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Florida Snakebites on the Rise

AMPA -- A deadly pet cobra that bit its owner this week is part of a growing trend of venomous bites that has some emergency rescue workers squirming.

"It has been on the rise," said Miami-Dade County (Fla.) Fire Rescue Venom Response Team Lt. Eddie Ballester. The team houses an antivenin bank that helps treat poisonous snakebite victims across the Southeast United States.

"More and more people are getting these permits," he said, "and many are just so they can have these snakes as pets. Along with that, unfortunately we are seeing an increase in bites."

Some are for those who milk their snakes and sell the venom to others who make and bottle antivenin, he said. Others breed and sell them.

"But," he said. "We are finding that a majority are for pets."

And many are for snakes that are not indigenous to Florida.

The most recent such bite occurred in Bushnell just after midnight Wednesday.

Jack Eugene Hildreth, 50, of 1620 N. West St., Bushnell, called 911 at 12:21 a.m., and told the dispatcher he had been bitten by his pet Indian cobra. He was conscious when paramedics arrived but lost consciousness soon thereafter, authorities said. He was taken to Leesburg Regional Medical Center and then flown to Orlando Regional Medical Center.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is investigating the incident, but so far investigators have been unable to interview Hildreth about the bite because of his condition.

Hildreth received a permit from the state commission to possess venomous reptiles. His permit expires Jan. 7.

Commission spokeswoman Joy Hill said Hildreth on Thursday did regain consciousness at the hospital, but it would be at least a few days before he could be interviewed by investigators.

"He's not really in a position to talk to us right now," she said early this afternoon.

Investigators will go by his home to inspect the cages, she said, but it doesn't appear anything was out of order.

It was just one of those things, she said.

"If you have snakes," she said, "you are going to get bit."

It took 20 vials of Indian cobra antivenin to treat Hildreth, Ballester said, and that's a lot.

The South Florida team flew 10 vials up early Wednesday morning and then doubled that amount Wednesday afternoon. Hildreth was in critical but stable condition at the Orlando hospital on Wednesday. His condition today was unavailable per his family's request, a hospital spokesman said.

Ballester said Hildreth required more antivenin than usual.

"He needed more antivenin because it was such a venomous bite," he said.

Twenty vials, he said, "is a significant amount."

Antivenins are as varied as the venomous snakes out there, and a snakebite by a specific poisonous snake requires an antidote specific to that snake. The antivenin bank has antidotes for every kind of venomous snake alive, Ballester said.

So, knowing what kind of snake is involved is critical, he said.

"Often, we will inform the victim of a snakebite that, even if he or she destroys the snake, not to discard it," Ballester said. "Take a picture of it. Anything so we may properly match it to an antivenin."

Reporter Keith Morelli can be reached at (813) 259-7760 or kmorelli@tampatrib.com

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