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Black Mamba Bite: The Back Story

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 24, 2013

The model (a black mamba) gets snappish with the photographer

The model (a black mamba) gets snappish with the photographer

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.”


UPDATE:  Here’s a more recent story about doing dumb things with black mambas.


37 Responses to “Black Mamba Bite: The Back Story”

  1. Harry Greene said

    Great follow-up Richard, thanks!

  2. This story sends shivers down my spine, it could have ended tragically. The guy was a moron for not rushing to the hospital, but it seems to be a common reaction to snake bites – if it doesn’t hurt then people think that nothing is going to happen. After being bitten by a viper I had a massive reaction only several hours later, luckily I was already in the hospital and recovered without major complications.

    • I totally agree. The guy was lucky to receive a dry bite, but you can never be sure until many hours later. Boomslang bites sometimes have no effect for twelve hours, but you can still die afterwards.

      • Nick said

        Boomslang venom is haemotoxic and causes internal bleeding. The venom starts to act immediately, however it takes a long time (anywhere between 10-24 hours) for symptoms to become apparent (bleeding out your eyes, nose ears, mouth etc..). It is extremely important to get the antivenom before these symptoms become apparent because by the time symptoms start to show, severe internal damage has already occurred.

  3. Bill Lamar said

    Richard, in looking at the photo and in consideration of mamba fang position, it is hard to see this as a dry bite. It seems rather more likely that the fortuitous presence of an artery actually served to conduct the venom away rather than in. The bullet doged by the victim, however, was in the mismanagement of the bite.

    • Bites can be dry even with the fangs piercing the skin; in such cases, the snake simply doesn’t inject venom. I know of one case of a cobra bite to a major arthery in which the outcome was very different, so it doesn’t seem to be a good thing.

      • Bill Lamar said

        Take a careful look at the photograph. If you are deeply experienced with snakes my point will be understandable, all the moreso when one considers mamba dentition. Dry bites are always possible, but in this case it does not appear to be a defensive nip.

      • Bill: it sure looks like the snake is not in a playful mood 🙂 But it’s hard to believe that any substantial quaintity of venom was injected in this case. Perhaps the snake already bit the hook a few times during pre-photo handling, or was milked before shooting?

    • nikolaz sebastiano said

      Too true Bill. The black mamba is considered by many to be the most dangerous snake in the world. They seldom dry bite, and will bite a half dozen times while the victim is thrashing around in panic. He is very lucky to be alive!

  4. […] black mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis) biting Laita’s calf. The photographer told Richard Conniff that he wore shorts as opposed to pants because the swishing of his pants might have startled the […]

  5. Mark Berry said

    Wow. Laita’s stupidity in not going to the hospital is almost forgivable (I wouldn’t have known any better, though maybe research is a good idea if you’re going to do this kind of thing), but surely the handler has questions to answer? I’d suggest he should have absolutely insisted on hospital treatment.

    • Yes, the handler would have had serious questions to answer and maybe that’s one reason he did not send Laita to the hospital. He should have realized that answering questions about a corpse would have been even more awkward.

  6. Don McKenna said

    Appalling lack of common sense all around. Lucky for all involved. Hope the book does well.

  7. Glad you are okay – Incredible pictures – please be more careful, I don’t care to see pictures of snakes at the expense of your health.

  8. […] venom allowing Mark to continue his work. Mark attributes the snake not releasing the venom “to hold it for something it was going to eat.” Whatever the reason, we’re thankful for the work he’s done and can’t wait to see […]

  9. Short URL said Short URL

  10. More news about doing dumb things with mambas, from South Africa:

  11. Frank said

    This is a HOAX! First of all, research indicates that black mambas never strike and not envenomate. “Dry bites” among this species is basically non-existent. If that snake had its venom apparatus intact, this guy would have been in serious trouble. I don’t believe the account as presented.

  12. Frank said

    Black mambas don’t hold back any venom when striking defensively. Their venom glands carry massive amounts of venom, and a “dry bite” among black mamba bites are unheard of.

    • William W. Lamar said

      Never say never. If this is a hoax it is a jolly good one and evidence should be detectable by someone. While it is highly unusual, I have seen venomous snakes including an adult Indian cobra that, for one reason or another, were incapable of getting their act together in order to consistently deliver a venomous bite. The cobra frequently was incapable of killing a mouse, and that despite trying mightily. So, there are a number of variables at play.

  13. […] Here is the scary part of the story as told to Richard Conniff of strange behaviors: […]

  14. From what i gathered from first hand experience of handling mamba the last thirty years,i doubt a few facts around this incident.

    1. This mamba seems to be approximately 1.8 meters [ six foot ] long.Not older than two years.

    2. The fact that it is not just a strike,but a definite bite demonstrating muscle action on the poison glands.

    3. Bite by any poisonous snake directly into artery would cause death in less than twenty minutes.

    4. From specific mamba encounters,heart / lung and neuro problems will start within ten to twenty minutes.

  15. Raini Way said

    I’ve read that there were previously no records of a black mamba delivering a dry bite. Therefore it was very foolish of this photographer to not immediately go to the hospital. They would not have administered antivenin until he started displaying symptoms, so the dry bite would have been more well-documented. It’s doubtful he bled out the venom. It was almost certainly a previously unheard of dry bite. And left untreated, black mamba bites carry the highest mortality rate among humans of any snake, at 100%. Granted, the inland taipan mortality rate is undocumented, as no recorded bite has been left untreated (and thus there are no recorded deaths from that species). But even the Australian brown snake and coastal taipan carry a lower untreated mortality rate, despite having higher LD values and a comparable venom yield to the black mamba.

