Jon Coote on Venom Defender gloves

Practical Reptile Keeping Magazine

Snake Proof Gauntlets by Jon Coote – written June 3rd 2009

As few as twenty years ago there was little or no specific products for captive reptiles. At that time many of us, who kept reptiles, became rather adept at the very real need of researching the potential of other industries products for our own use with reptiles.

In terms of snake handling, the easy conversion of golf club handles into very professional looking snake hooks was so successful it continues today. In many ways this is a skill that I have continued to employ, such as introducing calcium sand, then a farm animal feed supplement, as a substrate to the reptile hobby nearly fifteen years ago.

However what I had now wanted to research for some time was a material that would resist the penetration of the bites from snakes. I was sure that somewhere out there must be some new kind of man-made fabric for gloves that had already been developed for industries that needed similar protection for their workers, such as for installers of razor wire perhaps?

I came across an interesting type of material, and usefully already made up into a pair of gauntlets, whilst attending a reptile symposium at the San Antonio Zoo, in Texas. The material patented by an American manufacturer had proved resistant to puncture from hypodermic needles, and was very thin, being less than that of three sheets of paper combined.

The gauntlets themselves were unsurprisingly light and easy to wear and allowed good manual dexterity and flexibility in use; you could not pick up a pin with them, but a pencil was certainly no problem. Having purchased a pair, and returned to the UK, all I had to do now was test them with an aggressive snake!

Now I know that I have read it somewhere, but my evidence also appears to show that it is true: humans with decreased melanin in their skin feel pain far less acutely than the rest of us! This was clearly going to be a most useful attribute if I could locate such a volunteer human subject who could withstand more pain than most humans would consider acceptable. My good friend and colleague Luke Yeomans has less melanin in his skin than most of us and he further qualified for pole position by being both very interested and highly experienced in the handling of snakes, particularly venomous species.

His further qualification as my experimental collaborator was most significantly enhanced by access to an aggressive venomoid captive bred albino Siamese Cobra! Fortunately for us all Luke generously agreed to test any gloves or gauntlets that I wanted to send to him, using this particular Cobra.

A venomoid snake is a venomous snake that has been rendered harmless, most effectively by having had its venom glands entirely removed, and, less long term effectively, by having its venom ducts surgically occluded, to prevent the passage of any venom to the fangs.

Luke’s Cobra had had its venom glands completely removed, and prosthetic implants inserted to fill the resulting cavity. This veterinarian procedure is not allowed here in the UK, though it is not illegal to import specimens that have already been surgically treated in this way from countries were it is allowed. Here in the UK veterinary procedures are only allowed if they are of potential benefit to the patient, rather than that of the owner.

This first set of gauntlets was soon returned to me by Luke, covered in his blood! I was to send him a number of others, mainly obtained during my frequent travels to North America. All were returned in the same sorry, failed condition.

I hand carried that original, failed and bloodstained, pair of gauntlets to the September 2007 North American Reptile Breeders Convention (NARBC), in Los Angeles. My intention was to offer them as a joke item, i.e. not recommended for handling snakes, for the benefit auction, the proceeds of which all go to defend the USA reptile industry. However I first got into conversation about them with my friend Dana who had a trade stand there.

Dana is a venomous snake keeper, a parajet pilot, a bounty hunter, but more importantly he also owns MidWest Tongs, a USA based reptile handling equipment company. Dana told me about some new USA made gauntlets, that he had sourced from another industry, and thought promising, but had yet to test them with snakes. He had two different samples of these, plus some existing heavy-duty leather gauntlets, lined with ballistic Kevlar and reinforced with steel staples, that he had stocked and sold for some time.

Dana generously gave me a pair of each of the three types of gauntlet that he had to test in exchange for the bloodstained pair that he was interested in keeping, as a very visual example of being not fit for the purpose of handling aggressive snakes. Now Dana had convinced me that these new gauntlets were really something different and that he thought that they may well prove effective in resisting a bite from an aggressive snake.

On my return to the UK I was able to convince Luke that we really had something that was now going to work. Luke wanted the testing of these new samples to be in front of as many independent witnesses as possible.

He arranged for the testing to take place at the October meeting of the International Herpetological Society’s Nottingham Branch meeting. He obtained special permission from his Local Authority to transport and use the venomoid Cobra at the meeting, and even convinced his Environmental Health Officer, who administers the Dangerous Wild Animals Act licence for this venomous snake, to attend as well!

At the meeting we had over eighty members and colleagues to witness the testing of the new gauntlets. Luke explained that he would use three different coloured permanent marker pens to highlight any puncture wounds the penetrated any of the three pairs of gauntlets, after each test.

The first pair up for test were the heavy-duty leather gauntlets, lined with ballistic Kevlar and reinforced with steel staples. The cobra dutifully bit straight through them into Luke’s hands, as if they were made of paper. Luke showed us the bleeding puncture wounds and marked them with the first colour, so that no confusion could be had with the next pairs of gauntlets to be tested.

The two remaining pairs of gauntlets were similar in general appearance, but one was of much thicker material construction and silvery grey in colour. The others were of much thinner construction and a dark charcoal grey in colour. The thicker ones did not restrict manual dexterity to the extent of the leather ones first tested, but were much inferior in this regard to the darker pair.

Both pairs of these new type of gauntlet successfully resisted the persistent chewing bites of this Cobra. Luke received no more penetrating puncture wounds, so had no need of the other coloured marker pens, and declared his preference for the better manual dexterity of the thinner constructed, darker coloured pair.

