From my lungs to his…

…Breathing life into an Eastern diamondback rattlesnake

Crotalus adamanteus

Big Chief, male Eastern diamondback rattlesnake and king of the forest. Photo by Alex Bentley

Handling venomous snakes under anesthesia is never straightforward.  At any moment, an anesthetized snake–particularly during induction of anesthesia or during awakening from anesthesia–can experience enough arousal to snag you with his fangs.

It is my third Eastern diamondback rattlesnake this year, a vigorous 6.5 pounds male sporting a 9 inch circumference and at 66 inches total length, much longer than I am tall.  An impressive individual and a member of the largest species of venomous snake in North America, he is nonetheless fairly easy to handle.    His radio transmitter, thermal recording device and identifying pit tag are already sutured up tight inside his lower abdomen.  Biologist and field coordinator Mike Martin places the sleeping serpent back into his box and three biologists, a veterinary technician and I all walk around muttering, allowing the tension of having handled him before and during surgery to diffuse.

prepping the diamondback

Tension is evident in the faces of biologist Mike Martin and Kathi S. Craft, LVT.  These procedures always carry some risk to the handlers.

After a few minutes, we wander back to the snake’s box and observe him.  He is not waking up, not even a little bit.  This is not unusual; they can wake quickly or slowly.  But we all stare at him with his crazy pattern of diamonds long enough to decide he either isn’t breathing or at least isn’t breathing enough to be conducive to his well-being.

The three biologists rightly become nervous.  They’ve actually seen, assisted in or done many more of these procedures than I, a mere mortal veterinarian, have.  But it is my O.R., a sacred place where I command the bridge and seldom perform my job with an audience.  It is usually just me and one or two technicians.  But their concerns are buzzing in my ears like a swarm of bees.  And I am the one who has to make the call as to what must happen next.

applying glue to incision

The procedure is done, I have removed the drape, cleaned the patient of blood and I am applying a cyanoacrylate tissue adhesive to the incision.  Photo by Charles Smith

I go on autopilot, a place where I am directed by years and years of training and my emotions are checked at the door.  Come, go along with me.

Me:  Do you want me to entubate him?

Them:  It might be a good idea to give him a breath or two

Me:  OK, get him up on the table, head on this end.

Them:  Do you have a red rubber catheter? (a tube used to pass into the glottis of snakes)

Me:  I have a trach tube that will fit him.

Me, to my LVT:  Kathi, I need a tongue depressor.

Kathi, instantly at my side, is bearing a handful of tongue blades:  Right here, doctor.

rattlesnake mouth

Opening the mouth, it’s a tricky thing, whether you are doing it to tube feed the individual, as team leader Ab Abercrombie and I are doing with this one, or whether you are entubating it to assist breathing, as I did with “Chief” and Mike Martin.

Mike silently and carefully considers what he is about to do and then holds the snake’s head up off the table for me.  Then it is happening.  Holding it flat with my right hand, I insert the tongue depressor laterally between the patient’s mandible and maxilla and I turn the blade 90 degrees to open the mouth.  The fangs unhinge and drop down and I hear biologist-intern Alex in the background remarking on how big they might be.

I am not looking at the deadly fangs at all.  My focus is on the glottis–the tracheal opening–in the floor of the mouth just behind the front teeth.  Automatically, I use my left hand to insert the tip of the endotracheal tube and advance it slightly.  It is a snug fit, and I don’t need to put it far.  During this procedure, both of my hands are within two inches of the fangs.

Then it happens.  I lean forward, put my lips on the adapter end of the trach tube and generate a breath from my lungs into his, my face mere inches from his truly impressive fangs.  But I am not looking at the mouth or the fangs or the glottis.  I am looking beyond to watch my own breath expand his glorious body.

At the apex of the breath, I pause.  Air is neither leaving my lungs to go into his, nor is it leaving his lung to come back into mine.  For a second or two, we are one.

I release my lips and take the trach tube out of his glottis and observe a fractional spasm.

Then, perhaps a bit too bitchily, I say:  I think this is unnecessary.  He is getting body tone back.

I might add that I slept like a baby that night.

endotracheal tube

A 3 mm endotracheal tube is designed for cats, kittens and tiny dogs. It fit our patient perfectly, though the majority of snakes need much smaller and more specialized tube.  In a pinch, a red rubber catheter may be used in place of a designated tracheal tube.

 The patient began breathing well on his own right after my gift of breath.  He was rattling and tongue flicking in short order.  Because snakes have only one elongated lung and lack a diaphragm, sometimes they need a little help to jump start their respiration after a surgical procedure.

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Herping the Light Fantastic

 I just returned from a trip to the sky islands, isolated mountain ranges near the junction of Arizona, New Mexico and Sonora, a magic high-altitude oasis that offers world class-birding and some of the most amazing biodiversity of herpetofauna to be found.

