tampabay.com

Taser finally loosens python's grip

The 14-foot snake bites her handler's arm as the cage's door opens .

By CRISTINA SILVA
Published December 31, 2006


TARPON SPRINGS - Chloe, a 14-foot female Burmese python and the only serpent at the Tarpon Springs Aquarium, was considered the favorite among the animals.

But on Saturday, Chloe likely mistook the hand of 18-year-old Alison Cobianchi, an aquarium employee and St. Petersburg College freshman, for a rabbit and attacked, sinking her teeth into Cobianchi's knuckles and wrapping around her arm and waist.

It took a police Taser to get Chloe to turn loose and return to its cage.

Cobianchi, who was treated at a hospital for minor hand wounds and released, vowed Saturday evening to never go near a snake again.

"It was definitely the most scary and painful thing that has ever happened to me," she said at her Holiday home. "I knew I wasn't going to die, but I was worried I wouldn't get my hand back."

The attack occurred as Cobianchi was preparing to take Chloe out of her cage for the aquarium's daily snake presentation, during which handlers discuss the natural habitat and growth cycle of pythons.

Chloe had been acting strangely all day, waiting by the front door of her cage as if she were hungry. Cobianchi slid open the cage door as usual at about 1:30 p.m.

Immediately, Chloe lunged, seizing several of Cobianchi's fingers as a small crowd of visitors watched in horror, Cobianchi said.

Cobianchi slid the cage door shut, leaving a small space for her arm, which Chloe continued to grip. Her tail slid out through the space, trying to grip Cobianchi's waist. Her manager held her shoulders so the snake could not pull her into the cage.

As blood began to pour from her hand, Cobianchi said, she burst into tears.

Several visitors and aquarium employees tried to loosen Chloe's grip, but she just tightened it.

Visitors were quickly cleared from the snake area and police were called.

Chloe released her grasp three seconds after she was Tasered, said police Sgt. Allen MacKenzie. The snake was not seriously injured, he said.

Cobianchi said she was already in so much pain, she did not feel any electric shock.

Scott Konger, who opened the aquarium in 1990, said this is the second time 14-year-old Chloe has injured someone. Several years ago, she bit him while he was feeding her a rat.

It was the first serious injury involving an employee at the aquarium, a small attraction at the end of Tarpon Springs' Sponge Docks known for its open tanks, where visitors can pet Chloe, as well as stingrays and small sharks.

For now, the aquarium's snake show has been indefinitely canceled. Konger is considering purchasing his own handheld Taser in case any of the animals get out of line again.

He said he often has safety talks with employees, who can mistake the animals they handle daily as "cuddly."

Chloe is fed two dead rabbits once a month. Her next feeding is scheduled for Wednesday. Konger said she was probably hungry when she bit Cobianchi.

As for Cobianchi, who is majoring in zoology, she is nursing puncture wounds from Chloe's upper jaw on her wrist.

"She was my favorite animal that we had," she said. "Not anymore."

Cristina Silva can be reached at 727 893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.com.