Taking Extra Precautions

Sex: Female

Species: Ethiopian mountain adder

Age: 3 years

Weight: 465 g (1 lb.)

Reason for Visit: Wellness exam

When conducting routine physical exams on any animal at the zoo, veterinary staff know the proper precautions to take to promote safety for both the staff and the animal. However, when working with animals that are considered dangerous, such as a large carnivore or venomous reptile, there are additional strict protocols to follow that make the exams go a little differently at the Animal Wellness Campus.

An Ethiopian Mountain Adder, a highly venomous snake, was recently brought to the Animal Wellness Campus for an exam with Dr. Colleen, the Zoo’s veterinarian. In order to facilitate a safe exam for everyone involved, Dr. Colleen worked closely with Lead Reptile Keeper, Dennis, who has extensive knowledge and training in handling highly venomous animals. Working with this snake involved a great deal of teamwork and trust between the veterinary and reptile staff.

Before handling any venomous reptile, animal care staff first identify the appropriate antivenom for that species in the event of an accidental bite. In this case, an antivenom called SAIMR polyvalent is used to treat an envenomation from the Ethiopian Mountain Adder. The antivenom was brought with the snake to the exam so that it would be readily available if needed and staff were prepared on procedures to follow in the unlikely event of a bit. Animal care staff also hold routine venomous reptile bite drills throughout the year to stay current on proper protocols.

When working with the adder, Dr. Colleen and Dennis were most cautious around the head, where the venomous fangs are located. In order to perform a safe, thorough exam, Dr. Colleen decided to place the snake under anesthesia. Dennis used a long snake hook to handle the adder and maneuver her head into a long, clear plastic tube. This tube enabled the restraint of her body while avoiding her head. Dr. Colleen was then able to administer an anesthetic medication into the muscles on the side of the spine and waited for her to fall asleep.

After about 10 minutes, the snake was asleep and considered safer to work with. Instead of eyelids, snakes have a membrane called a spectacle to protect the surface of the eye, so they never blink or close their eyes. Since she doesn’t close her eyes, a towel was placed over her eyes to decrease any visual stimuli during anesthesia. Even though she was asleep, Dennis maintained a gentle but secure grip on the snake to ensure a safer procedure for the team. Dr. Colleen obtained a blood sample to perform a complete blood count, which assesses red and white blood cell numbers and morphology, and a chemistry profile, which looks at organ function and electrolytes.

A routine ultrasound was also performed to examine the internal soft tissue structures, which showed no abnormalities. Dr. Colleen and Dennis then removed the snake’s head from the tube to briefly examine her mouth and eyes. Following the exam, the snake was secured back inside the tube for safety.

After the snake recovered from anesthesia, she was safely returned to her exhibit at the World of Reptiles building. Dr. Colleen and Dennis then reviewed how things went during the procedure to determine if they’d do anything differently the next time. Overall, the exam went very well and the teams were pleased with how smoothly they worked together. Having a well-trained team of medical and animal care staff working together ensures a safe environment for both the animals and the staff, as well as helping us meet our top priority of providing the best care for all of the animals (whether venomous or non-venomous) here at the zoo.