Doctors learn treatment at zoo’s ‘Venom Day’

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The John Ball Zoo hosted Venom Day Thursday morning to help train doctors on how to respond to snake and reptile bites.

Reptile specialists at John Ball Zoo are hoping what they teach doctors on Venom Day will help them save lives.

Herman the Gila Monster is a venomous lizard.

  • The Gila Monster, a poisonous lizard that's part of the John Ball Zoo collection. (Jan. 25, 2024)
    The Gila Monster, a poisonous lizard that's part of the John Ball Zoo collection. (Jan. 25, 2024)
  • The Gila Monster, a poisonous lizard that's part of the John Ball Zoo collection. (Jan. 25, 2024)
    The Gila Monster, a poisonous lizard that's part of the John Ball Zoo collection. (Jan. 25, 2024)
  • The Gila Monster, a poisonous lizard that's part of the John Ball Zoo collection. (Jan. 25, 2024)
    The Gila Monster, a poisonous lizard that's part of the John Ball Zoo collection. (Jan. 25, 2024)
  • A training session using a fake lizard prop, simulating a bite from a Gila Monster at John Ball Zoo. (Jan. 25, 2024)
    A training session using a fake lizard prop, simulating a bite from a Gila Monster at John Ball Zoo. (Jan. 25, 2024)
  • The Rat snake, a non-venomous snake that is part of the John Ball Zoo collection. (Jan. 25, 2024)
    The Rat snake, a non-venomous snake that is part of the John Ball Zoo collection. (Jan. 25, 2024)
  • A training session simulating a snake bite at John Ball Zoo. (Jan. 25, 2024)
    A training session simulating a snake bite at John Ball Zoo. (Jan. 25, 2024)

The team also showed the students two non-venomous snakes to teach them about snake behavior and handling.

“Here at John Ball Zoo we have many different venomous snakes and lizards and this gives us an opportunity to work with the emergency departments and their staff and their trainees to actually simulate what it would be like if one of us was bitten,” said Tess Dugas, reptile curator with John Ball Zoo.

The training is normally held at the zoo every three years but has not been held since 2018 because of the pandemic.

Residents with Corewell Health and the Michigan State College of Human Medicine are put through different scenarios. The zoo staff plays the role of a patient and assists the doctors conducting the training.

While there is only one venomous snake native to Michigan and bite cases are rare, Brian Lewis, a toxicologist and emergency medicine doctor, said a fast response is crucial.   

“What we’re trying to get them to take away is how to quickly recognize and begin treatment for a snake envenomation, whether that’s something that lives in Michigan or something that’s been brought in here, that way they’re prepared to prevent any damage to someone’s limb or risk to their life,” Lewis said.

Getting proper medical care can help reduce the risk of losing a limb or other injuries.

“If you encounter a snake and you don’t know what it is or you think it’s venomous, don’t approach it and back away from it, leave it alone. But if you do end up getting bit, the most important thing is to seek medical care immediately,” Lewis said.

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