Lehigh Acres, Florida (News-Press) -- Being bitten by a venomous snake could land a southwest Florida man in prison.
Eddie Chamberlain's encounter with a coral snake last week put him in the intensive care unit at Lee Memorial Hospital for three days.
The encounter also could send him to prison. The possible prison sentence stems from a breaking and entering charge that put the 19-year-old in the Lee County Jail for 80 days last year and on probation.
That probation could be violated if the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, which initially reported he was keeping the snake as a pet, decides to charge him with keeping the snake and fine him. The fine would mean he violated his probation. State wildlife rules mandate a license and specific training to keep such a snake.
"This is another example of the importance of these captive wildlife rules,"said Capt. Leandro Isambert, a supervisor in the FWC's Southwest Regional office. "Licensed individuals are trained to keep themselves and the animals safe."
Chamberlain said that a judge told him that if he violates probation, he could get a stiffer sentence and possibly even prison.
"He told me I could get 25 years in prison," he said.
He and his family are adamant the snake was not a pet. He said he thought it was a king snake and when he learned it was poisonous he was going to release it.
He was at his girlfriend's house in Cape Coral on July 23 when he saw a snake threatening a neighbor's cat and her son. He grabbed the snake and put it in a fish tank.
While handling the snake Saturday it bit him on the thumb. "I've been bitten plenty of times," the Fort Myers native said. "Just not by a poisonous snake."
"I told his dad he better get that snake ID'd," his mother, Dawn, said. When they figured out it was a coral snake, they headed to Lehigh Acres Regional Hospital which then sent him to Lee Memorial Hospital, where the anti-venom was.
"I was freaking out," his mom said.
The key to his recovery was how quick he got the anti-venom, a doctor familiar with the case said.
Dr. Timothy Dougherty, medical toxicologist with the Lee Memorial Hospital System, said the family brought the snake with them for identification, which allowed Chamberlain to get the anti-venom right away.
Chamberlain said his arm started going numb 30 minutes after the bite and then another 30 minutes later he had trouble breathing. Despite that, he said he remained calm.
"The nurses said I was the calmest person they had seen who could have died," he said.
Dougherty said he should experience no long-term complications.
The snake was released back into the wild in a safe location because it is a native species, according to a FWC spokesperson.
In the meantime, Eddie Chamberlain said he will pass the time cutting grass to make money.
"I saved the cat but almost lost my life," he said. "I kinda think I did the good thing."
He said he is concerned about going to prison. It's kinda stupid that they're trying to do that to me."
Only six of Florida's 44 snake species are venomous, the eastern coral snake, the southern copperhead, the cottonmouth, the eastern diamondback rattlesnake, the timber rattlesnake, and the dusky pygmy rattlesnake.
The coral snake is often confused with two other non-venomous Florida snakes, the scarlet kingsnake and the scarlet snake. One easy way to ID a coral snake is via a two-line poem that highlights the differences: Red touching black is a friend of Jack; Red touching yellow can kill a fellow.
Coral snake description: Average adult size is 20-30 inches, record is 47.5 inches. Body: ringed with black, yellow, and red narrow yellow rings that separate the wider red and black rings. The rings continue around the belly of the snake. From tip of snout to just behind the eye the head is black, followed by a wide yellow ring. The tail is black and yellow, without any red rings. The red rings usually contain black flecks and spots. The scales are smooth. The pupil is round. The color pattern of the young is the same as the adults.
The snake occurs throughout Florida, south into the Upper Florida Keys.
Dr. Timothy Dougherty, medical toxicologist with the Lee Memorial Hospital System, said coral snake venom is a neurotoxin and differs from venom from a rattlesnake.
"One aspect is that there is a significant delay in the onset of symptoms," he said. It can take up to 12 hours or more for the venom to take hold and start affecting breathing and motor skills.
The Lee system has coral snake anti-venom in supply, though it is dwindling. The maker of the anti-venom stopped more than 5 years ago and the supply is low, he said.