    What he did right: Remaining calm and keeping his heart rate low.
    What he did wrong: Refusing medical consultation and/or treatment.

    Anyone who suffers any bite from a venomous snake should seek medical attention, for more than just the venom, even if they believe they may have received a dry bite. Some species have venom that causes tissue necrosis, which can lead to secondary infection. Some people are allergic to venom, and even a mild copperhead bite can induce anaphylactic shock. Not all venomous bites require antivenin treatment, but symptoms should still be monitored by medical professionals. “The most dangerous snake in the world is the one that just bit you.” And remember, 80% of bites are 100% deserved.

  16. […] a special place in my heart, or maybe it’s my amygdala, for these stories, and particularly for stories of people doing dumb things around these beautiful and generally harmless (but terrifying) […]

  17. Unto Ryodi said

    BM just dont bite once and usually not at your foot. They are very aggressive and can deliver multiple bites in split second. They raise themselves up and bite upper part of your body. I think this whole story is a hoax.

  18. Bruce Moore said

    I am only a venomous snake enthusiast, but I find this to be quite suspicious. Dry bites and black mambas? I have always read that they are not likely to do so. Also the other comments above seem quite pertinent. The most likely answer I read above (assuming that the photographer is telling the truth about the venom glass being in tact) is that the mamba had been milked. He never addressed that. AND let’s face it.. NOONE would be in shorts for a shoot with a black mamba that had not been milked, and NO snake handler would not make him get medical attention….. This is a sham. Frankly, it makes for great reading, right up until the moment that you have been bamboozled. I don’t know as much about snakes as most of you, but I know about PT Barnum who said, “There is a sucker born every minute.”

    • Bruce Moore said

      A couple typos I did above LOL. Venom “glands” not glass. NO ONE and moment that you REALIZE that you have been bamboozled…

  19. Dana Cunningham said

    frankly this anecdote causes me NOT to purchase Laita’s book although that’s what I here to do.
    The hot snake collector “handled the (momba) snake like a boa” ….nope.
    as others, above, note: momba+dry bite….nope.
    then the inexcusable, ‘not going to the hospital for anti-vemon’ ….no, no, no.
    None of this happened in the real world, the world we all live in, because we don’t do any of the above.

  20. Dana Cunningham said

    sorry wrt the typos above: I did wish to purchase and obtain photographs from Laita’s work. the photos may be beautiful but the bullsh!t overcomes the beauty.
    anti-venom, n and m transposed.
    imo: the ‘leading collector’ milked or surgically altered the snake OR both. if a ‘leading collector’ handled the mamba as he/she would a boa the collection would overtake collector’s hubris. so be it.

    • Mike said

      Granted, it is amazing that the photographer survived, captured a photo, and that Mark/snake handler did not admit or, if necessary, force Mark to medical care. Obviously irresponsible and pretty disappointing re: the lack of medical care, if not for the bite then the profuse bleeding. However, there is always a risk in dealing with venomous snakes, so neither Mark nor the handler deserve condemnation for the bite. I have read some very stupid comments related to this story I want to address:

      1) How can anyone claim so matter-of-factly that ANY snake, no less one endemic to an area where epidemiology is always sketchy, does not deliver dry bites?!? A comprehensive study would have to include a wide range of snakes of all ages, sexes, varied conditions, environments, diets, genotyping and phenotypic data for a REAL biologist to even suppose that dry bites are as uncommon as all of you claim.
      2) I love all animals, but my affinity for the grossly misunderstood and appallingly under-loved snakes of our amazing fauna has & will always remain. As such, I have to commend people like Mark who endeavor to change the public idiocy/ignorance & too often apathetic or malicious attitude towards snakes. People such as him, who not only do this work, but do so even at risk to themselves (and this work is done in so many ways and in so many forms, too numerous to list) deserve our admiration and accolades for spreading awareness or making even one more individual care about our precious and amazing, but too often-neglected animals.
      3)I am cynical, but having read this story, I accept all the important facts at face value, despite the questionable behavior in the aftermath of the bite. Things are taken out of context so so easily and Mark has done several interviews and several responsible writers and respected publications carry the essence of this same story. The pertinent points are indeed real & true.

      Mark, books like Serpentine were what I spent countless hours absorbed in as a child. Completly in awe of snakes’ raw evolutionary mastery, beauty, diversity, and complex simplicity, I was beyond determined to somehow persuade others of their value. I am a molecular toxicologist and aspiring to harness and demonstrate the limitless potential for venoms and natural toxins to produce game-changing medicines.

      **If only more people knew how important nature’s molecular library is to our betterment, then the mass would be a lot more concerned about our seeming eagerness to destroy the treasure trove in which we live.*** Glad you’re okay, Mark. Stay safe.

  21. […] blood was gushing out,” Laita told Strange Behaviors. “Both fangs hit an artery in my calf, like the snake knew what it was […]

  22. […] blood was gushing out,” Laita told Strange Behaviors. “Both fangs hit an artery in my calf, like the snake knew what it was […]

  23. […] blood was gushing out,” Laita told Strange Behaviors. “Both fangs hit an artery in my calf, like the snake knew what it was […]

  24. […] blood was gushing out,” Laita told Strange Behaviors. “Both fangs hit an artery in my calf, like the snake knew what it was […]

  25. […] blood was gushing out,” Laita told Strange Behaviors. “Both fangs hit an artery in my calf, like the snake knew what it was […]

  26. […] blood was gushing out,” Laita told Strange Behaviors. “Both fangs hit an artery in my calf, like the snake knew what it was […]

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