Black Mamba Bite: The Back Story
Posted by Richard Conniff on February 24, 2013
There’s been a lot of buzz on the internet suggesting that photographer Mark Laita’s image of a black mamba biting him on the calf is just a set-up, a bid to publicize his book Serpentine, due out next week. So I contacted him for further details and he quickly phoned me with the story.
“It looks like a set-up,” he said, “because who the hell would stand there with a black mamba biting his leg and take a photo of it? The whole thing seems preposterous.” But it has also become a distraction and an embarrassment, he said, because everybody is talking about the black mamba bite instead of the book. “The whole thing is stupid, and it makes me look like a reckless jackass, which I’m not.”
It happened when he was photographing snakes at the home of a leading collector, he said. With other venomous snakes, he had taken all the usual precautions. Because the king cobra is aggressive and fast, for instance, he photographed that snake completely enclosed in a plexiglass box. With the spitting cobra, he wore a mask, long sleeves and gloves to keep off the venom.
But when it was time to photograph the black mamba, the collector “was handling him like you would a boa. He was a really calm, cool snake. An old snake, not a young, excitable one.”
Laita said he wore shorts because the movement of pants legs might have startled the snake, and also because snake handlers told him “the worst thing is when it climbs up your pants leg.” (O.K., I think we can all agree on that one.)
Laita proceeded to make the kind of photographs that appear in the book, on a black background, to reveal the texture and color and shape of the snake. Afterward, the mamba calmly started to circle around his foot and Laita asked the collector to take his studio camera and hand him a point-and-shoot. Then he began rattling off 20 or 30 photographs, at which point the collector reached in with the snake hook to draw the mamba away. Instead, the hook bumped into a red photographic cable that was hanging down.
That spooked the snake, which struck.
Laita said he felt nothing at first and wasn’t looking through the viewfinder of the camera, so didn’t actually see what had happened. But after a minute the collector said, “Dude, you got hit.”
“The blood was gushing out” Laita recalled, and I said, ‘Oh, fuck.’ He said ‘How do you feel?’ It had been a minute and I felt fine. ‘How’s your heart? How’s your breathing?’ And I said, ‘I’m not happy at getting bitten by the snake, but I’m fine.’” He still felt that way 20 minutes later. His sock was soaked and his sneaker was filled with blood.
“”Both fangs hit an artery in my calf, like the snake knew what it was doing,” said Laita.
They stopped the bleeding with a paper towel compress held down with a can of Red Bull, he said. There was a big welt around the fang marks. “It looked kind of like a mushroom was growing under my skin.” He did not go to the doctor or the hospital, which the collector said is equipped with black mamba antivenom. Laita said that herpetologists have all told him since then that this was incredibly stupid, because even if you feel fine, “something can happen even seven hours later.” It “hurt like hell that night. It was like being stuck with a couple of push pins.” But that was it.
A reader of my previous post about the incident had suggested “The snake is likely venomoid which entails having the venom glands removed in a pointless surgery that hurts the snakes so that yahoos can have ‘venomous snakes.’” But Laita said this snake had not had its venom glands removed. He figures that an older snake might “bite without injecting venom, to hold it for something it was going to eat, and it obviously wasn’t going to eat me.” Or maybe whatever trace of venom was in the bite got immediately flushed out by the rapid bleeding.
One reason people think the whole incident was a set up, Laita said, was that a British newspaper account incorrectly reported that he did not even noticed he’d been bitten till next day. What he actually told that reporter, Laita said, was that he did not know he had gotten a photograph of being bitten till he was reviewing photos that night. Then he blinked through the 10 or 20 photos of the snake slithering around his leg, and 10 or 20 more of the blood pouring down, and sure enough, right in the middle, “There it was.”
When he got home and told his wife, “She wanted to hit me in the head with a frying pan,” he said. His editor just laughed and said it would be great publicity. “But I just want it to go away and not talk about it any more,” he said.
And I believe him. But I also pointed out that in this case, the old saying seems especially pertinent: “The only bad publicity is an obituary.”