Emergency Tracheotomy on a Ball Python

Banana Super Fire (photo taken a few days after the procedure)
Banana Super Fire (photo taken a few days after the procedure)

As ball python breeders we get a chance to play god through our creations.  We mix this gene with that gene and participate in the creation of new life, making beautiful new ball pythons that were only a dream in our minds the year before.  Recently I was fortunate enough to take this to the next level.  I actually brought a snake back from the dead or at least certain, emanate death.  I performed what amounts to an emergency tracheotomy on a ball python.  The medical heroism of this procedure has led others to this dramatic feeling of restoring life where all hope was lost.  A 17th century medical doctor, Hieronymus Fabricius, wrote about the tracheotomy procedure “This operation rebounds to the honor of the physician and places him on a footing with the gods.”  Sounds dramatic doesn’t it?  My experience was pretty dramatic and while I don’t feel “on footing with the gods” I am very proud of being able to save this snake’s life.  Here is the story.

A few days ago my friend Daniel Allison of Constriction Addiction was visiting my facility.  We were just standing in front of a rack of baby ball pythons while staff was feeding.  Daniel seemed distracted and kept glancing at one of the few clear tubs in the rack.  After a minute or so he said ” I think that snake is dying”.  I was sure that he must be mistaken.  I thought the snake was just trying to wrap the rat pup and being an inexperienced baby was having a hard time.  Finally Daniel insisted on removing the tup to have a better look.  When we removed the tub we noticed immediately that the rat pup was in the back of the cage away from the snake.  The snake was still writhing as if it was in the last moments of life.  It is very unusual for a snake to die in our facility so the fact that it was dying got my attention.  The other thing that was very unusual was that the rat appeared to have been constricted, the head was soggy as if the snake started to swallow it but then backed off.  Then the snake started flipping around like it was suffocating.

We immediately took the snake to a table we have for cutting eggs, etc. and turned on the big light.  At this point the snake seemed almost dead, barely moving and losing color.  This was a Banana Super Fire and the snake was a bluish color.  Jeff Byers opened the mouth and tried to look in the glottis for some type of obstruction.  He was able to pull a small amount of wadded up aspen from inside the glottis that was completely blocking the airway.  I then tried blowing in the snake’s mouth, but the glottis was swollen shut.  I could not get any air into the lungs.  The snake was limp and unconscious as we helplessly watched the last signs of life leaving.  It was very frustrating not being able to do anything to save his life.  As I was frantically running around trying to think of something to do I had an idea.

Aspen that was obstruction the airway.
Aspen that was obstruction the airway.

I thought to myself, “I have nothing to lose.  I need to try to open the airway”.  The snake would perish if I did nothing so it was time to try something extreme.  I ran over to where I keep some instruments and supplies.  In there we have some very large gauge needles that we use to implant microchips.  The hole is about the same size as the air hole of the snake and the end is razor sharp and sterile.  Jeff opened the mouth of the snake.  I carefully cut into the trachea inserting the needle.  Immediately there is a gurgling sound like sucking the last of a soda through a straw.  I gently blew into the needle just to make sure we were getting air all the way to the lungs.  Then the snake started breathing rapidly and the the muscles tensed up as the color started to come back.    I pulled the needle out and the snake seemed to rapidly come back to life.  He flicked his tongue and started to crawl a bit.  We put him back in his enclosure and at the suggestion of Daniel we set him up on paper towels.  This was one of the most amazing things I have ever been involved with in my over 20 years working with snakes.  I have successfully performed what amounted to an emergency tracheotomy on a snake.  This was one of the most satisfying moments in my career.  This snake was dead and then it was alive.

Razor Needle. Usually used for implanting microchips.
Razor Needle. Usually used for implanting microchips.

As I write this, the snake is doing very well.  The incision is healing and is hardly noticeable.  The glottis is functioning properly.  The snake is behaving normally and seems to have no chronic problems from his “near death” experience.

Taken a few days after the procedure.  The incision seems to be healing perfectly and the swelling is going down in the glottis.
Taken a few days after the procedure. The incision seems to be healing perfectly and the swelling is going down in the glottis.

Aspen appears to be the culprit, but I believe this was just a freak accident.  I have kept hundreds of snakes on aspen bedding for many years and have never had this happen.  A good analogy is you choking on a piece of food.  You wouldn’t stop eating because you choked once.  I think aspen is perfectly safe, but in this one case it seems to have caused a problem.

I am sharing this story because it is an experience that could save a snake’s life.  I must caution anyone reading that I do not believe this procedure should be performed lightly.  This was a last resort.  This snake was near certain death and there was no time for a ride to the vet.     While it seems unlikely that circumstances would ever occur to allow me the opportunity to do this again, it was a very cool learning event that adds to my experience as a professional keeper.  I just happened to be in the right place at the right time with the right people to make it possible to save this snake’s life.  Thanks to Daniel and Jeff for quick action helping to bring such a positive result.

 

5 thoughts on “Emergency Tracheotomy on a Ball Python”

  1. What an amazing experience! I am sure your adrenaline was rushing afterwards! I wouldn’t wish that experience on anyone, however that snake is very lucky to have been in the hands of someone knowledgeable!

    Also, for Daniel …. We all know our own racks very well, we know when something is different. To be in someone else’s territory and observe that something is off …. well that is just an amazing skill of observation, and he may want to mark that down as a super power!

  2. That’s why I feed my ball python in a separate box! Although if you’re breeding a lot of snakes, it would probably be difficult to separate out each and every one.

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