Fla. woman recovering from cobra bite
She was bitten while cleaning cages at a wildlife sanctuary and airlifted to a local hospital that keeps antivenins on hand
By Sonja Isger
The Palm Beach Post
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — A woman who has been handling dangerous snakes for more than a decade will be waking in a local hospital this morning on her way to recovery from a cobra bite.
Aneth McCarthy was bitten on her middle finger early Thursday as she cleaned the cobra’s cage at the McCarthy Wildlife Sanctuary founded by her husband Mark McCarthy, who began his wildlife career handling venomous snakes. He was the one who called for the antivenin that saved her life.
Original story, Thursday: A woman bitten Thursday morning by a 2-foot-long spectacled cobra as she cleaned cages at The McCarthy Wildlife Sanctuary is in stable condition and improving, according to her husband, sanctuary owner Mark McCarthy.
“It was pretty scary there for a while, pretty touch and go, but I think she’s going to be alright,” McCarthy said Thursday night.
Aneth McCarthy, who’s permitted to handle snakes, was bitten shortly after 5:30 a.m., reported Katie Johnson, spokeswoman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
“She was just doing the basic maintenance of the enclosure and she was using her snake hook as equipment but the snake bolted out and bit her on her middle finger,” said Mark McCarthy, who immediately called for antivenin.
By 5:45 a.m., Palm Beach County Fire Rescue crews were taking his wife to Palms West Hospital and by 8 a.m. an antivenin team from Miami had arrived to help treat her. By lunch time, Aneth McCarthy was in critical condition, Johnson said.
Snake bites in South Florida are not uncommon, but a bite from a cobra is.
Coral snakes and moccasins abound in Florida. The spectacled cobra is native to India.
Getting treatment as fast as possible was critical. That’s why Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Lt. Scott Mullin flew to Palms West Hospital by helicopter. The department has a venom response unit that maintains an assortment of antivenin including that for cobra bites. (He said some zoos also keep some of the more exotic antivenins.)
Mullin said because Aneth McCarthy was treated quickly, she is expected to recover.
While many hospitals keep some antivenin on hand, the vials are species-specific and no one is stocking the antidote to a cobra bite, said Jaime Snarski, an emergency room doctor at Palm Beach Gardens Medical Center.
“It’s extremely expensive to keep and it expires, so it’s not very cost effective for a hospital to keep it on hand,” said Snarski, who said the hospital keeps antivenin for more common bites such as those from a rattle snake.
To further complicate matters, cobra antivenin isn’t approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
“A cobra bite’s very serious because that’s a neurotoxin, it can affect a patient severely, quickly and fatally,” Snarski said.
Mullin compared it to being trapped under ice.
Aneth McCarthy had one huge advantage: she knew what bit her.
Because the treatment is so specific to the toxin, emergency room doctors often eat up valuable time trying to figure out what snake was the attacker, Snarski said. “Sometimes people will bring us the dead snake, sometimes a live snake, sometimes a picture of it.”
If those aren’t available, the doctors must engage in a game of educated guesses based on the injury’s look and the patient’s symptoms.
Fortunately, no one needed to guess this time and a helicopter flight landed the antivenin at the hospital.
The average cobra is about 6-feet-long and typically dines on rodents, frogs, birds and other snakes.
This cobra lives on a five-acre lot at 12943 61st St. North in The Acreage. The non-profit sanctuary founded by Mark McCarthy opened in 1990 and takes in sick and injured animals from foxes to pelicans. It is home to more than 170 animals, including 22 large cats, according to its website.
McCarthy began his wildlife career as a reptile keeper at the venom research lab at the Miami Serpentarium of South Miami. According to the website, McCarthy mostly lead tours and took care of the reptiles, but he also assisted that park’s director with on-stage venom extractions.
Thursday afternoon, tours by appointment went on as scheduled through the sanctuary. A wildlife officer was on scene to investigate the bite, but at first glance, Johnson said it appears the incident was an accident and “it doesn’t look like anything was violated.”
Florida’s laws regarding the keep and display of exotic animals are among the toughest in the nation. In a 2011 story about those regulations, The Palm Beach Post noted that McCarthy’s sanctuary is visited at least twice a year by state inspectors. He also must get individual licenses for nearly every animal on the property including all venomous reptiles.
Mark McCarthy was shaken by the incident, but said he’s been bitten six times by poisonous snakes during the 40-plus years he’s been around them.
“She’s a professional. She’s been doing it for 10 years,” McCarthy said of his wife, who he met when she was his safari guide in Tanzania about 11 years ago. He married her a year later.
“It’s a job hazard like a firefighter getting burned or an FPL lineman getting electrocuted,” he said. “It’s a dangerous business we’re in. Sometimes things so wrong and you just try to be prepared for it.”
Palm Beach Post reporters David Rogers and Matt Morgan contributed to this report.
©2014 The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Fla.)