Maryland snake collector dies after being bitten by Indian cobra

May 30, 1992|By Michael James | Michael James,Staff Writer

EMMITSBURG -- To Brian Leslie West, a snake was a beautiful creature that didn't deserve its sinister reputation, a belief he maintained even while he was dying from a cobra's bite.

Bitten by a king Indian cobra early yesterday and infected with venom he knew would kill him, Mr. West told a friend, "It bit me on the foot . . . We've got to catch the animal and put it in its cage before the paramedics get here, so no one else gets hurt."

Five minutes later, the 25-year-old expert and collector of more than 50 snakes went into cardiac arrest and never awoke. He was pronounced dead an hour later at Frederick Memorial Hospital.

"With the amount of venom he got, he didn't have a chance," said his father, Larry West of Thurmont, who said his son had been trying to help the rare snake deliver its eggs when it suddenly turned and bit him on the second toe of his left foot.

"He was concerned for the animal. That's the way he's always been with them. They were one of his great loves," Larry West said. "If he had survived, he'd have gone back and tried the same thing tomorrow."

The snake that killed him, along with his other exotic snakes including Burmese pythons, asps and the more mundane rattlesnakes, will not be destroyed because "that's the last thing in the world that Brian would have ever wanted," Larry West said.

"His animals will be put in the right places, in zoos and with other collectors," his father said. Brian West had a special permit to raisethe venomous snakes in his home.

In a lecture last fall that was televised on Howard County cable television, Brian West told the audience, "Snakes aren't really as nasty as people make them out to be. They're pretty laid back, and are more interested in a nice place to curl up and digest a meal."

Donald R. Howell, a battalion chief in the Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue Services, said he had hired Brian West to give demonstrations of snakebite treatment. The snake expert's advice to hospitals was also key to saving a few lives in the past, Chief Howell said.

"He had a unique business or hobby, and everyone really loved to listen to him. Here was a man who just loved, and was absolutely fascinated, by something as scary as snakes," Chief Howell said.

"Now, it's become a very bitter irony. He died a victim of his own program, and the message he was trying to teach," Chief Howell said.

About 2 a.m. yesterday, he and a friend were trying to assist the king Indian cobra -- one of the world's most venomous snakes -- in laying its eggs. The species has rarely, if ever, bred in captivity, Larry West said.

"She was lying listlessly on the floor, and he was just gently stroking her back. Then he stood up and just took his eyes off her for a little bit," his father said.

Brian West may have assumed the cobra was dead because another king Indian cobra died two months ago while laying its eggs. "She spunaround and bit him on the toe," Larry West said, noting that his son was not wearing shoes.

Although Brian West kept an antidote to snake poison on hand, there was not enough time to perform an intravenous transfusion.

When a state trooper arrived several minutes later, Brian West hadstopped breathing.

On his calling card -- which contains ornate pictures of snakes and reptiles -- Brian West called himself a "herpetologist" specializing in "educational programs on venomous reptiles and snake venom poisoning."

His primary trade was that of a traveling salesman of sorts, but he supplemented his income by offering professional lectures to area fire and rescue services, Scout groups and schools.

At a workshop held just one month ago in Howard County for about 100 emergency medical professionals, Brian West brought about a half-dozen snakes that he showed to the crowd as he lectured about how to treat snakebites.

"I've never been bitten. These are my pets. They're great things. People are much too afraid of them," he told a reporter at the event.

Fewer than 10 people die of snakebites in the United States each year, while in Asia, the natural habitat of many species of cobras and vipers, 30,000 to 40,000 people die annually from snake venom, authorities say.

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