At times I felt simply overwhelmed as I attempted to add birds and reptiles to my life list, literally not knowing whether I wanted to look up…or down.

lizard

My first Arizona herp, a plateau lizard hand-caught at the Southwestern Research Station near Portal, Arizona. A lifer.

For those of you who are not familiar with “herping” as an activity, it is similar to bird watching, aka birding.  Birders try to spot different species of birds and add them to their life list.  It is an established fact that birding field guides have a checklist in the back to this very purpose.

In herping, you are seeking to find, view, catch, photograph and then release all manner of reptiles—lizards, snakes, turtles and crocodilians and amphibians—frogs, toads and salamanders.  The individuals who participate in herping are called herpers.  The sighting of a new species is considered a “lifer,” the same as it is with birding.

This is where all similarities come to a crashing end.

Sky Islands

The Chiricahuas--sky islands--a Mecca for Birders and Herpers alike

Birders can often be found slathered with SPF-50 sunscreen and wearing their matching khaki field clothes and Tilley hats with uber-expensive binoculars secured to their chests by straps to make bearing them more, er, bearable.  They sometimes carry ridiculously long-lensed cameras on tripods, and their soft twittering voices remind you of, well, birds. 

The birder’s natural habitat includes boardwalks and nature trails.  Their preferred diet seems to be granola bars, seeds, nuts, berries and expensive bottled water.  They tippy-toe.  They titter.  And they are as pale as albinos.

Mojave rattlesnake

A venomous Mojave rattlesnake being photographed by herpers, all of whom hold at least one doctorate. Cowboys, all.

By contrast, herpers are cowboys, clad in all manner of tee shirts and jeans.   Some don snake chaps, but many simply wear sneakers.  They also strap headlamps to their baseball-style caps and carry snake hooks and tongs.  And remember this: heaven forbid that you ever mess up and call a pillowcase a pillowcase.  It is a snake bag or capture bag.

Their natural habitat—swamps, deserts, fields and forests.  A favored activity is cruising up and down roads that transect these locations.  Driving long distances at 20 mph, they can suffer from road hypnosis with their eyes glazed over in spot-a-snake mode.   If somebody yells “Snake!” (whether or not there is one) the herper will jump out of the vehicle and run around in little circles, cursing.

Tin at the Southwestern Research Station in the Coronado National Forest, Portal, New Mexico.

Herpers often flip tin looking for reptiles that use it as a "hide." Finding tin is like finding hidden gold. Near Portal, Arizona in the Coronado National Forest.

To get going in the morning, herpers might have to swig coffee and prop their eyelids open with toothpicks after long nights of road cruising, and they guzzle colas during the day to stay sharp.  And as their evening of road cruising winds down, out come all manner of alcoholic beverages.  Beer, by and large, is the preferred one, though the brand trends from year to year, as some of us are quite the afficionado.

Preferred foods include a wide variety of the bad-for-you:  jerky, pickled eggs, red sausages, chips, barbeque, hot dogs.  And sometimes, in the middle of a slow day, a herper just might sneak away for an ice cream cone.

While birders seem polite, orderly, refined and quite knowledgeable about bird calls, herpers are people of a rich and varied vocabulary.  Most know the Latin binomials for all of the species they could possibly encounter, and they know the vocalizations of the frogs and toads in their area.  They can go on and on, ad nauseum about the habitat requirements of the various herp species, and they certainly can cuss a blue streak.

Herpers checking out a glass lizard

A glass lizard poses for the paparrazi. Can you tell which ones are birders and which ones are herpers?

A birder may just tippy-toe off a trail to have a little peep at a swallow-tailed whatchmacallit, but a herper will plunge headfirst into a ditch in order to grab a retreating Lampropeltis. Sunburn, skinned knees, ant bites, groin rashes and cactus spines are de rigeur for a field herper.  In fact, coming home without such badges of bravery just might expose one as a weakling, subject to ridicule. 

Baby bird

Photo of a black-throated gray warbler fledgeling, taken by a herper with ridiculously tiny camera who happened to observe it being fed by its mother at very close range!

Return home with leeches and abrasions and you will be long-celebrated as a hero.  Pick cactus spines out of your behind for six years and are a legend.

Birders observe.  Herpers touch.  Birders enjoy decorum.  Herpers are anarchists.  Birders are tidy. Herpers surrender to entropy.

Birder=alt-folk, pop, jazz.  Herper=heavy metal, country, blues.

Birder=butterflies and rainbows.  Herper=ground-in dirt and black soot from a recent burn.

Stay tuned for my next blog with actual herping adventure in the desert Southwest!

Spider

A tarantula assumes a defensive posture while being admired by herpers near Portal, Arizona.

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