Colorado Man Died From Venomous Gila Monster Bite, Autopsy Confirms

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An autopsy report revealed that a pet Gila monster’s venomous bite contributed to a Colorado man’s death in February in what an expert described as “an incredibly rare” fatality caused by one of the desert lizards.

The man, Christopher Ward, 34, died on Feb. 16 “due to complications of Gila monster envenomization,” said the Jefferson County Coroner’s Office autopsy report, which also cited heart and liver problems as contributing factors.

Mr. Ward endured a four-minute-long bite by the lizard to his right hand on the night of Feb. 12, the report said. He lapsed in and out of consciousness for about two hours before seeking medical attention, the report said.

Paramedics found Mr. Ward in a bed, minimally responsive and “in apparent severe distress,” the report said. He was taken to a hospital, where he was put on life support and “continued to decline throughout his hospitalization.”

Mr. Ward’s girlfriend, who was present the night of the bite and who called 911, told the authorities in Lakewood, a suburb of Denver, that she was in another room when Mr. Ward was bitten and did not know what caused the lizard to strike.

She said she had heard him say something “and it ‘didn’t sound right,’” according to an animal control officer’s report. When she entered the room, she found the lizard “latched” onto Mr. Ward, the report said.

Kevin Torregrosa, the curator of herpetology at the Bronx Zoo, said that it’s rare to be bitten by a Gila monster and that “it’s also incredibly rare to die from one.”

“This is certainly the first one that I have firsthand knowledge of in my career,” he said on Saturday.

The Associated Press reported that it was believed to be the first death from a Gila monster bite in the United States in almost a century.

That the Gila monster bit into Mr. Ward’s hand for four minutes was not surprising, “because that’s what they do,” Mr. Torregrosa said.

“They bite, they hold on, and they chew, and that’s how they deliver their venom,” he said, adding that the venom is “very painful.” The lizards are not “active hunters for the most part,” and their venom is mainly used as a defense.

Unlike snakes, which inject their venom with fangs that are similar to hypodermic needles, Gila monsters have grooves, or channels, in their teeth so when they bite, they hold on, he said.

“The whole point of it is to get whatever is messing with them to leave,” Mr. Torregrosa said.

Mr. Ward’s girlfriend told the authorities that the lizard that bit Mr. Ward was named Winston, and it was purchased at a reptile exhibition in Denver in October, according to the animal control officer’s report.

There was also a younger Gila monster in the house named Potato, which was purchased from a breeder in Arizona in November.

The authorities told Mr. Ward’s girlfriend that it was illegal to keep Gila monsters in Lakewood, and both lizards were taken to a reptile zoo in South Dakota. Officials also removed 26 spiders of different species and brought them to an animal shelter.

Native to the Southwestern United States and Mexico, Gila monsters are relatively small and slow lizards, Mr. Torregrosa said, making it easy to avoid being bitten by one.

“You have to be messing with them to get bit,” Mr. Torregrosa said. “One is not going to run out of the bushes and bite you.”

The lizards have short legs and stocky bodies so they don’t quickly scurry about. Instead they “meander and lumber around like a tortoise would,” but Mr. Torregrosa cautioned that they can strike quickly.

Gila monsters have an eye-catching color pattern that comes in varying shades of orange, red, pink and yellow that breaks up their body contour and helps them to camouflage. The vibrant colors also serve as a warning as brightly colored animals tend to be poisonous or venomous, Mr. Torregrosa said.

The Bronx Zoo has three Gila monsters on exhibit at its reptile house, he said, and tools are used to move them when it’s time to clean their space.

“We’re not reaching into the enclosures with the animals in there,” he said. “A lot of times, that’s where incidents occur.”

He added that while he didn’t know what happened in this case, “a lot of times people think, especially with a Gila monster, that they’re a pretty slow and laid-back lizard, so they just aren’t paying attention while they’re working.”


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