Skip to main content

Zoo's antivenom program a stealth lifesaver

Posted by Caileigh Robertson, Communications

Aruba Island rattlesnake. Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.

Behind the scenes of Woodland Park Zoo’s Day Exhibit—home to timid tree ‘roos, slow-moving tortoises and venomous snakes—is a refrigerator full of antivenom, life-saving treatments for less fortunate encounters with poisonous reptiles and amphibians. While snake bites are (thankfully!) a rarity among Woodland Park Zoo keepers, doctors at the Washington Poison Center have witnessed their fair share of poisonous bites.

Dr. Jenny Pramuk tours Washington Poison Center and Harborview staff around the zoo's snake collection. Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.

Recently, Woodland Park Zoo’s curator, Jenny Pramuk, welcomed Washington Poison Center and Harborview staff on a tour through the Day Exhibit, to see up-close the zoo’s most venomous animals and behind-the-scenes antivenom supply. The zoo partners with Harborview Medical Center on performing venomous snake bite drills and educational opportunities for staff.

King cobra. Photo by Mat Hayward/Woodland Park Zoo.

Woodland Park Zoo stocks five types of foreign antivenom that provide coverage for the dozen species of venomous snakes living at the zoo. These kinds of antivenom are considered experimental drugs in the U.S. and can only be kept with strict permits. Since poisonous bites from exotic species are rare in the U.S., most hospitals are not licensed to stock the appropriate antivenom, which makes Woodland Park Zoo’s supply a primary resource for the Pacific Northwest medical community.

Visiting health staff explores the zoo's Day Exhibit. Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.

When Washington Poison Center advises snake bite victims to seek immediate medical care, Woodland Park Zoo is often called next. The zoo has advised and supplied antivenom—including exotic antivenom—in more than eight incidents in Washington, Oregon and British Columbia since 2012. In other cases our reptile and amphibian experts help to identify animals responsible for bites or provide a home at the zoo for confiscated, illegal venomous snakes.

A British Columbia man who was bitten by a snake in Costa Rica received antivenom from Woodland Park Zoo. Photo courtesy of Vancouver Coastal Health.

In one instance, a 60-year-old British Columbia man returned from Costa Rica with a serious snake bite that needed urgent attention. Washington Poison Center and Harborview Medical Center looked to Woodland Park Zoo for assistance, and more than 20 of the zoo’s antivenom vials were immediately transported to Canada by helicopter. Thankfully, the man successfully recovered (and he later visited Woodland Park Zoo for his very own tour behind the scenes). In 2014, we were again asked to provide five vials of antivenom to treat a bite from a puff adder in Portland, Oregon.

Northern Pacific rattlesnake. Photo by Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo.

Although poisonous animal encounters may be few and far between in Washington, Woodland Park Zoo’s ongoing relationship with the Washington Poison Center ensures the greater community has prompt, reliable access to life-saving treatments. In case of exposure to poisonous, hazardous, or toxic substances, know that Washington Poison Center is available by phone 24/7/365 to provide free, immediate and confidential advice. Stay safe!