Video Review: The Venom Interviews: The Work and Science of Venomous Herpetology
by Ray Morgan
Produced by Code Rica International, S.A. 2015. Blu-Ray or DVD (2 discs) format $35.00
Includes: Feature Film (1 hour, 54 minutes), Extended Scenes (3 hours, 27 minutes),
and Bonus Clips (1 hour, 2 minutes)
Order from website: https://thevenominterviews.com/
Review by Tom Lott
In the infancy of the television/video medium, coverage of natural history topics was generally limited to productions with narrow and regulated content, which could be seen only on a few broadcast outlets. When herpetological topics were (rarely) addressed in that era (e.g., Marlin Perkins' various efforts, segments of Walt Disney's nature films, etc.), they were normally treated with a documentary or even educational tone, despite the presence of a substantial amount of staged footage.
With the advent of cable, satellite, and home video formats, with their concomitant lack of regulation and restraint, the presentation of natural history topics has tended to degenerate into sensationalistic programs that play loosely with the facts, attempting to attract viewers who represent a "desired demographic." By appealing to the lowest common denominator of human interest, such sensationalistic shows succeed in pulling in audiences (and thus, advertising revenues) whose short attention spans would never allow them to linger on serious documentary programs.
Even the late Steve Irwin, whose shows were generally factual and educational, and doubtless stimulated many younger viewers into an interest in herpetology, relied to some extent on sensationalism. Part of Irwin's success was almost certainly due to his casual—some would say careless—style of handling extremely dangerous reptiles; I'm sure many viewers watched his show in anticipation of a handling disaster.
Clearly, however, The Venom Interviews is a niche market, direct to consumer production that intends to present a highly hype-able topic (i.e., people who work with and study venomous reptiles) in a factual and non-sensational manner. That's actually the reason why so many well-respected authorities on venomous herpetology (34) agreed to be interviewed for the video.
Videography for the project began in 2010 and took 12 months to complete. It is very well produced, with high-quality video and audio components that are professionally edited into the feature piece, which even includes background music where appropriate. Some viewers might find fault with the generally short sub-segments in the feature portion with frequent cuts between speakers, but, if this is the case, they will almost certainly find the 3½ hours of extra footage available in the bonus sections to satisfactorily address this complaint.
The first segment of the video covers the usual questions someone with an unusual and potentially dangerous occupation or avocation typically receives: how did you become interested in venomous reptiles and what drives you to continue in their study? The nearly unanimous answer to the first part was that the interest grew from an early childhood interest in dinosaurs; the response to the second part was that they found venomous reptiles "fascinating."
The second segment, "Ramping Up," covers the interviewees' transition from harmless reptiles to venomous ones. This typically happened during the early teen years, rarely with parental permission, and much more often in total stealth (bushmaster expert Dean Ripa's account of his adolescent in-home exotic venomous snake menagerie, unknown to his parents, is especially disquieting). Also covered in this portion is the topic of "starter" venomous snakes, those that could presumably ease the transition into venomous keeping.
The experts were unanimous in their view that studying under a "serious" mentor is the ideal means of acquiring a working knowledge of venomous species before embarking upon a solo venture with them. A "serious" mentor is defined as one who is scientifically interested in the animals for their own sake rather than someone who uses the snakes as a sort of macho prop; of course, potential mentors run the gamut from serious to those motivated by machismo. Interestingly, most of the experts do not recommend learning about venomous snakes in the self-taught manner that they themselves did!
In the "Private Sector" chapter it is disclosed that, since most of the venom experts interviewed began their vocations as private keepers, the majority of them expressed a high regard for "serious" private keepers, extolling their contributions to the husbandry and biology of the species they kept. Such keepers were described as those who had a genuine interest in the animals themselves, had access to antivenom (especially for exotic species), and had developed some sort of action plan in the event of an envenomation.
Virtually all of the experts expressed regret at the negative publicity generated by accidents, especially in the private sector, but most also saw no positive value in excessive political regulation that succeeds mainly in driving the hobby underground. Only one of the experts interviewed offered the opinion that private keepers were "ill-equipped" to keep venomous reptiles due to their common failure to have appropriate antivenom available. Most of the interviewees considered the state of Florida's relatively moderate regulations to be a reasonable compromise, although that state's requirement of 1000 hours of internship seems a bit excessive when many states allow the carrying of concealed handguns with as little as 10 hours of instruction, and one major civilian aircraft manufacturer boasts that many prospective private aviators may be able to solo with as few as 10 hours of flight lessons.
The chapter entitled "Putting Risk in Perspective" points out that in developed countries fatalities and disfigurement from snakebite is a rare occurrence and that primitive so-called treatments (such as cutting and suction) actually can result in more harm than good. The case is also made that venom LD50 values determined in mice do not correspond well to recorded human fatality statistics; species with the highest human fatality rates are generally not those whose venom is indicated to be the most toxic in LD50 studies. Some species are considered more dangerous due to various other factors such as venom yield, temperament, abundance near human habitations, etc. The myth that baby snakes are inherently more dangerous than adults is definitively put to rest.
In "An Ounce of Prevention," most of those interviewed took a dim view of the adage that when one works with venomous snakes a bite is "not a matter of if, but when," even though the majority of them had suffered one or more bites during their careers. Virtually all discouraged "hands-on" physical contact with snakes unless absolutely necessary, cautioning that absolute attention is required at all times when interacting with venomous snakes; falling into a routine invites the greatest danger of lowering one's attention level. All recommended the adoption of strictly followed safety protocols.
