Your Pets: Finger-eating snakes? It’s all in a day’s work
When I was an anxious senior in veterinary school, I remember asking a graduate from the previous year what it was like being a vet. He told me it was pretty boring after a while, the same old thing, day in and day out – skin problems, anal sacs, ear infections, etc. I was almost relieved, because I had sort of thought it was going to be more like a wild roller coaster ride. He was telling me this after less than a year of practice, so I thought he must be right – I actually was hoping that he was, because I was nervous about the career that awaited me. I didn’t want it to be too hard, and I didn’t want to mess up. If it was more boring, then that meant it would be also be smooth and an easier way to make a living. After a grueling four years of vet school I was hoping for that. But deep inside I knew that didn’t make sense. Not after all I had learned in school. “There’s going to be nothing simple about all of this,” I said to myself. And I told my wife that she probably wouldn’t see me very much.
A couple of weeks ago, it was early in the day at the office. There was already a lot of stuff going on – a fairly typical, and not at all boring, day full of emergencies, surgeries, chickens, angry cats, guinea pigs, etc. Some time mid-morning I was approached by my receptionist. She didn’t even break stride or crack a smile or anything – she simply informed me that there was a woman on the phone who had a snake attached to her finger and she wanted to know how to get it off. This wasn’t a typical call, but my receptionists are used to having to answer all types of calls from owners of just about any type of animal, which is why she was calm and acted pretty normal about the whole thing. Actually, so did I, because I’ve been doing this long enough that these sorts of things just happen every now and then. I asked her what kind of snake it was, and she told me – a California king snake. I was rather busy at the time, but it sounded like a good challenge, so I took the call.
This woman, whom we shall call Stephanie (because that’s her name), said that she had a 4-foot king snake stuck onto her finger. King snakes will eat other snakes, and I guess her finger looked like a nice tender one. Stephanie was rather frantic and desperate. She had tried peeling the snake off and sticking its head under water and nothing was working. It was latched on quite solidly. Everyone she had called either thought it was a joke or they simply said they couldn’t help her. But I was about to make her day. I listened to her dilemma, and then I told her that I had a snake do something similar to me when I was in vet school and that I didn’t have any doubt that we could get the snake off of her. She was excited to hear this and said she’d make the drive over from Loudon – in her pajamas. I have since wondered what the odds of this are, a person with a snake attached to her finger calling a vet who has had a similar experience.
I had a quick flashback to 1983 when I was about to do a lecture in front of an auditorium full of visitors to the veterinary college. It was our annual open house, and I had spent the previous couple of hours entertaining kids with rabbits, so I smelled really good to my 12-foot Burmese python Monty (how original). As I walked into the auditorium, she started tightening around my waist, snuck under my lab coat and grabbed a hold of the side of my belly – literally trying to eat me sideways. A few of my classmates were there to help get her unraveled and pry her mouth off of me but she somehow ended up latching onto my hand and then wrapping tightly around my leg. I eventually hobbled out of the room in order to not attract too much more attention – with Monty still attached. A friend completed the talk for me. That was one of the more embarrassing moments of my life, but maybe it happened to prepare me for this moment, 30 years later.
Back to the present – about half an hour later, Stephanie arrived, PJs and all, with a snake attached to her finger, and sort of coiled up as she held it with her other hand. She was not a happy camper. She had been trying for some time to get this snake off her finger. These snakes have four rows of teeth on the upper jaw and two on the lower. And these teeth are very sharp and pointed backward. They are designed to not let go. King snakes are not poisonous, fortunately.
I appraised the situation while trying to have a good time and chat it up with Stephanie. She was holding together pretty well, but I had to do something quickly. The snake was really holding onto that finger tightly. I tried a couple of cotton-tipped applicators to pry the upper and lower jaws open, but that didn’t work – snakes don’t have a complete mandibular symphysis, so I couldn’t get the lower jaw disengaged this way. Even though the goal was to get this snake off of the owner so she could have her finger back, I didn’t want to hurt it, so I had to be delicate. This was her pet and she cared for it. It was an innocent mistake this snake had made thinking her finger was food. Couldn’t have happened to a nicer snake.
But I am a Boy Scout and I used to watch MacGyver a lot, so I came up with an idea – I could hook the jaws with a couple of small plastic string-like ties and open the jaws. I was able to slide those in between the snake’s mouth and Stephanie’s finger and started to open the mouth a bit. She had to wiggle her finger and extricate it from the snake’s mouth – it did hurt because we didn’t get all of the teeth to detach, but at least it was quick. And I didn’t charge her. This was an added bonus – because we all know how painful those vet bills could be.
Just in case anyone from the medical profession is thinking that I was practicing medicine without a license, well . . . look at it the other way – I was removing a human from one of my snake patients. We did advise her to go to have her finger checked out though.
Another day at the office. Never boring, always satisfying. This day was just a little more so.