Two islands in Europe, namely Ireland and Sardinia, are completely free of venomous snakes. Apart from St Patrick’s banishing powers over the reptile there is the fact that the ice age, coupled with the point that Ireland is an island, stopped the migration of snakes from the former continent of Gondwanaland. So there are no snakes of any kind at all in Ireland.
With regard to Sardinia it does have snakes but they are all harmless grass snakes (bisci), not nasty vipers.
Where we are we have to be careful about vipers, especially when walking in long grass or even shading under trees. To walk across grassland in Italy at the height of summer in bare feet is courting trouble and baby vipers can fall from trees if you stand under them, for the word viper comes from Latin “vi” (living) and “per” (bearing) i.e. the viper does not lay eggs but the young are born from it fully formed.
We didn’t have to be trekking in some wild place to confront a viper menace yesterday. We faced it at home, or rather our little tortoiseshell cat Carlotta (the one received from the cat and kitten rescue service stall at last year’s beer festival at Borgo a Mozzano) had to face it. My wife noticed Carlotta playing with something on our terrace. To her shock horror it turned out to be a snake which was writhing intensely. My wife immediately took preventative measures on the offending reptile with a broom handle – no questions asked at the time.
I examined the snake, as a harmless grass snake could have been killed, but realised from its triangular head and markings that it was best killed in our house as not only was it a viper but it was a particularly venomous one too.
In Italy there are two main species of viper. Vipera berus is the standard European one but Vipera aspis, the one Carlotta was playing with, is the most venomous variety.
Vipera aspis are usually small and well-built. The triangular head is distinct from the neck, and covered with small scales. The dorsal scales are strongly keeled. The species prevails in the Mediterranean area of Europe and it has no particular habitat: it could be found in chestnut forests, fields, rocks or swamps – all it asks for is a warm spot. Bites from this species can not only be very painful, but also about 4% of all untreated bites are fatal. In fact, this species is responsible for 90% of all cases of snakebite in Italy.
You’ll soon know if you are bitten by a vipera aspis. Symptoms include rapidly spreading acute pain, followed by edema and discoloration. Severe haemorrhagic necrosis may occur within a few hours. Vision may be severely impaired and degradation of blood vessels in the eyes will ensue. Eventually, if untreated, the bite will lead to a nasty death due to renal failure.
Cleopatra is said to have used an asp to do herself in. Actually, it was an Egyptian cobra which could not have caused a slow and pain-free death, since the venom paralyses parts of the body, starting with the eyes, before causing death. Some researchers, therefore, feel that Cleopatra used a mixture of hemlock, wolfs bane and opium in addition to the famous asp.
Whatever the causes I’m glad I haven’t been bitten by a viper yet and always walk around in thick boots and socks in summer (as in other seasons). It’s not that the viper will immediately attack if it sees you coming. In fact it’s a very shy reptile and will try to get away. But if you don’t see it and put a sandaled foot on it then it could be curtains! That’s why CAI, the Italian Alpine Association, recommend that, when mountaineering, you carry at all times an anti-venom serum package which must be administered within minutes of being bitten.
NEWSFLASH: Actually we’ve now been informed the serum has recently been taken off the market as it caused more deaths than the bite itself! I’m told you’ve got to phone 118 (emergency ambulance – perhaps helicopter on the mountains?) and do the following:
- Try to squeeze as much of the poison out as possible
- Apply tourniquet 5 cms above the bite
- Keep patient calm and motionless
- Keep yourself calm
You could also use this kit, mentioned in Sandra’s comments below and easily available at any pharmacy. It sucks out the venom as far as possible and alleviates pain but, clearly, is no substitute for hospital treatment.