A number of reptiles pose a potential threat to human safety because of their size and strength. They include the large constricting snakes, monitor lizards and crocodilians.
Large constricting snakes (i.e., boas and pythons) have been responsible for a number of injuries and deaths over the years. Often referred to as the “giant snakes,” some may grow longer than four meters and reach weights of more than 40 kilograms. The green anaconda, reticulated python, African rock python, Indian python, Australian scrub python and boa constrictor are examples of giant snakes.
The majority of giant snake attacks are believed to occur because a snake has mistaken a hand or arm as food. Snakes have a very acute sense of smell, so the odour of a food item, such as the smell of a dead rat or rabbit, on a body part can trigger an attack, especially when a snake is hungry. Other attacks may be defensive in nature, when a snake perceives something as threatening.
When a constricting snake attacks, it grasps its victim with rows of recurved teeth. It then coils itself around the body part that it is holding onto, or if the snake is large enough and the victim small enough, around the entire body, tightening its grip each time the victim struggles or exhales. Eventually, the victim dies of asphyxiation, at which point the snake starts swallowing its victim head first. It does this to ensure that the limbs are folded against the body so the swallowing process is not impeded.
Prying a snake off a victim can be extremely difficult, as the recurved teeth hold the head secure. In fact, trying to remove the snake may result in the snake clenching its jaws more tightly. Hitting the snake will also not cause the animal to release its grip.
Even a single bite from a large snake can be serious resulting in multiple puncture wounds and lacerations. In 1995, a 23 year old Edmonton man was attacked by his more than 5 meter long python resulting in a badly chewed arm. The snake bit the man’s hand and then wrapped itself around his arm. The victims brother told local press, “All I heard was screaming, so I ran there and I didn’t know what to do .. .I was stunned.”
Many reptile hobbyists advise that snakes longer than 3 meters only be handled by experienced keepers and that snakes longer than 5 meters not be handled at all because they are too dangerous.
Injuries, deaths and children at risk
Every year in North America, a number of giant snake attacks (as well as serious attacks by much smaller snakes) are reported. For example:
- A man was killed by his pet python in Brampton, Ontario in 1992. Reportedly, he was handling the snake while drunk.
- A 3 meter long, 40 kilogram Burmese python killed a 43 yearold man in Aurora, Colorado in 2002 after the snake became aggressive while being handled. Officials believe the snake was coiled around the man, who died from asphyxiation, for approximately 10 -15 minutes. It took seven firefighters and two police officers to uncoil the snake. Neighbors reported that the snake was very tame and had never bitten anyone.
- In August 2001, an 8 year old girl died after one of her family’s five snakes, a 3 meter, 30 kilogram Burmese python, wrapped itself around her neck. The snake reportedly escaped from its enclosure which was kept in the bedroom.
Even relatively small constricting snakes can be dangerous at times. In Springfield, Illinois in 1999, a 2/ meter African python escaped from its enclosure and wrapped itself around a 3 year boy sleeping next to some relatives. An autopsy revealed compression marks around the boy’s chest and bite marks on his neck and ears. The boy died of asphyxiation.
Some snake owners do not seem to recognize the potential danger their animals pose. In 2001, several British Columbian newspapers featured photos of very young children playing with a 5 meter, 63 kg Indian (Burmese) python. One very young child was pictured sitting on the floor with the tip of the snake’s tail in their mouth. Apparently, the mother of the children did not feel the snake posed a danger to them.
Only the most sensational attacks are reported to animal control and health agencies and the media. The majority of less severe giant snake bites and near miss situations go undocumented.
Ranging in size from less than 1 meter long and 1 kg in weight to more than 3 meters long and 140 kg, monitor lizards have sharp claws and relatively muscular bodies. Many have rather aggressive dispositions and are capable of inflicting serious bite wounds and scratches. They should be handled with caution and considered dangerous, especially around children. Several commonly-kept monitor lizards are capable of growing to lengths of 2.5 -3 meters. They include the Nile monitor, water monitor and Savannah monitor.
Most adult crococlilians are large, powerful and often aggressive. They are difficult to house, require special handling practices and should be considered dangerous at all times. The most commonly kept crococlilian is the Caiman which can reach an adult length of 2.5 meters. Other species in the pet trade may grow in excess of 4 meters. Professional pet industry organizations recommend that they not be kept as pets.
Giant snakes and other large reptiles pose very serious risks to human health and safety. Handling them can be extremely dangerous. They are also difficult and expensive to house and care for. Therefore Zoocheck recommends that giant snakes and other large reptiles not be kept as pets.