Venomous neighbors on the high plains

CNJ staff photo: Tony Bullocks The prairie rattlesnake has the most extensive range of any rattlesnake in the U.S. The snake’s venom is considered highly toxic and affects the blood. Antivenin is commonly available at hospitals and should be sought immediately if bitten..

By Sharna Johnson: CNJ staff writer

There are at least five spiders and reptiles in eastern New Mexico that are poisonous to humans, according to a retired Eastern New Mexico University biology professor and wildlife author.

They include the brown recluse and black widow spiders and three types of rattlesnakes; the prairie, diamondback and Massasauga, Antonio “Tony” Gennaro said.

Additionally, individual reaction to native ant and bee stings can prove fatal, Gennaro said.

Health providers are prepared for bites from native species, keeping antivenins on hand, with the exception of the brown recluse, for which there is no antivenin, according to Pat Baker, the emergency room charge nurse at Plains Regional Medical Center.

A 22-year-old Clovis zookeeper was bitten by a foot-long Gila Monster last week while he was transferring the venomous lizard to another cage at Hillcrest Park Zoo.

Although the Gila Monster does not carry enough venom to kill a human, Cody Machen suffered a severe reaction to the bite and spent several days in an intensive care unit at Plains Regional Medical Center.

Machen said Tuesday he was better but “in a lot of pain.” He said doctors are working to find an alternative to surgery to alleviate swelling in his arm and leg.

Machen’s experience is unique because of his direct contact with an otherwise illusive lizard not indigenous to the area.

Sharita Haragan, the victim’s mother, said her son was sedated and give medication to stabilize his heart. According to uspharmacists.com, there is not antivenin for Gila Montser bites.

Baker, a 33-year veteran of nursing, said health care providers seek the advice of University of New Mexico and poison control experts in case’s such as Machen’s.

Rattlesnake bites occur frequently in the area, especially in the fall and warmer months, and black widow bites, though less common, have occurred, Baker said.

If the animal was killed or captured, patients should bring it with them to the hospital, or at least, get a good description, Baker said.
“(But) don’t bring a live snake in because I will not want to look at it,” Baker said chuckling.

Baker said rattlesnake serum costs around $1,000 a vial and treatment takes six to eight to 10 vials.

The key to avoiding bites in the wild is awareness, Gennaro said.

“I think vigilance is the number one thing we deal with in the wild,” he said. “Watch where you’re putting feet; if you know there are spiders, wear gloves.”

And if bitten, Gennaro said, do everything possible to stay calm, get a description of the animal and seek medical help.

The Gila is an endangered rock dwelling, burrowing lizard species, found in the southern desert regions of the state, Gennaro said. Secretive and rarely seen, the worst part of the bite is the fact the lizard locks its jaws and hangs on, often requiring removal by force.

Machen said he has no qualms about dealing with the reptile again in the future and can’t wait to get better and return to work.