With this crucial first test behind us it remained to put these gauntlets to the test with as many different species and specimens of snakes as possible, both in captivity and in the wild. On returning to the USA in October for the Chicago NARBC I obtained more pairs of these gauntlets from Dana to distribute to colleagues and friends, around the World, retaining a pair for myself.

Perhaps the most widely used pair went to Donald Shultz, animal wrangler and co-presenter on the Discovery channel’s ‘I Was Bitten’ and ‘Feeding Frenzy’. Donald travels the World extensively looking for wildlife and particularly reptiles. He visited thirteen different countries last year!

The following is a list of some of the venomous snake species that Donald has used these gauntlets on during 2008, and that have so far resisted their bites:  Agkisterodon piscivorous, Bothriechis schlegelii, Crotalus helleri, Crotalus scutellatus, Crotalus ruber, Crotalus atrox, Atractaspis bibroni, Atractaspis fallax, Aspidelaps lubricus, Aspidelaps scuttatus, Bitis armata, Bitis rubida, Bitis arietans, Hemachatus haemachatus, Naja mossambica, Naja nivea, Naja annulifera, Python natalensis. Donald’s intention was to test these gauntlets to failure. To date, for him, they never have. As a result Donald has dubbed them, “The Glove of Power”.

I joined Donald in South Africa, flying in from Equador, on a field trip looking primarily for tortoises, in December of 2007. There we both had the opportunity to handle a wide variety of both large and small venomous snakes in the wild, using the new gauntlets, including Puff Adders (Bitis arietans) and Cape Cobras (Naja nivea). One of these Cobras was capture within a thorn bush that would have been impossible to collect with anything other than the gauntlets, as hooks or tongs would have proven ineffective.

Smaller species, difficult to handle in more conventional ways, included the Southern Stiletto snake (Atractaspis bibronii), Coral Cobras (Aspidelaps lubricus), and rare miniature vipers such as the Red Adder (Bitis rubida) and the southern Adder (Bitis armata). They also successfully resisted the serious lacerating injuries that bites from large pythons can inflict, such as the Southern African Python (Python natalensis).

Donald then flew out to Australia to do the animal wrangling for some Discovery channel filming, taking a pair of the gloves with him, to assist with the safe handling of Australian venomous snakes. South-western USA Cholla cactus spines also penetrate these gloves when you handle pieces of it, but only a few of the potential hundreds that could. The gauntlets are also surprisingly easy to cut with scissors, as I demonstrated by cutting a finger off of Donald’s original pair!

Whilst still in South Africa, in Oodshoorn, we met up with the British herpetologist Tony Phelps, who gave us access to some of the rarer South African venomous snake species. By this time we had realised through regular use that you only really need one gauntlet to handle specimens in the wild, and we gave a single one to Tony, who promptly took it with him to the Middle East, proudly sent us back photos of him using it to safely handle Sawscale Vipers out there.

Using only one gauntlet allows better control of the specimen when brought safely to the bare hand, or the use of a camera whilst filming the controlled specimen at close quarters. In practise we have discovered that manual dexterity works best when the gauntlets fit tightly. I use a size Medium now having started initially with a size Large.

There are more interesting features of these gauntlets. They are not only puncture resistant but also cut resistant to the American standard of ISEA level 5, the highest level so far attained with such cut resistant fabrics. They feature an enhanced gripping surface for better grip on slippery surfaces, and are constructed of a triple layer of the protective fabric, called Super fabric. This is in the form of closely allied tiny hexagonal panels, with each layer offset against the other. It thorn, needle or fang penetrates one layer it meets a solid little hexagon in the next, that stops further penetration.

The gloves are washable and are not waterproof. There is a risk that liquid venom could therefore penetrate the fabric, and get into a graze or scratch. In practise venom is quite viscous and can be seen after the biting attempts as globules on the surface of the fabric; multiple bites being commonplace when manually restraining snakes with these gauntlets.

I was also interested in testing these gauntlets to destruction. I figured that as they had been sewn together it was clear that needles could puncture them! It is possible to puncture them with a fair degree of force, either with a hypodermic needle, or the tip of a sharp knife. On the basis of what we know about these gauntlets to date I think that we can state that it is likely than one day a venomous snake will successfully puncture a pair with a bite in the future.

However to date no snake has yet done so, and many hundreds have tried and failed. The manufacturer's are also not entirely happy about their use with venomous snakes and they offer no recommendation or guarantee of safety when so used. I guess that anyone who uses these gauntlets to handle venomous snakes must do so only as their own personal responsibility.

I am personally persuaded of their ability to resist the puncture bite of venomous snakes: most recently myself taking multiple bites from a wild caught Black-Tailed Rattlesnake in the southern Arizona mountains. However each person wanting to use these gauntlets for such dangerous activities must do so understanding that they are fully responsible for their own actions with this regard.

Luke retained a pair of these gauntlets. Whilst he continues to prefer and use his tried and tested snake handling techniques these new gauntlets have increased safety and saved time, particularly in the husbandry of hatchling venomous snakes.

Luke unfortunately took a bite, that hospitalised him, from an East African Green Mamba, despite the gauntlets being within easy reach. The bite symptoms were haemotoxic rather than neurotoxic, more like the symptoms from a tropical Rattlesnake bite. Such unexpected symptoms from the bite of a Green Mamba prompted scientists to investigate further. Early results suggest that this specimen indicates that there is a completely new species of Green Mamba in East Africa.

As Luke says, having survived the bite, if he had not been bitten then we would not yet know about this potential new species! Luke has since sustained another bite from this specimen, fortunately without problem, as this time he was wearing the gauntlets!