Call it bad luck or karma, but either way, this story about the untimely death of a chef will make your skin crawl.
According to the Daily Mirror in the U.K., a Chinese chef was preparing snake soup when he was bitten by the severed head of an Indochinese spitting cobra. The cobra reportedly had been decapitated about 20 minutes prior to the biting. The chef died before emergency workers reached him with anti-venom.
Reportedly, the chef, Peng Fan, had casually picked up the head of the snake to toss it into the trash when it bit him, injecting a copious amount of lethal poison. Patrons of the restaurant described hearing blood-curdling screams from the kitchen as the tragedy unfolded.
While this sounds like a horror imagined by Hollywood, it is true that snakes can bite after death. Dr. Matthew Lewin, director of California Academy of Sciences’ Center for Exploration and Travel Health and an expert on venomous snakebites, told the Huffington Post that it is “entirely possible and does happen.”
Snake expert Yang Hong-Chang – who has spent 40 years studying cobras – seconded the opinion of his colleague stating that all reptiles can function for up to an hour after losing body parts, even their heads.
Dr. Lewin explained that “the snake’s venom apparatus and jaw muscles are all contained in the head — as are the nerves that control these muscles and venomous glands. Unlike humans, snake tissue can withstand long periods without circulating blood. The tissue doesn’t lose function as quickly as a mammal and the reflexes remain intact even after death.”
Even as a snake expert, Dr. Lewin added “it’s a bit creepy to me because it blurs the meaning of being dead. People are susceptible to these reflexive bites probably because they are thinking of beheading from a human perspective.”
While somewhat shocking and skin-crawling, this story does not surprise me. As a child, I grew up in Southern California and had numerous close encounters with rattlesnakes. On one occasion my father killed a massive diamondback rattler that had cornered me and my dog while we were playing along a riverbed near our home. My father shot the snake, then chopped off its head. He admonished all of us present to stay clear away from the head as it can still bite – and kill. The body of the snake indeed did continue to writhe and the severed head with eyes wide open jerked around for a disconcerting amount of time after it was dead.
I was only 10 at the time, but I will never forget this graphic lesson. Fortunately, I never encountered another severed snake head, but apparently this is excellent information if I ever decide to dabble in cooking Chinese delicacies requiring highly poisonous snakes. But frankly, tofu sounds a lot easier – and safer.