Monday, October 22, 2007

Iniki is dead

On Sunday, I was hiking with the family at Ed Levin Park. Our two black Labradors, Iniki and Bailey, found a rattlesnake in the middle of the path. We called, Bailey came, Iniki didn't, the snake tried to warn her off and after about ten seconds bit her on the muzzle. I'm pretty sure she was dead by the time we got her to the parking lot.

We were probably a mile up the trail, the dogs were in front, off leash, when they found the snake. I had Kathleen on my shoulders and Ava in the pack, probably about 70 pounds all told, on a pretty steep part of the trail. When I saw what the dogs were barking at (a few seconds at most), I got Kathleen on the ground headed back to Martha. Martha heard me yell "snake", and called the dogs. Bailey took off back down the trail, Iniki pointed right at the snake, her muzzle about 5 inches from the thing, barking but not striking. It struck at Iniki repeatedly while I tried to maneuver behind Iniki to go for a grab. I grabbed her by her flanks and yanked. Martha thinks the snake made contact right then.
I should have dropped the backpack with Ava immediately, and then advanced on Iniki. Had I done that, I might have figured out that I could seperate Ava from the pack and then use it as a projectile. With Ava in the pack I was more awkward.

My brother-in-law says the snake's strike range is about 2/3 of their body length, so I was probably in range when I went for the grab -- not very smart. And I screwed around too long setting up the grab. I basically only asserted myself when the snake started striking.

Martha thinks Iniki might have left the snake if I had moved away from it. I don't think so -- 30 minutes earlier she was barking her head off at some dogs on the other side of a fence.
Iniki was a tough if gentle dog. She only whimpered a bit once I had her seperated from the snake. I had her over one shoulder within ten seconds of the bite, and headed back down the trail. At this point I was carrying over 100 pounds on a trail, and I could not run.
Again, I should have dumped Ava with Martha as I passed her. Also, there were several other people within 100 feet. I could have gotten a volunteer to run down the trail with me, trading the load. That would have made a run possible, and also made it possible to check Iniki's airway as she started barfing.
I think the snake bite was very serious. Iniki was barfing and pooping within 2 or 3 minutes, and was unconscious within 5 minutes. This site suggests that death comes from blood loss and then shock "within hours" -- and we just weren't on that schedule.

I made it about halfway down before my arms got seriously wobbly from holding Iniki's weight. Martha caught up, grabbed the dog and kept going. She got 100 feet before she was out of gas. We put Iniki in the baby carrier backpack and I took her the rest of the way down in that. Martha noted when we put her in the pack that her whole rear end was very stiff.
The pack was much easier -- the way to go from the start. I might have been able to run had I started this way. The trouble was I couldn't see Iniki, and I was trying to talk to 911 while walking, and couldn't do that while running either.
Iniki thrashed around a bit about 30 seconds from the parking lot, which I took as a good sign she was still alive. But when I put her hin the car a minute later, I'm pretty sure she was dead.
Later, when we got to the clinic, she doc told us she had aspirated vomit and choked to death. I now think she choked just as she got to the parking lot. I should have dumped the pack and checked her airway when I felt her bucking. I'm feeling seriously bad about this mistake right now.

That said, nobody seems to think she would have made it 25 minutes longer, so I'm not sure my mistake changed the outcome.
We were on an unfamiliar side of the Bay Area. I got someone from the dog park there to drive in front of me and lead me to a vet. Unfortunately, neither she nor the 911 operator I was talking with could find an after-hours weekend vet with anti-venin. It turns out there are only two in the Bay Area, one in San Leandro and one in Campbell. It took at least 25 minutes to drive to the one in Campbell. The doc pronounced her dead when I brought her in.

The biggest question in my mind is, what if it was one of the kids? Iniki was 7 years old, 65 pounds, and unable to control her own airway within 15 minutes. Anya weighs 38 pounds and Kathleen is more like 30. To even have a chance if they had been bitten, we would have had to have an ambulance meet us in the parking lot, maybe with anti-venin, and we would have had to run down the trail. I'm not sure the ambulance folks would have time to pick up anti-venin, and I don't think I could have run all the way down the hill. 911 would have worked better, of course, and there would have been a local hospital with the anti-venin, but it still seems pretty grim.

One big overall mistake here was that I fixed on the idea of getting the dog to emergency aid (and specifically anti-venin) as fast as possible, and neglected everything else. That'll work if aid is minutes away, but if not, it's critical to be able to maintain the basic body functions of the animal (or person!) until help arrives. After reviewing the literature, it seems that anti-venin is not a magic instant cure. Instead, snakebites seem like one more thing where most of what medical science has to offer is basic life support (oxygen, fluids) while one's body fixes the problem on its own.

In this context it is sort of irritating is that the 911 operator couldn't give me basic instructions: check airway, breathing, heartbeat. Perhaps they would have done this eventually; I don't know because I had no cellphone coverage in the parking lot.

I'm feeling sad now.


  1. I'm so sorry, Iain.

  2. This kind of situation is incredibly tough. Rest assured you made reasonable choices given the speed at which events unfolded. In terms of 'lessons learned' you ask, "What if it was one of the kids?" That's a really good question, and a difficult one to answer. "Things would have been different" might seem lame.... But remember: your kids would not have been barking at the snake in the first place!