For centuries many animals have been feared by people due to their strength, temperament or the ability to deliver a fatal injury by force or with the use of chemical weaponry. The biggest problem with this is the fact that most of these animals always have the short end of the stick as they are being killed out of fear and ignorance and sometimes are even driven into extinction.
Most animals have evolved these traits for their own survival, either for protection or hunting. They don’t mean us any harm and most injuries occur only when we cross their paths not giving the animal the chance to escape.
What’s the Difference?
An often-asked question is what’s the difference between poisonous and venomous? It’s quite a crucial difference, especially if you take into account that only one type could actually decide to hurt you.
Poisonous means that an animal (or plant) has toxins inside their body, mostly in their skin. If these animals are eaten these toxins can go to work. Also contact with open wounds or the glands of the mouth could result in being poisoned. Animals that are poisonous can’t deliver a venomous bite or sting. Most frogs and toads, but also quite a lot of fish species are poisonous.
Venomous means the animal can give you a bite, spit or sting that delivers the venom into your system. These animals are the most feared. Snakes, spiders, scorpions, wasps, bees and jelly fish are all examples of venomous creatures.
Every year people get bitten or stung by venomous animals, most of the time these incidents are not fatal and actually in the majority of cases not much damage is done at all. In the cases of snakebite, scorpion stings, bee and wasp attacks the result can be more serious. But does this justify the fear of these animals. When you live in rural areas without much medical assistance around it’s obvious that people don’t want anything to do with them because interaction could mean a serious problem. In western countries however, deaths and serious injury are rare due to good medical facilities as well as a good system that supplies anti venom. Snakebite is a serious problem in Africa and Asia and some of it is caused by a shortage of anti-venom.
The best way to stay safe is simply not to get in the way of these animals and give them the opportunity to flee the scene. Correct handling protocols in captive collections can also help prevent bites and stings.
Anti-venom and Medicine
To make the much needed anti-venom, the actual animals are needed to produce it. Animals are “milked” for their venom and after a process of filtering and cleaning these remarkable substances , they’re given to horses in small doses. These strong animals can handle these “micro dosages” of the venoms, making anti bodies in the process. After a while the blood of the horses can be drawn in small amounts and the anti-bodies can be separated from the blood serum. This is the basis of creating anti-venom.
But there’s much more to it. In the course of producing the various anti-venoms, more and more study has been undertaken to understand these complex compounds we call venom. Animals use their venom for a specific task ranging from immobilizing to digestion of their prey. The effect the venom has on a foreign body is what scares us but is also what could potentially save us!
YES, you’ve read correctly…SAVE US!
In recent years almost, all venoms that have been studied yield specific compounds that are of medical importance. A lot of people already take drugs derived from animal venom. To give a few examples;
– Captopril is an ACE inhibitor used by people with cardio vascular disease and is derived from the Bothrops jararcussa, a south American pit viper.
– Crotamine is a very strong painkiller (30x more powerful than morphine) and is derived from the Crotalus d. terrifcus, a rattlesnake species.
– Another very strong painkiller is Hannalgesin derived from the biggest venomous snake in the world, the mighty king cobra.
–Exenatide is a drug used by diabetes type II patients and derived from the saliva of the Heloderma suspectum, The Gila monster.
But these are just a few examples of a very extensive list. In the last few years compounds have been found in venom of snakes, frogs, toads, spiders, scorpions, fish and insects that can help in the treatment or even cure of diseases like; cardio vascular disease, cancer, chronic pain and Alzheimer’s. Also, extremely strong new antibiotics and anti-viral compounds have been discovered.
The future of medicine might be in the gifts that these animals bring. Yet we persecute them, drive them towards extinction and many people won’t lose any sleep over it.
Now imagine yourself sick, dying even and the doctor is standing over you and mumbling; “wish that pit viper would still be around, so we could have treated your cancer. Or wouldn’t it been great to not have driven that scorpion into extinction, so we could give you some powerful pain relief!”
All animals deserve respect and hypotheticals aside, venomous and poisonous animals do really save lives, thousands and thousands of them and we haven’t even scratched the surface of their potential.
Remember this, the next time you come across a critter you might not like or cannot cuddle, it might save your life one day.
This article was written by Rogier van Rossem. Rogier serves on the Save The Snakes Advisory Committee and is the Founder of the Herpetofauna Foundation. Based in the Netherlands, the Herpetofauna Foundation works globally to protect reptiles, amphibians and their natural habitat.