San Felipe, Baja, Mexico

In San Felipe, Baja, Mexico there are times when daydreaming isn't the best fuel for locomotion. Especially if you are walking in the desert at night in sandals or low shoes. Snakes seem especially pleased to wake evening somnambulists who careless where they place their feet. Passing too close to a bush or a pile of firewood can be enough to startle a snake into striking.

In the United States, snakebite statistics are rather encouraging. Approximately 45,000 people are bitten each year, which includes non-venomous bites. About 8000 of that number are venomous snake bites. But only 9 to 15 people die.

Northern Baja has a wide range of snakes, including venomous ones. Rest assured none of them are as grim as, say, the Inland Taipan of Australia, which can deliver enough venom in a single bite to kill 100 people.

Putting your foot in it.
Trouble's afoot.

Rattlesnakes and sidewinders (called viboras by the locals) are the predominant type of venomous serpent in the San Felipe area. And since these creatures have a built-in alarm system, accidental encounters are rare. One needs to be spectacularly dull to reach into a rattling coil of snake scales. Darwinism is ever on the alert to arrest this kind of behavior, permanently. A rattlesnake will give you plenty of warning, unless of course you catch it completely by surprise, which can happen if you suddenly plunge your arms into loose piles of sticks or lumber.

Rattlesnakes generally don't like to socialize with bipeds. Something to do with limb-envy, I think. If they have enough room, they'll beat a hasty retreat the moment your shadow brands their personal space. But they are not the cleverest of creatures and may slither into a corner, at which point they will turn and defend themself.

Venomous snakes can regulate the amount of toxins they inject into their victims. It is this feature that labels a snake strike in either hunting or defensive mode. About 25% of defensive strikes are dry, which means no venom is transferred. This is good news if you have a snake hanging from your nose and you fall into that lucky percentile. Most defensive bites do not utilize a full load of venom. Again, lucky thing. This explains the encouraging statistics for snake bite survival. But occasionally, if the snake is panicked to a high state of aggression, a victim can receive a pretty serious charge of venom. In a case like that, or in any other bite incident for that matter, a healthy course of action would be the following:

  • Try to identify the snake; remember it size, any recognizable physical traits, color striations, etc.
  • As difficult as it sounds, KEEP CALM. Hysteria only accelerates the cardiovascular and lymphatic circulation, which in turn invites the venom to take the grand tour of the victim's physiology.
  • Let the injury bleed freely 20-30 seconds. Then clean and disinfect the area with Betadine, if possible, or wash it with soap and water, if Betadine is not available.
  • Lay the victim down and immobile the bitten area, keeping it at a neutral gravity level, in line with the heart. Do not give them anything to eat or drink
  • Apply Sawyer Extractor until there is no more drainage from fang marks. Extractor can be left in place 30 mins or more if necessary. It also aids in keeping the venom from spreading by applying a negative pressure against the tissue where the venom was initially deposited and creates a gradient which favors the movement of venom toward the Sawyer's external collection cup.
  • If extractor not available, apply hard direct pressure over bite using a 4 x 4 gauze pad (soaked in Betadine, if possible) folded in half twice. Tape in place with adhesive tape..
  • If a clinic or hospital is within an hour or so, transport the victim there immediately.
  • If bit on hand, finger, foot or toe, wrap leg/arm rapidly with 3" to 6" soft cloth bandage past the knee or elbow joint immobilizing it. Leave area of fang marks open. Apply Extractor immediately as well. Wrap no tighter than one would for a sprain. Check to make sure a pulse is present. If it is not, the cloth is wrapped too tightly.
  • DO NOT cut the bite. The additional tissue damage can actually spread the toxin further.
  • DO NOT attempt to suck the venom from the wound with your mouth.
  • Treat for shock and preserve body heat.
  • Remove any rings, bracelets, boots or other restricting items from the victim. There will be swelling.
  • DO NOT apply ice packs. Recent studies indicate this treatment makes the injury much worse.
  • Apply a light constricting band about 2 inches from the wound, between the bite and the heart. The band should be made of a soft material, a handkerchief or cloth of some kind (ie: torn strip from a shirt or skirt). It should not be overtightened (the same pressure as the nurse or doctor uses to test your blood pressure is good). The aim is to restrict the lymphatic flow, not the blood. Check and retie it frequently as the limb swells.
  • If the victim has to walk out, sit for 20-30 minutes to localize the venom then calmly proceed to the nearest location that can help.
  • Try to obtain antivenin treatment for the victim. Antivenom (Wyeth Crotalidae Polyvalent for rattlesnake bites) is the only and best treatment and the victim must get as much as necessary as soon as possible. Antivenom administration should not be delayed. Up to 20 vials may be needed to neutralize the effects of rattlesnake and other crotalid venoms. Children may need more as envenomation is likely to be much more serious in a small person compared to a larger one.

Most snake bites can been avoided. Trying to get that dazzling close-up with a $12 disposable camera, teasing a rattler with a shoelace to see how fast it can strike (you won't be able to see it strike, it's so fast!), attempting to capture it so you can introduce it to your neighbor's late-night barking dog, or simply misidentifying it as a benign variety of snake, are possible scenarios for disaster.