Handling Dead Snakes

“My father brought the head of a rattlesnake to our classroom one time,” a student once told us. Not knowing why this father presented a venomous snake head to an elementary classroom, we cringed at the thought because a dead rattlesnake can still envenomate a victim.

Dead Snakes

“If you find a dead snake,” says the American College of Medical Toxicology, “do not come into contact with the snake’s mouth, because dead snakes can still deliver venom through their fangs. Even a severed head of a snake still has the ability to inject venom when it is touched.”

The chemical makeup of venom does not change after the snake is dead and can last quite a while. “Never handle a venomous reptile, even after it’s dead,” says Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center. “Reflex strikes with injected venom can occur for several hours after death.”

Bitten by a Rattlesnake

A friend of ours was once bitten by a rattlesnake in her front yard at night as she walked the brushy area toward her mailbox. When police arrived on the scene, they captured the snake, cut off its head, and threw the head into the garbage can. During the ambulance ride to the hospital, an attendant observed the body of the snake writhing in the pail where it had been placed. “Is it still alive?” she asked. Our friend peered into the bucket and confirmed that the body of the snake was headless. Reflex action left the snake writhing for several hours after its death.

What about the Head?

But what about the head? If someone had reached into the garbage can to remove an item and in the process come into contact with the head, he or she could have come into contact with the fangs, either through reflex action or by being grazed by a fang.

“It is a known fact,” says rattlesnake researcher Bryon Shipley, “that one of the intriguing physiological oddities about low metabolism animals, such as snakes and other reptiles, is the slowness of the death of tissues such as nerves and brain cells.” Apparently, according to Bryon, decapitation does not result in the death of the brain which may remain capable of controlling eye movement, jaw movement, venom gland compression, and even tongue flicking for an hour.

Decapitation as a method of euthanasia is not recommended without the concurrent destruction of the brain as well. “There is an old saying,” says Bryon, “that ‘rattlesnakes never die until sundown.’ Which exemplifies the slow process of death and the danger of envenomation due to nerve reflex impulses.”

Good Snake or Bad Snake?

Perhaps the father who brought the rattlesnake head to his son’s classroom thought, as many others think, that “the only good snake is a dead snake.” While we consider rattlesnakes and other snakes to be neither “good” nor “bad,” we realize their value in the ecosystem, as well as their value to the medical community where venom is studied to help cancer, heart, and diabetic patients. And a live rattlesnake has the ability to control the amount, if any, venom that they deliver.

The father, then, might discover some day that the only “good” rattlesnake is a “live” rattlesnake!

15 thoughts on “Handling Dead Snakes”

  1. Betty: You write soo well..I surely enjoy your articles. Looks like you’ll be celebrating 50 yrs of marriage in 2018… let me be the first to send congratulations !! Thanks for the information about the creatures we like and dislike at the same time…they have a purpose just as we do..♥️

    • Bruce,
      The safest way to handle a dead venomous snake is with a tool that keeps the snake at arm’s length and out of the range of delivering a bite to yourself. Most people who are bitten by a snake are trying to kill, hurt, or improperly handle that animal. As for handling the head of a dead venomous snake, a shovel or other yard implement would prevent envenomation. Sometimes a “dead” snake will continue to spasm for over an hour due to nervous reactions. If you are within range of the fangs and even receive a slight scratch you could be receiving a dose of venom. When in the field studying snakes, I carry tongs and reptile hooks to move the snakes in such a manner that neither the snake nor the human gets hurt.

    • Thru the years, I’ve always handled dead snakes/parts as I would handle a live specimen. There’s always the possibility that there could be some crystallized venom in the fang passage which could still be a hazard. What I would do would be to handle the head with some sort of tongs or even pliers to avoid any contact with my body. That’s why we always caution folks to not kill or handle dead snakes. Most people who are bitten are trying to kill or harm the snake, and even dead snakes, through nervous action, can still bite a person. Thanks for your question. It is a valid concern!

  2. Hi there. I really enjoyed reading this article. I did know that dead snakes were still dangerous. I do have a question about a buried venomous snake though that I thought you may know the answer to. I live in Queensland, Australia and have just buried a dead Eastern Brown Snake I found in our front yard. (It was dead when I found it from a wound of some sort, possibly dog bite) My kids are interested in possibly digging it up in 12 months or more to check out it’s skeleton. Is it likely to still be dangerous, even once it’s a skeleton?

    • Good question, Jody! Although after having been buried for a year, the skeleton would present no real danger, but the fangs which will now be totally exposed could still present a danger and would be best left alone. The fangs will still be needle sharp and may contain some crystallized venom which could still prove dangerous if the human skin was scratched or punctured. The Eastern Brown is in the elapid group which include the cobras, so the venom is very toxic. Also, with your tropical climate, I’m not sure how much will be left of the skeleton after going thru a rainy period. Bottom line is to be very careful and definitely avoid the head area. There’s also a chance that some scavenger may beat your kids to the dead snake before they start digging. Good luck & BE CAREFUL!

      • Thank you so much for your wisdom and knowledge, Chuck. It’s greatly appreciated. I did happen to do a bit more research myself after reading your article and posting this question and had already decided that we will leave our snake to rest in peace. Perhaps we’ll come across a dead carpet python in the future that we can bury and later dig up to check out it’s skeleton – a snake that isn’t the second most venomous snake in the world! Again, your knowledge has been greatly appreciated and hopefully your answer, and our question, will help other young “scientists” in their quest for knowledge and exploration. Many, many thanks!

    • Not the skin, just the venom. The skin, however can carry salmonella as well as other bacteria and even parasites. Thanks for a good question!

  3. I live in the Northern California foothills where rattlesnakes are quite common. What is the best way to dispose of a dead rattlesnake? If it is buried does the crystallized venom in the fangs last indefinitely? Some people have recommended placing it in the trash.

    • The Northern Pacific rattler does have a potent venom so care should be exercised around them alive or dead. Not sure how long the crystallized venom remains deadly, but it’s best to err on the safest way of approaching. Obviously if the snake is long dead, it could be moved by hand, keeping away from the head. A recently deceased snake is capable of envenomating from nerve spasms for an extended period of time. A lot depends on exactly where the dead snake is located. If it’s near a residence frequented by children or pets, I would move it with a shovel and bury it a couple feet below the surface to prevent scavengers from contacting it. If it’s in a forested or wilderness area, I’d be inclined to let it alone. Putting it into trash would pose a deadly threat to the unknowing person who collects and processes the trash, a dangerous action.
      Thanks for your comments.

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