People who handle a lot of snakes will sooner or later be bitten — snake wranglers accept the fact that any bite might be their last — and that was the end for Barry Lester who died during a day outdoors, celebrating his 57th birthday on Sunday.
He had picked up many snakes over the years and always avoided getting bit — and always warned others they should never do as he did — according to his wife, Roberta Lester.
He picked up a timber rattlesnake in Osage County that was crossing the road as the pair traveled back roads on the way to Walnut Creek, a tributary of Keystone Lake.
“We were just going to walk and have a day outside enjoying the lake,” she said. “It was his birthday.”
As he had done many times over the years, he stopped when he spotted the snake, grabbed a stick to pin the snake’s head to the ground and he grabbed it behind the head.
Lester often caught snakes, usually not venomous ones, and brought them back home to let them loose to help control mouse populations, she said. Of his purpose in catching the rattlesnake she said, “I have no idea.”
The snake, a young adult timber rattlesnake about 42 inches long, turned and sank its fangs into its captor.
“It bit his left hand, and then he put it in his right and it bit that hand too,” Roberta Lester said.
The former competitive rodeo calf roper and iron worker flipped the snake into the empty toolbox in the bed of his pickup and told his wife he needed to go to the hospital.
They called an ambulance and raced back to meet it at their home in Turley to transfer him for the remainder of the trip to St. John Medical Center but it was too late, she said.
“He was talking and his head dropped, and I think that was it,” she said tearfully.
Emergency medical personnel in the ambulance and at the hospital attempted to revive him without success. She said the doctors told her his death was due to the combination of the rattlesnake bite and an existing heart condition.
“My message is you don’t mess with snakes,” she said. “If you hear it rattling, you leave it alone.”
An additional problem arose as Lester lay dying in the hospital. His pickup in the parking garage still had a timber rattlesnake in the toolbox.
“I asked the doctors. What am I going to do with that?” she said.
Carlos Gomez, Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation game warden for Tulsa County, was asked to remove the snake.
“That was a first for me,” said the longtime game warden. “At first the call was that it was a snake in the trunk of a car, and I thought that really was bizarre. I was actually happy it was an empty toolbox. A snake would have a lot of places to hide in a car trunk.”
Gomez used a snake hook to fish the reptile out of the toolbox, put it in a pillow case provided by a nurse at the hospital, tied it shut, and put it in the toolbox of his own truck.
“I’ve gotten some feedback from people saying that snake should be killed, but that snake didn’t do anything wrong,” Gomez said. “It was doing what it naturally does to defend itself.”
Monday afternoon Gomez connected with snake hunter Tim Fitzer of Haskell, who has 40 years of experience wrangling snakes, milking them for venom and was featured on Discovery Channel’s “Venom Hunters.”
Fitzer took the snake out of the pillowcase and slowly, calmly urged the snake onto his snake hook and placed it in a box for transport to his home, where he currently houses several dozen others that will be released back into the wild in a few weeks.
Fitzer is no stranger to snake bites. He has been treated for snake bites five times in his life — the first after getting venom off the fangs of a dead snake into a cut on his hand during a taxidermy job.
“You just accept that if you work with snakes for a long time at some point you are going to be bitten. Even when you wear the safety gear and you’re careful, things can just happen. It’s not an if but a when and any time could be your last,” he said.
Venomous snake bites are relatively common in Oklahoma and across the United States, but deaths are extremely rare.
Treatment of the bites is expensive, with several vials of antivenin almost always required at around $10,000 per vial, he said. Complications can result due to allergic reactions, he said.
Fatalities due solely to the bites are rare. “Usually it’s something else along with it, like a heart attack or something,” he said.
The University of Florida Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation notes that 7,000 to 8,000 venomous snakebites are reported annually in the U.S. and there are only five or six fatalities.
In general, however, Fitzer echoed the thoughts of Roberta Lester.
“Just leave a snake alone,” he said. “If you back away slowly and just let them go on they will go on. They aren’t out to get you, they aren’t going to chase you, just leave the snake alone.”