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Phila. Zoo goes to the rescue of cobra bite victim

A Maryland woman who was bitten by an exotic cobra over the weekend may owe her life to the quick action of snake specialists at the Philadelphia Zoo.

The woman walked into a Baltimore clinic Sunday night reporting she had been in a shopping center parking lot when she bent down to pick up what she thought was a stick.

The "stick," a two-foot monocled cobra, sank a fang into one of her fingers, said Elisa Armacost, spokeswoman for the Baltimore Fire Department.

The woman, who has not been identified by name, bagged the offending snake and took it along with her to the clinic, Armacost said. Clinic staffers called the fire department.

"They were looking for guidance on what to do with the snake," Armacost said.

Medics took the woman to Johns Hopkins University Hospital as fire department personnel began a frantic search for a source of antivenin, Armacost said.

One of the calls reached Jason Bell, assistant curator of reptiles and amphibians at the Philadelphia Zoo.

Bell rushed to the Zoo to retrieve 30 vials of South-African made antivenin. State police met him there, planning on flying the serum by helicopter to Hopkins. But heavy rains had grounded the chopper, so troopers sped the antivenom to Maryland where they delivered it to a waiting ambulance near the state border, Bell said.

Doctors used 10 vials of the antivenin, Bell said.

The woman, who told authorities that the snake did not belong to her, was reported to be in stable condition.

The snake was transferred to a zoo in Frederick County, Md.

A bite from a cobra can cause "tremendous pain" soon after the skin is punctured, Bell said. As the venom takes hold, muscle paralysis can set in and breathing can become impossible.

"She was very lucky. She was bitten on the finger and not closer to the heart. Some cobra bites can cause rapid death."

It's unclear if the woman would have died from the bite if not treated with the antivenom.

"It depends on the size of the snake," Bell said.

The Zoo stocks 21 varieties of antivenin for snakes that are not indigenous to the United States, Bell said. The University of Pennsylvania keeps a large collection of antivenin serums to treat domestic snake bites. The stock is available for use by poison control centers and hospitals nationwide.

It's not often that the Zoo needs to rush to the rescue with snake bite antidotes.

"I've been at the Zoo for 10 years and this is my first experience with it," Bell said.

Native to southeast Asia, monocled cobras can grow to 6-feet, and are typically brown or black. On the back of the snake's hood is a circular pattern that resembles a large eye or monocle.

Andrew Baker, the Zoo's chief operating officer, said venomous snakes are better left to the professionals.

"They make very poor pets and they present a safety risk to the person who owns them and anyone else in the house," Baker said. "We recommend dogs or cats instead. If you're wild for reptiles, go for a small boa or a king snake rather than something venomous."