Thursday, October 25, 2007

Close Encounter of the Venomous Kind

Working and playing in the garden in Australia is wonderful. Unfortunately, it can also be deadly. In our part of Australia, the garden will harbour a number of venomous species, including venomous spiders (redback spiders, whitetail spiders) and highly venomous snakes such as Tiger Snakes (Notechis scutatus) and Eastern Brown Snakes (Pseudonaja textilis) and the less dangerous but still venomous Redbellied Black Snake (Pseudechis porphyriacus).

It is easy to miss a spider or a snake and get bitten, so the key is to be aware of the dangers. When we first moved here, our shed was a breeding ground for redback spiders. Every box I opened had one crawling out to me. Redbacks are very shy, so as long as you are careful and don't put your hand into something without looking first, you are less likely to get bitten.

I managed to get myself bitten by a spider about a fortnight ago. Luckily it was "only" a huntsman spider which was clearly unimpressed with my attempt to remove some scale from a young eucalyptus tree. Huntsman spiders rarely bite and are not poisonous to humans. It still freaked me out - huntsman spiders are very big and very hairy, just the sort of spider that would come to haunt you in a nightmare. The one that bit me looked kind of pregnant with a very big belly.

The Eastern Brown Snake is among Australia's deadliest snakes. And that's exactly what we encountered in the garden this week. The day before yesterday, three year old S came into the house to inform me that he had seen a snake and it had gone underneath the shed the kids use as their cubby house. I kept the kids inside for the rest for the day but obviously I cannot lock them up for ever! Yesterday we did not see another one, but today I spotted it myself - same spot, same time of the day. It was a huge adult brown snake, at least 1.20m long, and again it vanished underneath the shed.

According to the University of Sydney, "there are about 3,000 snake bites per year [in Australia], of which 200 to 500 receive antivenom; on average one or two will prove fatal. About half the deaths are due to bites from the brown snake; the rest mostly from tiger snake, taipan and death adder. Some deaths are sudden, however in fact it is uncommon to die within four hours of a snake bite."

I rang Wildcare and had Hans, our local snake handler come out to have a look. He came with his snake handling gear but could not catch it because it was hiding. He gave us some tips on how to avoid getting bitten by a snake. This is mostly about making snakes more visible. Brown snakes and Tiger snakes are notoriously hard to spot - when they lie on the ground it is extremely easy to mistake them for a stick.

This is a summary of his advice:
- Keep the grass short.
- Fill in any cracks and holes under floors or sheds.
- Clear rocks, logs and the like from around the house and the kids' play area.
- Trim bushes around the house and the play area to about half a meter off the ground so that snakes can be spotted easily.

It is also important to know what to do if you spot a snake:
Stand absolutely still. Snakes have no ears, but they can feel vibrations. If the snake has seen you, keep a close watch on the snake. It is likely to be more frightened of you than you are of the snake and will probably move away if you do not move. Then move slowly backwards, always keeping an eye on the snake. Do not run, as the vibrations will alert the snake to your presence and it may feel threatened.

And last, what to do if you get bitten (hopefully you and I will never, ever experience this) by an Australian snake.
Note: this may not apply to snakes outside Australia, so check with your local wildlife authority if you live somewhere else!:

- Immediately apply a pressure bandage. We bought a handy snake pack from Reptile Awareness Displays of Australia at one of their snake demonstrations at a local country show. Most people get bitten on their limbs, either on their leg or an arm.
- Firmly bandage starting from the toes or the fingers. The key is to stop the venom from moving through your body.
- Immobilize bitten limb with a sling and/or splint.
- Keep patient still and calm.
- Ring 000 immediately to get medical attention.
- Monitor pulse and breathing. If either cease, apply mouth-to-mouth or CPR until medical attention arrives.
- Where possible bring vehicle to patient (to avoid moving patient, it is really important to stay still to stop the venom from spreading).
- Do not try to catch or kill the snake as hospitals can identify the snake from samples taken around the bite site.

And last not least, here is part two of a three-part video on Australia's ten deadliest snakes by the late Steve Irwin. Our local Tiger snake is number four on Steve's list. The Eastern Brown Snake is number two. I suggest not showing this video to your kids, as what Steve is doing here is utterly crazy and could be fatal to anybody else.


  1. very scary! we have had a couple of red belly black snakes around but no brown ones thank goodness.

    something i learned recently that i thought was really interesting was that the bandaging technique we are taught here is only for australian snakes because they have short fangs, lots of the snakes in other countrys have longer fangs so they need to use different techniques. Our snakes venom only reaches the lymphatic system due to the short fangs so compressing the tissue works with emobolising it - interesting huh!

    love your blog by the way - thanks for all the great posts!!!

  2. YIKES!

    That settles it - I could never live in Australia. My morbid fear of spiders would be working overtime! I wasn't too bothered by snakes until I read this post; now I'm all freaked out about them, too! :)

    Still, a very interesting post. Glad I stumbled across your site via BlogRush!