VIRGINIA MAN BITTEN BY COBRA

This story appeared in a virginia newspaper in mid january, 2001.

The numbers of cobras, puff adders, diamondback rattlers and other exotic poisonous snakes in Sussex County dropped sharply this week with the removal of Tom Townsend's personal collection.

Townsend, a 42-year-old nuclear power plant engineer, had been keeping 50 to 60 poisonous snakes in the basement of his rural Waverly home until he was bitten by one of his pet cobras Saturday morning, said Sussex County Sheriff Stuart Kitchen.

"I hope he won't try this again," Kitchen said yesterday after inspecting Townsend's now poisonous-snake-free basement.

Townsend is resting at home after his expensive brush with death, but his fanged friends are all zoo-bound, thanks to private snake handlers working with state game experts.

Townsend's wife was "really terrified" by the incident (the couple has young children), and Kitchen admitted he wasn't shy about "encouraging them" to get rid of the deadly snakes.

"I think they decided they had had enough," Kitchen said.

Deputies and rescuers responding to Townsend's 911 call for help were surprised by the extent of the collection, which filled padlocked cages throughout the entire basement. "There were 10 to 12 rattlesnakes alone," Kitchen said. "You could hear them rattling."

One of Townsend's exotic vipers was so deadly, a state biologist called it a "two-stepper," Kitchen said. "You get bit, you take two steps and die."

Townsend was just one of many "herp keepers" across the country who collect poisonous species, which is not illegal in Virginia. "This guy hadn't broken any laws," Kitchen said.

Rumors about Townsend's deadly snakes had circulated in the Waverly area for some time, and officials became worried that firefighters and rescuers could be endangered if there was ever a fire or flood at the Townsends' two-story home beside the Nottoway River.

"But we couldn't find any law that would enable us to do anything about it," Kitchen said.

Saturday's bite changed all that.

Townsend had been using tongs to feed a rat to a spectacled cobra from India - the deadly Naja naja species - when the snake dropped the rat and bit him on the first finger of his right hand.

"He knew he was in trouble," Kitchen said. By the time rescuers had arrived, "he had written down a [medical] protocol to go with him to the hospital." Townsend also had applied a proper tourniquet.

Deputy Sheriff Donnie Marrin knew as soon as he arrived that Townsend would not make it if he was transported by ambulance, so he called for a helicopter.

Townsend was sitting up and talking to Marrin at first. But, by the time the helicopter lifted off, he was semiconscious and barely breathing.

Ordering the helicopter was one of several key actions that saved Townsend's life, Kitchen said.

Nurses at Virginia's Poison Center hit the phones, locating antivenin in New York City and Miami, and it was flown to Virginia Commonwealth University's Medical College of Virginia Hospitals.

Townsend's hand is still swollen, but he is expected to make a full recovery. He declined requests for an interview.

"He's a sharp guy," Kitchen said. "He just has an unusual hobby."

Kitchen said he believes Townsend's health insurance will be paying for the intensive and expensive rescue effort. "I know the sheriff's office isn't."