Snake bite in botanical gardens rattles nerves

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

The signs were posted, as was a picture of the venomous Eastern Massasauga rattler, but a visitor to UM’s botanical gardens in Ann Arbor on Monday likely never expected to meet the creature.

So she removed her shoes and took a stroll on a grassy field of Matthaei Botanical Gardens on a sunny day. It was that move that likely led to the rattlesnake, the only venomous snake native to Michigan, to bite the woman. Her name was not released Tuesday when news of the bite became public.

She was taken to University Hospital in “unstable” condition, according to Huron Valley Ambulance. No further information was available on the status of the woman Tuesday night.

The woman alerted staff at the gardens that she had been bitten and they called 911. The garden posts warnings that the Eastern Massasauga rattlesnake is on the premises.

The facility is “incredibly well signed,” a spokesman said. The botanical gardens has a model of the snake at its front desk and information about the snake in its visitors guide, said Joe Mooney, gardens spokesman.

The Eastern Massasauga rattlesnake “can be characterized as a shy, sluggish snake,” according to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. As a “species of special concern,” it is protected by state law.

The penalties for harming the snake could include a fine or jail time, said Lori Sargent, a wildlife biologist with the DNR.

Anti-venom medications are not always necessary after it bites, and the snake is thought to be a mortal threat only to babies, small animals and people already sick. Swelling is common after it bites. Its venom is potent and it has short fangs, Sargent said.

While Michigan and other Great Lakes states are considered a stronghold for the Eastern Massasauga, Mooney said the snake is a rare sight for visitors to the Botanical Gardens.

“It prefers to be left alone,” Mooney said.

According to the DNR’s Sargent, “if (the snake) can get away from someone, it will.”

Visitors to the gardens are encouraged to stick to marked trails and avoid touching or taking pictures with wildlife, Mooney said. According to 2010 and 2011 studies of the Matthaei Botanical Gardens, there were at least 27 such rattlesnakes on its grounds.

In 2014, a girl was bitten in the leg at the gardens.

News of the poisonous snake rattled a few people Tuesday.

“Let me get this straight....the botanical gardens are in place to be observed by the population at large and those who oversee this beautiful place have seen to it that the garden is populated with snakes that can bite and inflict serious wounds,” said one online commenter.

Others, however, point out that the snakes live in the area “and have lived there since before there was ever even a garden in that location.”

“Have you ever been to any nature refuge in SE Michigan? All of them, from Metro Beach, to Stony Creek all have information on this rattlesnake, as it is the only venomous snake that is native to this area,” said another online post.