Experts warn pet Gila monsters can ‘bite at any time’ – as a Colorado man, 34, dies in


This week a Colorado man, 34, died in an extremely rare response to the bite from his pet Gila monster.

The man, whose identity remains undisclosed, suffered a bite from a juvenile Gila monster and died, marking the first fatal case of a Gila monster bite in the past 94 years. 

Experts have now warned that such an incident was ‘inevitable’.

Chris Lewis, captivity research officer at wildlife charity Born Free, told MailOnline there is no way of knowing whether you will have a fatal reaction until it is too late. 

Mr Lewis says that incidents like this are ‘always going to be an inevitability if people are keeping animals in conditions that are unnatural to them.’

A 34-year-old Colorado man died days after being bitten by a venomous Gila lizard, which he owned as a pet

A 34-year-old Colorado man died days after being bitten by a venomous Gila lizard, which he owned as a pet 

The Gila monster is unique among North American lizards for its venom, which it secretes through its lower jaw. 

The venom is known to cause swelling, burning pain, vomiting, dizziness, and low blood pressure which can lead to fainting. 

However, the last recorded death from a Gila monster bite was in 1930, over 90 years ago.

It is believed that the man may have suffered from an allergic reaction, four days after being bitten.

Mr Lewis said: ‘It is generally believed that the venom is non-fatal and that this individual suffered an allergic reaction.

‘But what this highlights is that no matter how venomous an animal is, it will always pose a risk if it is being kept as a pet.’

Mr Lewis points out that there is ‘no sort of precautionary test’ that owners could take to see if they are at risk of a fatal allergic reaction.

He explained: ‘Until somebody is bitten, they’re not going to know if they’re allergic to the animal’s venom.’  

The Gila monster is unique among North American lizards for its venom, which it secretes through its lower jaw

The Gila monster is unique among North American lizards for its venom, which it secretes through its lower jaw

Is it legal to own a Gila monster in the UK? 

Since 2007, the Gila monster has been categorised as a dangerous animal under the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976.

This means that, while it is legal to own one, a special licence is required. 

A licence requires an inspection from the local council’s Veterinary Officer. 

Potential owners must prove that they have a suitable enclosure that prevents the Gila monster from escaping. 

While their venom is rarely fatal, the bite of the Gila monster is powerful and can still be dangerous and extremely painful. 

A care sheet published by exotic pet store Reptile Rapture notes: ‘A Gila is often docile which can lead you into a false sense of security. At anytime, it could bite.

‘Sometimes, the only way to get the lizard to release its hold may be to submerge it in water or squirt hand sanitiser in its mouth.’

In both the US and UK, owners need a special licence to own a Gila monster.

Mr Lewis says that Born Free’s latest research shows that there are at least 38 Gila monsters in private ownership in the UK.

However, he says that the existing laws are not sufficient to protect owners of venomous animals. 

‘There is very little, if anything, in the legislation which requires the safety of the owner or other people in the house,’ he said.

Handling venomous lizards safely requires training and adequate bite-proof gloves, neither of which are a requirement for owning a Gila monster.

Gila monster bites are not fatal but their jaws are so strong that one pet shop advises holding the animal under water or squirting hand sanitiser into its mouth to get it to release

Gila monster bites are not fatal but their jaws are so strong that one pet shop advises holding the animal under water or squirting hand sanitiser into its mouth to get it to release

Gila monsters are also extremely long-lived and require expensive specialist equipment to keep them healthy. 

Mr Lewis added: ‘It’s completely bizarre that members of the public can keep animals that are categorised as dangerous.’

In the wild Gila monsters are not particularly aggressive animals.

They are extremely slow-moving and rely on their natural camouflage to blend in and ambush small mammals and birds.

If threatened, Mr Lewis explains, Gila monsters are much more likely to hide or run and will only bite as an absolute last resort when under a lot of stress. 

However, placing these animals in captivity significantly increases the risk of them feeling like they need to bite defensively.

Dr Charlotte Regan, wildlife manager at World Animal Protection, told MailOnline: ‘In the wild, human-Gila monster interactions are quite rare; they are mostly nocturnal and spend a lot of time below ground. 

‘Being kept in captivity as a pet fundamentally places the Gila monster in an unnatural environment and in unnatural circumstances, including their proximity to humans.’

PEOPLE HAVE KEPT ANIMALS AS PETS FOR MILLENNIA

Pets have been a companion to humans for millennia.

In fact, according to Greger Larson, director of the University of Oxford’s palaeogenomics and bio-archaeology research network, humans have likely kept baby animals for amusement as long as humans have lived.

But the story of exactly how animals became domesticated is much debated and often only glimpsed at from scraps of fossils and DNA.

Scientists largely agree that dogs were the first domestic animal. They were tamed and used for work or for their meat.

A study published by University of Maine researchers in 2011 found evidence that dogs were being bred, and, eaten, by humans living in Texas some 9,400 years ago.

A more recent study in 2017 found dogs were domesticated in a single event by humans living in Eurasia. 

Dr Krishna Veeramah, an assistant professor in evolution at Stony Brook University, told MailOnline: ‘We’ve found clear evidence that dogs were domesticated 20,000 to 40,000 years ago.

‘New research last year provocatively suggested that dogs could have been domesticated twice but our conclusion was there is no evidence for dual domestication.

‘We would argue that finding evidence for only one domestication event is a big deal, because it is very important to helping us understand how domestication works.’

His research found that dogs evolved to be a separate species from wild wolves sometime between 20,000 and 40,000 years ago. 

But it’s not known if they were the first pets, and kept for companionship. 

A study this year found  compared the genomes, or complete genetic codes, of modern domestic and wild rabbits to see how long it had taken them to diverge.

Using the known mutation rate of certain biomolecules as a ‘molecular clock’ they found it was not possible to pin down rabbit domestication to a single date or event.

Instead, the creation of tame buns appeared to be a cumulative effect stretching back to Roman times and possibly the Stone Age.  

The story of domestication is not a linear progression from wild to domestic, Larsen told the Smithsonian

‘These things exist on a continuum,’ says Larson. He said when the first pet came into being is ‘a bit like asking when did life begin?’



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