Illegal pet snakes cause concern Woman, 18, bitten by poisonous viper

August 29, 1993|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,Staff Writer

It's a poisonous white-lined tree viper in Elkridge that has state and county officials so jumpy -- that and the worry that there might be dozens of collectors of exotic and illegal snakes in Howard County.

Maryland Natural Resources Police are investigating an incident last week in which an 18-year-old Elkridge woman was bitten in the face by the viper at a Deep Run Trailer Park home.

As of Friday, police had not verified the snake's owner and were planning to visit the mobile home in the 6600 block of Aspern Drive, said Barbara MacLeod, a police spokeswoman.

Kim Gundlach was bitten about 3:20 a.m. Aug. 22, Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue Services said. She was released after four days from the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore.

Ms. Gundlach suffered "significant swelling" of her face while being taken to the hospital, said Fire and Rescue Battalion Chief Donald R. Howell. Information on her condition at the hospital and the snakebite treatment was not released.

William Collison called rescue services from the Aspern Drive residence to report that Ms. Gundlach, his girlfriend, had been bitten. Mr. Collison and Ms. Gundlach share the residence, Ms. MacLeod said.

A man reached by phone at the residence where the snakebite occurred would not comment.

If it is determined that the viper that bit Ms. Gundlach is being kept as a pet, the owner could be subject to a fine of up to $1,000. State law prohibits possession of venomous snakes that aren't indigenous to Maryland as household pets, Ms. MacLeod said.

But a venomous snake can be kept for scientific or educational purposes, state Department of Natural Resources officials said.

Howard County also has a statute prohibiting keeping poisonous snakes as pets.

Three days before Ms. Gundlach was bitten, a Northern Virginia man was nearly paralyzed by a bite from a poisonous household cobra.

Mr. Howell said Howard residents would be surprised to find that there are perhaps dozens of collectors of poisonous snakes in the county.

"These are clandestine collectors. They're somewhat secretive. Here and in Northern Virginia this happened in 'normal neighborhoods,' " Mr. Howell said. "These collectors don't have neon signs, or a 'Beware of the Poisonous Snake' sign in the yard. The houses are like yours and mine.

"From a public safety point of view, this is a very real hazard" for citizens, emergency services personnel and the snake's handler, said.

Mr. Howell has personal knowledge of the dangers of collecting venomous snakes as pets. Several years ago, he invited Brian Leslie West, a well-regarded snake expert from Frederick County, to give lectures on venomous snakes to Howard emergency services personnel.

From Mr. West's lectures, Mr. Howell said he realized that there could be a number of clandestine collectors of venomous snakes throughout the county.

Mr. West, who kept a collection of about 25 venomous snakes from around the world, died of cardiac arrest last year after being bitten by a 5-foot Indian Naja cobra.

"One thing he taught us is if someone calls and says he's been bitten by an exotic snake, you believe it," Mr. Howell said. "How widespread the collections are, no one knows."

Different types of anti-venoms are needed to treat bites from different varieties of poisonous snakes, Mr. Howell said.

The Manassas, Va., man was saved after Prince William Hospital officials tracked the right type of anti-venom by calling several zoos and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

The Howard County statute prohibits residents from keeping or selling "wild or exotic animals," even if the animals have been trained, domesticated or altered in some way.

An exotic animal is defined as one of a species that is not indigenous to Howard County and is not domesticated.

A fine of $200 to $500 could be imposed on an individual convicted of violating the statute. The statute also allows police or the county animal control division to impound from private property any animal that is not permitted.

Mr. Howell said he is not aware of any other reported incidents in the past several years of poisonous snakebites from household pets in the county.

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