The segment entitled "A Living Experiment" stresses the fact that every snake bite is different and thus they are difficult to categorize. Included is Jim Harrison's personal video that was shot to document his recent Fer-de-lance (Bothrops atrox) bite, during which, after his initial release, he had to be readmitted to the hospital due to the painful development of an abscess, which he compared to "being tortured." A survivor's account of an Inland Taipan (Oxyuranus microlepidotus) bite in which the local lack of antivenom initially delayed treatment is also included (according to LD50 values, this species has the most toxic venom of any snake).
The controversial use of the highly disfiguring technique of fasciotomy by surgeons called in on snake bites is disparaged as unnecessary in most cases. Apparently, surgeons tend to mistake the great swelling associated with many snake bites with true "compartment syndrome," usually related to mechanical injury and perform a fasciotomy to relieve pressure. The venom experts instead contend that continued use of antivenom is more effective in dealing with venom-induced swelling and pressure with far fewer disfiguring after-effects.
In the segment "Once Bitten" it is noted that snakebite tends to correlate with testosterone, with twice as many males bitten as females, although at least one of the toxinologists tends to believe that bites due to "questionable behavior" are in the minority. All of the interviewees stressed the aphorism that, in the treatment of snakebite, "time is tissue," meaning that the sooner antivenom is administered, the less likely that the victim will suffer permanent tissue and/or organ damage.
Additionally, venomous keepers should be aware that the probability of developing an allergy to their snakes' venom, just from the usual husbandry chores, is significant and can be much more rapidly fatal than an envenomation. Some keepers and even some physicians have refused antivenom treatment due to fears of anaphylactic shock associated with earlier generations of antivenom. However, the experts argue that this concern should not preclude a person from receiving antivenom, since the rate of allergic reactions is much reduced in the modern products, and, even if anaphylaxis should develop, medical facilities are well-prepared to treat it.
The "All About Antivenom" portion of the feature effectively dismisses the notion that reptile venoms can be conveniently lumped into only two traditional categories—i.e., either neurotoxic or hemotoxic—and is supported by excellent graphics to illustrate how venoms are complex substances that may consist of many different, specifically-acting toxins. Also accompanied with exceptional graphics, is one of the clearest and most accessible explanations of how biochemical advances have succeeded in cleaving the antibody molecule, removing the most antigenic portion (the Fc chain), to produce the so-called third-generation antivenoms (basically the Fa and Fb portions of the antibody molecule), which have vastly reduced incidences of allergic reactions compared to first-generation, essentially pure horse serum products. Unfortunately, any remaining unbound Fa+b chains are eliminated from the bloodstream more rapidly than venom (~72 hours), thus necessitating continuing the administration of antivenom well after the patient has apparently improved; failure to do so can result in a "relapse" of symptoms due to remnants of un-neutralized venom after the antibodies have been excreted.
Also stressed is the financial burden involved in treating a snakebite. With modern antivenoms costing around $5000-$11,000 per vial, wholesale, a typical snakebite currently, without complications, normally runs about $100,000. Of course, if your medical insurance provider learns that a bite was connected to your avocation, you might well expect them to attempt to weasel out of paying and/or dropping your coverage. Regrettably, the experts, some of whom have suffered multiple bites, didn't dwell upon this negative aspect of maintaining venomous reptiles at any great length.
The segment entitled "Now What?" has the panel of experts reflecting that the future of venomous herpetology promises improved husbandry techniques, especially where species that are currently regarded as difficult to maintain are concerned. Also expressed is the hope that further genetic and biochemical advances will result in even more improved methods for treating future envenomations.
In addition, although I have not yet thoroughly perused all of the 3½ hours of "Extended Scenes" and "Bonus Clips" included with this video, those that I have viewed have been well-worth the time involved. A good example is Dr. Steven Seifert's commentary on the current status (or lack thereof) of coral snake antivenom in the United States.
In summary, anyone who is sufficiently interested in snakebite to have read a number of case histories will recognize that in many instances the victim may well be better versed in the treatment of snakebite than the physician who finds himself in the uncomfortable position of being expected to minister to such a victim. The typical emergency room doctor—through no fault of his own—has had little or no training in dealing with snake bites (some even harbor outdated views or complete misconceptions about appropriate therapies); two hours spent watching this video could be of great value when they encounter their first one.
Consequently, I would strongly propose that anyone who is employed outdoors where they might encounter venomous snakes, anyone who is currently, or is contemplating keeping venomous reptiles, and—perhaps especially—any medical personnel who might be called upon to treat bites from such animals, could greatly benefit from viewing this production.
As someone who has been working with venomous reptiles for more than 50 years, mostly in an avocational capacity, but occasionally as a professional, I must congratulate Ray Morgan and the team of venom experts who agreed to participate in this project. The Venom Interviews is an informative and non-sensational treatise that addresses the topic in a competent and up-to-date manner; as experienced and attentive to the subject as I am, I still managed to learn quite a bit from this video. Even for those herpers who are not involved with venomous reptiles, but merely curious about them, this production is quite entertaining as well as instructive. I highly recommend it.
[This review originally appeared in the Summer 2016 edition of the SWCHR Bulletin]