Pet Gila monster bites man, who dies in what experts call a "rare event"


The Jefferson County coroner has confirmed that a 34-year-old Colorado man died this month, days after being bitten by one of his two pet Gila monsters.

 / Credit: CBS

/ Credit: CBS

“I think this case highlights that any venomous animals should be respected,” said Dr. Nick Brandehoff, a medical toxicologist and reptile expert with the Asclepius Snakebite Foundation, who was consulted on the Lakewood Gila monster case.

Gila monsters are venomous reptiles found in the southwestern United States. While their bites can be painful, they are normally not fatal to humans. Experts say that the last report of a human dying from a Gila monster bite was in 1930.

A file photo of a gila monster / Credit: Mark Newman/Getty Images

A file photo of a gila monster / Credit: Mark Newman/Getty Images

“The vast majority of bites cause local swelling and bleeding,” said Brandehoff, who said the bites can cause intense localized pain and can cause victims to pass out. But deaths are exceedingly rare.

“The last case I have been able to find,” said Brandehoff, “was 1930 and that was not even a medical journal case.”

According to several experts involved in the Lakewood case, the man — who has not been identified — owned two pet Gila monsters and was bitten by one of them on Feb. 12. It was a juvenile and about 12 inches long. The owner was hospitalized and died the Friday leading into the Presidents Day holiday weekend — four days after the animal bit him.

The Jefferson County Coroner’s Office confirmed the death, saying an autopsy was performed on the bite victim but the precise cause of death won’t be known until additional toxicology testing is completed.

Eric Harper, a criminal investigator with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, said CPW was asked to remove the Gila monsters from the home after the bite. He told CBS News Colorado it is illegal to own Gila monsters in Colorado without a license. Harper said the victim also owned tarantulas which are not illegal to own.

Harper said the Lakewood incident may be an anomaly, but it shows “venomous reptiles are hazardous and should only be handled or possessed by people with the proper training.”

Harper and Brandehoff both said the reptile that bit its owner will be transported this week to a lab in Greeley at the University of Northern Colorado, where its venom will be extracted and studied to bring a greater understanding as to why its bite led to its owner’s death.

Brandehoff said experts will “look at the venom components and see if there is some reason this might occur.” He said while it’s early in the investigation, he suspects the victim may have suffered some kind of allergic reaction to the Gila monster’s venom.

The Lakewood Police Department says the two Gila monsters were removed from the victim’s home and taken to a wildlife rehab center in another state.

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