1. Life & Culture

Jeff Klinkenberg on the bite that finally changed a South Florida snake handler

Published Jan. 2, 2014

His latest Real Florida:

Joe Wasilewski has handled thousands of snakes during the last half century. He has suffered more than a dozen venomous bites, including a few that led to the emergency room. "If you're an electrician,'' he tells people, "you expect a shock every once in a while. If you handle enough reptiles, you're going to be bitten.''

So he's careful. He's also — and he'll be the first to tell you this — sometimes an impatient guy. In late November, he'd been away from home for a while — Seattle and Jamaica. He had phone calls to make and people to meet. He had cages to clean. He was jet-lagged. He was in a hurry.

He flipped on the light in his snake room. The rattlesnakes' unhappy cacophony filled the air.

He opened a cage and used a short pole to lift the buzzing 4-foot diamondback at its fattest point. In a well-practiced move, he slid the snake into a garbage can for safekeeping while he cleaned the cage.

Then it was time to reverse the process. Hook the snake in the middle, position head away from you, slide it back into the cage.

He felt a sharp sting in his left forearm.

"Oh, oh,'' he told his son, Nick. "I think he got me.''

While his son called 911, Wasilewski got a funny metallic taste in his mouth. His lips tingled, he sweated profusely, he threw up.

He usually knows, after a few minutes, whether he'll be okay. Those bites Wasilewski rides out at home. This one was different. Sitting in his front yard, as the pain traveled up his arm to his chest, he waited to hear the ambulance siren.