Despite being bitten over 100 times, Bjorn Unger is wrapped as ever in world of reptiles
Cape Town - He has been bitten more than a 100 times but always comes back, because caring for reptiles is his poison.
Owner of Reptile Garden in Monkey Town and Stodels Nursery in Bellville Björn Unger has been bitten by a rock monitor lizard, an indigenous lizard that falls in the varanus family like the komodo dragon, and non-venomous snakes such as boas, pythons, rat snakes and house snakes.
“I have been bitten more times than I can remember but never from anything venomous besides a rock monitor lizard,” Unger said.
“In that instance, 10 minutes in, I had cold sweats, nausea and felt like I was going to black out or throw up.
“Then for about two hours every muscle in my body went stiff. I could even feel all the tendons that help to move our eyes.
“The worst snake bites I have had are from big pythons, as they hold on and constrict. It feels like 60 to 100 needles trying to tear through your skin. The most painful is when it hits tendons, veins and bone. Luckily, snakes don’t want to bite and if you know what the warnings are, they will warn you again and again.”
The Durbanville resident owns more than 80 species of reptiles, from harmless geckos to king cobras. His other snakes include anacondas, rat snakes, kingsnakes, vipers, mambas and death adders.
“They are fascinating animals but given a really bad name from the most destructive species on Earth. I love the different species and their attributes, from colour, behaviour, venom, body language, defensive behaviours and hunting styles.
“A boomslang is sexually dimorphic. Males in the Cape are black with a yellow or green belly, sometimes blue, and up country they are green or green and black. Females are brown or reddish brown with white to cream bellies. However, with many snakes you can’t tell if they are male or female and even the type of snake,” he said.
It all started when Unger has an albino California kingsnake as a pet.
“I was amazed that this harmless snake could eat a rattlesnake. I read some snake books and was just blown away by the differences between these species from how they look to how they hunt and differ greatly,” he said.
Some of the warning signs when a snake wants to bite include making a hissing noise, rattling or vibrating its tail, winding up to strike, and nervous or flighty behaviour.
Unger said that working with venomous snakes in the beginning was a bit nerve-racking.
“There is always the danger of being bitten. You constantly have to remind yourself that just one slip-up can cost your life. It takes patients, understanding. You never want to get complacent. Normally, if you get bitten, it was your fault. Biting is the last resort for a snake.”
His mother, Mai, described him as passionate and hard-working.
“Björn is a very easy-going son, who is willing to do anything for his parents and friends. His love for snakes and other reptiles started while he was still at school. He is very responsible with the snakes and other reptiles. Whatever makes him happy is good for his father and I,” she said.
Meanwhile, head of the emergency unit at Steve Biko Academic Hospital, Andreas Engelbrecht, had a special interest in snakebites for more than 20 years. He managed many snakebite victims including patients bitten by black mambas, green mambas, snouted cobras, boomslang, rinkhals, puff adders, stiletto snakes, night adders and even pythons.
Engelbrecht advises people who have been bitten by a venomous snake to remain calm and call an ambulance.
“Don’t try to kill the snake, you’ll get bitten again, but take a picture if you can. If the snake is already killed, use tongs to put it in a rigid container and transport it to the hospital. Remove rings and bracelets if you’ve been bitten on the hand.
“Don’t do silly things like drink alcohol, apply electric shocks to the bite, and cut the wound and suck it. The venom has spreading factors and it’s impossible to suck it out. Don’t burn the wound or apply a tourniquet.
A tight-pressure bandage can be useful in cobra and mamba bites,” he said.
In South Africa, two snake antivenoms are used.
South African Vaccine Producers (SAVP) polyvalent antivenom and monovalent boomslang antivenom.
“SAVP polyvalent antivenom can be used to treat the bite of 10 snakes which can be remembered by the 1-2-3-4 rule. One rinkhals, two adders (puff adder and gaboon adder), three mambas (black mamba, green mamba, jameson’s mamba) and four cobras (Mozambican spitting cobra, cape cobra, forest cobra and snouted cobra).
“At least four vials of the antivenom must be given to be effective but I have given up to 30 vials in a patient that sustained multiple bites from a cobra. Children must receive the same dose as adults, because the snake doesn’t give a smaller dose of venom to children. Monovalent boomslang antivenom must be given to save patients’ lives in confirmed boomslang bites,” said Engelbrecht.
He said a snakebite was recognised in 2018 by the World Health Organization as a neglected tropical disease.
“There are about 5 million bites worldwide of which 2 million are serious.
“It causes loss of limbs and disfigurement to women and manual labourers which negatively impact their lives.
“About 120 000 die of snakebite each year. Half of that is in India and about 20 000 in Africa. Most deaths in Africa are caused by a small hemotoxic snake called the saw-scaled viper.
“The public must be educated about how to avoid snake bites.
“Many bites can be avoided by not interfering or trying to kill snakes.”