

My first wild venomous snake. Picture of the first venomous snake I ever saw in the wild, a red-bellied black snake (top), a video of that encounter and where I am asking my parents to warn me if the snake is getting too close and then telling them I actually don’t care (bottom left).

Over the following years, my passion for snakes only grew, and I managed to save up enough money to fulfil my life-long dream of studying Zoology in Australia. I moved to Cairns in Far North Queensland, an area with the slogan ‘Where the rainforest meets the reef’, and started my degree at James Cook University. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t take me long to meet other lunatics like myself with a particular fascination for venomous animals, and soon enough I was introduced to snake handling ‘Aussie-style’. That usually involved finding a snake (the campus was in the middle of a rainforest, so this normally was not too challenging) and relocating it for the safety of our fellow students. In reality, the snakes would come back the next day, and it was just an excuse for us to handle snakes.

Illustration: Timothy Jenkins (left) & vaun0815 on Unsplash

Cairns: Tropical paradise and home to James Cook University. View from Palm Cove over the rainforest covered hillside and the tropical ocean (left). Misty rainforests close to the university (right).

So, the true beauty/stupidity in Aussie-style snake handling is that ‘less is more’ (Andreas would probably say: ‘just don’t handle it at all’… but we all know how old he has become…). And the ‘less’ does not refer to the gorgeous reptiles, but rather the equipment used in their handling.

Let me elaborate: Firstly, any sane person would not even think about picking up a wild snake. They are unpredictable. You might have misidentified it. And instead of a relatively harmless rat snake, you are handling a lethal brown snake. Secondly, if you do decide to interact with a wild snake, you should make your life as easy as possible and minimise all danger. One of the best ways of doing this is by using a snake hook or some sort of utensil that allows you to handle the snake far away from your limbs. However, this is frowned upon in Aussie-style handling. Thirdly, solid footwear, such as hiking boots that are hard for the snake to bite through if things go wrong, are an obvious choice. The Australian alternative to safety footwear are flip-flops, or thongs as they are called Down Under.

Aussie-style snake handling. A video of a friend of mine trying to relocate a specimen of the same species that we found on campus many years later (bottom right). The latter is a great example of all the things not to do: 1) Don’t touch a venomous snake in the wild, 2) if you have to, use a snake hook or other utensil to ensure you can keep a safe distance, 3) wear shoes.

I can’t blame the Aussies for my own stupidity. I am responsible for my decisions and made my own mistakes. Hence, it is very surprising that nearly no major accidents happened, a good friend of mine being an unfortunate exception…

Illustration: The Andaman Nicobar Environment Team (left) & Finn Spæren (right)

How (not) to handle snakes. Me handling an Andaman pit viper wearing Australian safety footwear, i.e. flip-flops (left). Handling an eyelash pit viper in Costa Rica a few years later. Although not visible in the photo, I have learned my lesson, and I am wearing hiking shoes.

My friend and I worked at the local Zoo in Cairns to support our studies. We were responsible for many of the evening events there. We would guide people through the Zoo at night and show them our nocturnal animals and tell them about how awesome they are, and what they could do to help them in the wild. As part of the preparation each night, we walked through the premises to make sure everything was in order, and that the paths were safe, since the Zoo was also bordering the rainforest, and we frequently found all kinds of wild animals. One night, my friend found a 2.5 m Amethystine python (the largest species of snake in Australia) on the path and decided to grab it by its tail, pick it up, and carry it back into the forest. Regrettably for my friend, the snake disagreed with his decision-making and bit him on the arm. Whilst pythons are not venomous, they are very powerful and have a mouth full of razor-sharp teeth. To make matters worse, their mouths are full of bacteria (just like any other animal or human who doesn’t brush regularly… Husk lige tandbørsten by the way!). Long story short, he needed to go to the hospital three times in three weeks, because the wound kept getting infected and could not heal properly. This experience taught me and should teach everyone a valuable lesson: Non-venomous does not necessarily mean non-dangerous.

Illustration: John Hill on Wikimedia

The largest species of snake in Australia, the Amethystine python. Amethystine python visiting kitchen at home near Cooktown, Queensland, Australia, 2014. A similar snake bit my friend while he was working at the Cairns Tropical Zoo.

You might think at this point that I was as smart as the previous ToxBlog writer, who almost never got bitten by any venomous animal (at least not snakes). However, I have also had my fair share of venom by being bitten by no less than a snake and a spider, and even being stung by a bunch of scorpions during my time in Australia. But those stories will have to wait for a different time!

With this, I end my first ToxBlog post, and hope that it will give you a bit of spice in regard to what you can read about in future blog posts, now that Andreas has made his great escape. My plan for the next blog posts involve a wide range of topics, in which I plan to introduce some creatures that have never featured on ToxBlog before, discuss some of the differences between venomous and poisonous animals, and share more stories of my own encounters with some of these beauties. We will cover past adventures in Australia, India, and Costa Rica, as well as many others to come and, at some stage, I might even mention what exactly I am doing together with Andreas…

(Hint: It is not surfing with dolphins)

Timothy Jenkins holds a PhD in biomedicine and is an aspiring biotech entrepreneur. He recently completed his doctoral studies at the University of Cambridge, where he was awarded the ABCAM award for top PhD candidate at his department. Now, Tim is working as a postdoctoral fellow at the Technical University of Denmark with biotechnology-based antidotes to snake bites. Timothy Jenkins har en ph.d. i biomedicine og er biotek-entreprenør in spe. Han er uddannet ved University of Cambridge, hvor han modtog ABCAM-prisen for bedste ph.d.-kandidat i sin afdeling. Nu arbejder Tim som postdoc fellow på DTU med biotek-baserede modgifte mod slangebid.
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