Man lives–but snakes, backyard big cats kill kids
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, October 2001:
MIAMI, Fla.–An air ambulance rushing Taipan antivenin to
aid of exotic snake fancier Lawrence Van Sertima, 62, of South
Dade, Florida, made the first authorized civilian flight over U.S.
air space after the September 11 terrorist hijackings and crashes.
Bitten on the afternoon of September 11, Van Serima had by
three a.m. the next morning received all seven vials of Taipan
antivenin that the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Venom Response Team could
locate within Florida–which has the most extensive snakebite
response network in the nation–and was close to death.
“Of the 455 medically significant snakes in the world, the
Taipan is at the top of the list,” Venom Response Team captain Al
Cruz told Tere Figueras of the Miami Herald.
“It was like we were treating him with water,” agreed fellow
team member Ernie Jillson.
Cruz called all the way to Australia before locating two
additional sources of Taipan antivenin: the Bronx Zoo, which was
incommunicado due to the post-World Trade Center attack chaos, and
the San Diego Zoo. Cruz then worked his way up the Federal Aviation
Administration chain of command to get authorization for Baptist
Health Systems AeroMed to fly the last five available vials of Taipan
antivenin in the U.S. to Miami, where it reportedly arrived in the
nick of time.
There were no cross-country heroics on August 22 for Amber
Mountain, 8, of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, found on the floor of
the family kitchen by her mother Marcie Mountain, with their 10-foot
python wrapped around her neck. Already in a coma, Amber Mountain
died a week later. Her three-month old sister, Brittany Leanne
Mountain, died from chest compression and asphixiation on March 14,
1996. Her father, minister Robert Mountain, told police that he
had rolled over on her in his sleep. The Amber Mountain death is
reportedly still under investigation.
Zack Payne, 10, of Lawrence Township, New Jersey, was
luckier on April 24. He was only bitten on one set of eyelids when
attacked by his brother’s 10-foot python.
Also luckier was the five-year-old son of James Yaklich, 40,
bitten as he slept by an escaped python who was one of two belonging
So far, no parents have been successfully prosecuted for
keeping dangerous reptiles in homes with small children. Judge
Harold Pennock III of Clinton County, Illinois, dismissed the most
recent attempt on March 24, 2000, ruling that the evidence was
insufficient to proceed with reckless endangerment charges filed
against Robert and Melissa Altom, whose seven-foot python killed
their son Jesse, 3, in his sleep on August 29, 1999. Clinton
County state’s attorney Henry Bergman told news media that the case
failed because Pennock excluded testimony that the Altoms previously
kept another python, who also escaped.
Nationally, there is growing concern about escapes and
attacks by dangerous reptiles–about 60% of them involving pythons,
30% involving crocodilians, and the remainder involving everything
from giant monitor lizards to iguanas, who often pass salmonella and
whose scratches may become infected.
The ANIMAL PEOPLE log of U.S. pet reptile escapes and attacks
tell the story. Twelve pet reptile incidents made headlines in 1994,
21 in 1995, 37 in 1996, and 68 in 1997. 1998 and 1999 saw some
leveling off, with 65 and 56 reported incidents, respectively. But
99 dangerous reptiles got loose and/or attacked someone in 2000, and
77 such incidents occurred in 2001 through September.
The high-profile cases are only a tiny fraction of the total
number, growing in reflection of the growing number of Americans who
keep reptiles as pets: four million households in 2000, according
to the American Pet Products Manufacturing Association, up 44% since
1998. The U.S. National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
estimated in 1999 that as many as 93,000 Americans per year get
salmonellosis by handling reptiles, or about one per 11 residents of
reptile-keeping homes. Although salmonellosis is not usually deadly,
it can kill young children, the elderly, and people with weak
Humane Society of the U.S. herpetologist Teresa Telecky on
September 6 asked the Food and Drug Administration to ban all sales
of live reptiles as pets. That isn’t likely to happen, but
communities around the U.S. are adding exotic pet restrictions to
their existing animal control ordinances.
Also of rising concern are large carnivores, especially
cats, like the tiger who grabbed Matthew Scott, 3, out of his
grandfather Kerry Quinney’s arms and killed him in front of his
parents, James and Charlotte Scott, on October 10 in the back yard
of a mobile home in Lexington, Texas. Three tigers occupied the
yard, police said.
It was scarcely a unique or isolated incident. Wildlife
artist Don Blakney, 61, of Princeton, Minnesota, was severely
injured on October 1 by one of his two pet pumas.
Police and animal control officials in Pittsburgh,
Pennsylvania, meanwhile sought a 42-pound serval named Mr.
Bigglesworth, who on October 3 escaped from owner Mark Nernberg’s
yard for the second time in a month and fourth time in two years.
ANIMAL PEOPLE has warned often since 1995 that the behavior
of many pumas who come into conflict with humans points toward
captive background, followed by abandonment when the pumas grow too
big for their keeper to handle.
Confirmation of the hypothesis that problem pumas tend to be
ex-pets came on September 1 from Minnesota Department of Natural
Resources regional conservation officer supervisor Tom Provost,
after a DNR staff member took an anonymous call from a man who
admitted having released a female puma and two cubs near Big Sandy
On August 29, rural resident Jim Bennett, 56, unexpectedly
met the emaciated female on his front porch. He escaped unharmed
when his chocolate Labrador retriever, Shadow, hurled himself at
the puma–and Shadow escaped, after the puma pinned him down, when
Bennett kicked the puma in the head twice.
In the early hours of the following morning, Bennett shot
the puma as she was shredding the dog’s bedding on his deck. Several
hours later the cubs appeared, were captured by DNR staff, and were
donated to the Minnesota Zoo for eventual exhibit.
Confirmed escapes and attacks involving big cats occur only
about half as often as such incidents involving dangerous reptiles,
but human deaths and injuries occur with similar frequency.
A Texas state law taking effect on September 1 gave cities
and counties the authority to fine people who keep any of 19
dangerous species in violation of ordinances. Tarrant County and
Dallas County immediately adopted the necessary enabling resolutions.
Other new anti-dangerous pet ordinances were recently adopted
in Whitehall Township, Pennsylvania; Washington County, Arkansas;
and Ferndale, Michigan.
Sheriff Herb Nye of Leavenworth County, Kansas, is pushing
hard for a similar ordinance, after a bear and a lion owned by
Lawrence resident Richard Provance, 31, bit viistors within a week
of each other in late August. Neither victim was seriously injured.
Nye said that under present law, the county can intervene if
animals are neglected or abused, but has no authority to act if they
pose a potential threat to the public.