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Backyard snakebite kills dog

Midnight telephone call brings man news that his beloved pet did not survive a snakebite

Posted: May 11, 2009 10:43 p.m.
Updated: May 12, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Wil Maxham and Ebony, an 8-year-old dog who died over the weekend of a rattlesnake bite. Maxham said he found Ebony wandering the streets of the San Fernando Valley.

Just before midnight Friday, Wil Maxham lay awake, terrified that his phone would ring.

The 70-year-old Saugus man spent the evening rushing his dog, Ebony, to animal hospitals seeking treatment for the animal after a rattlesnake in his back yard sunk its fangs into the little black terrier mix's nose. None of the veterinarians he visited had the expensive antivenin that could have counteracted the snake's powerful toxins. So he left Ebony at an emergency clinic for the night.

"I couldn't sleep; I just tried not to think about it,'" said Maxham, who had taken in the former stray eight years ago when he was homeless.

"I just kept saying, ‘no phone, no phone.' And then it rang. (The doctor told me) Ebby didn't make it."

With rattlesnakes in peak season and costly antivenin in tight supply at most vet clinics, few vets in the Santa Clarita Valley are prepared to quickly treat a snake-bitten pet.

Most rattlesnake bites contain poison that causes severe pain, bruising and bleeding - and, possibly, death.

Warm spring weather has created peak conditions for bites, said Harry Morse, a spokesman for the California Department of Fish and Game.

"Right now, it's the time of year when people are out enjoying themselves," he said. "And so are rattlesnakes."

Synthetic antivenin is costly, but is usually easy to find for people in emergency rooms and clinics, said Stu Heard, executive director for the California Poison Control System.

For animals, it's often a different story.

Most neighborhood vets typically don't have much - if any - antivenin because they don't see enough snake bites to warrant stocking the pricey medicine. Even then, many pet owners couldn't afford several vials of the stuff, which could run thousands of dollars. Most local vets contacted by The Signal said they didn't have antivenin.

"It's a very large expense to stock that on the shelf," said Dr. Karl Jandrey, an emergency veterinarian at the University of California, Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. "The price of antivenin goes up every year and the supply decreases."

Jandrey said the best bet for antivenin would be a 24-hour emergency hospital.

Maxham did his best, but to no avail.

The loss of Ebony was especially shocking to Maxham because the little dog had been with him through some of his toughest times.

The retired cameraman said he had found the dog about eight years ago while he was homeless in the San Fernando Valley.
"She was homeless when I was homeless," he said.

The stray pup charmed him and got along well with his other dog, so he decided to keep her. They'd been best friends ever since.

Maxham moved in with his brother in a Saugus neighborhood where back yards butt up against rugged hills. Ebony was playing near a woodpile in the yard Friday afternoon. Maxham found her with blood on her nose and heard a rattling sound in the woodpile.
In the following hours, he took his dying dog to three different emergency vets that were still open Friday night.

Finally, he found that All Creatures Emergency Center in Newhall had some of the precious serum. A vet administered some antivenin after more than three crucial hours had passed. Maxham hoped she would last the night.

"I was just keeping my fingers crossed, saying, ‘she's a good fighter.'" he said.

But it was too late.

He went home and tried, fruitlessly, to sleep. Hours later, his phone rang.


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