Cobra–bite victim saved by Philly Zoo staffers

America's first zoo

January 27, 2010 2:47:59 PM PST
A Baltimore area woman, bitten on the hand by a cobra in a Baltimore parking lot Sunday night, is alive today following quick work by a bi-state team of emergency responders that included poison control, police, doctors at Johns Hopkins, and staff at the Philadelphia Zoo.The woman, who declines to reveal her identity, but told authorities she is not the snake's owner, may owe her life to the team, including Jason Bell, Philadelphia Zoo Assistant Curator of Reptiles and Amphibians, who was in his suburban Philadelphia home Sunday night when he received an urgent call from Maryland Poison Control.

Facts were few: a woman, about to enter her car, had been bitten on the hand by a monocled cobra, and had been rushed to Johns Hopkins Hospital. Maryland Poison Control asked Bell whether the Zoo could supply antivenom. After caring for snakes for more than a decade, Bell knew the victim faced serious, possibly life-threatening complications without the special antivenom to counteract the neurotoxic effects of the bite.

Maryland Poison Control, which tracked down Bell and the Philadelphia Zoo's antivenom supply using the online Antivenom Index, stayed in constant contact with Bell as he rushed to the Zoo to retrieve the South African-made antivenom. He packed the refrigerated vials and relayed them to a waiting team of troopers from the Pennsylvania State Police Belmont Barracks. The state police helicopter had been grounded due to heavy rains so the troopers drove to Maryland where the life-saving serum was delivered to a waiting Hopkins ambulance.

"She was very lucky," says Bell, who has seen similar bite cases ? none involving zoo workers. "She was bitten on the finger and not closer to the heart. Some cobra bites can cause rapid death." The Philadelphia zoo collection includes about 100 snakes, about half of which are venomous.

Dr. Andrew Baker, the Philadelphia Zoo's Chief Operating Officer, says there is a lesson to be learned through the incident. "The information-sharing system worked and saved a life. But that snake should never have been a danger to anyone. Venomous snakes are not pets. If you want to see a cobra, see it in the safety of a zoo."

About the Antivenom Index

In 2006, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), of which the Philadelphia Zoo is a member, in collaboration with the American Association of Poison Control Centers, developed an online Antivenom Index that is currently managed, updated, and hosted by the University of Arizona College of Pharmacy. The Antivenom Index is available only to representatives from AZA-accredited institutions and poison control centers. The Index is used to assist zoo and aquarium personnel manage their antivenom inventory used to treat bites or stings from the animals in their care and to help poison control center personnel locate appropriate antivenom as needed.

About the Philadelphia Zoo:

Philadelphia Zoo, America's first zoo, is celebrating the 150th anniversary of its founding. Chartered by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania on March 21, 1859, the Zoo is currently home to over 1,300 animals from around the world, many rare and endangered. Welcoming more than one million visitors each year from throughout the region and beyond, the Zoo serves children and families as a unique and engaging public resource for wildlife conservation and education. The Philadelphia Zoo is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

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