Stowaway Rattlesnake Bites Arlington Man

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By Daniela Deane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Unpacking a duffel bag in your Arlington County home seems pretty harmless. But that's what Andrew Bacas was doing yesterday when a rattlesnake bit him.

Bacas, the varsity boys' crew coach at Yorktown High School, had just returned home from a spring break conditioning trip to South Carolina with his team. He was unpacking his bag about 9:30 a.m. yesterday, after driving home Saturday, when he felt a sharp pain on his right hand.

"This little monster got into his gear somehow," Esther Bacas, the coach's mother, said of the 10-inch-long snake.

Somehow, her 49-year-old son managed to zip up the duffel bag to keep the snake inside and then call 911. Rescue workers rushed Bacas to Inova Fairfax Hospital, where he was listed in stable condition. His mother said his right hand was so swollen that he couldn't hold the phone to talk to her from his intensive-care bed.

While Bacas was being given an antivenom serum at the hospital, rescue workers were back at his house in the 3400 block of North Venice Street with a potentially dangerous snake on their hands.

Chief Benjamin Barksdale said his rescue workers knew just how to handle the delicate situation: freeze the snake.

Using a 10-foot pole, rescue workers gingerly unzipped the duffel bag, just enough to slip in the nozzle of a carbon dioxide extinguisher, Barksdale said. Then, zap!

"One of the guys had seen it on TV," Barksdale said. "But we've used it before to scare dogs away or freeze rodents."

The Animal Welfare League of Arlington was called in to remove the frozen snake's body. Then authorities were able to positively identify the culprit as a juvenile canebrake rattlesnake, one of the deadliest snakes in the United States.

No one is sure how the snake got into Bacas's duffel bag, but his mother said her son believes it somehow slipped in while he was in South Carolina, then made the trip to Arlington undetected. Arlington police said they do not suspect foul play.

Karl Betz, a reptile expert at the Jacksonville Zoo in Florida, said canebrake bites have caused deaths, but usually those fatal blows are from snakes much larger than the one that attacked Bacas. It was clearly a baby, he said.

Betz said canebrake bites can cause tissue damage and affect the nervous system. In extreme cases, bites can cause respiratory arrest and heart stoppage.

"In my experience, it's the second-deadliest snakebite you can get in the U.S.," Betz said, after a bite from an eastern diamondback rattlesnake. "But this is the best-case scenario for being bit by a canebrake: the fact that it was a juvenile snake with a limited amount of venom."

Betz said canebrakes are a lowland snake, found mostly in swampy areas throughout the eastern half of the United States and as far west as Texas. He said they've been found as far north as Canada.

Or Arlington.

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.


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