Man Strangled by Boa Constrictor Dies After Police Shot Snake

Elliot Senseman was an experienced handler who took in rescues, people who knew him said.

A Pennsylvania man died this week after being strangled by an 18-foot-long snake he was keeping as a pet, said authorities, who had to shoot the snake to death to try to rescue the man.

Elliot Senseman, 27, died Sunday, four days after a boa constrictor-type snake wrapped itself around his neck at his home, cutting off oxygen to his brain. Citing a family friend, WFMZ-TV reported that the snake was a reticulated python, and Senseman was a trained professional who had rescued the snake from an abusive home.

The Lehigh County coroner's office ruled the death an accident, saying the cause was anoxic brain injury due to asphyxiation by constriction.

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Constrictors pose a threat

Senseman had 10 years of experience in snake handling, and had been taking care of rescues. The accident apparently happened when he was changing its tank to give the animal food and water.

An animal expert said the snake's actions weren't necessarily violent. "Most of the time, it is not out of aggression, so there might be situations, like they like to go towards warmth, so they sense body heat," Cher Vatalaro, director of conservation education at the Lehigh Valley Zoo, told WFMZ. "They are constrictors, that is their natural behavior, but obviously that poses a threat."

Police were called to Senseman's home in Fogelsville last Wednesday afternoon after 2pm, where they found the man in cardiac arrest after the snake had wrapped its midsection around his neck. Officers shot and killed the snake, after which they were able to give Senseman medical care and take him to the hospital.

Senseman's mother, Heather Lyons, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that her son was "eccentric and fun and unique and brilliant. Everything he did was for other people. Even the damn snakes, he was rescuing them from people who couldn't take care of them."

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This is how snakes try to maintain balance

It's not clear how heavy the snake that killed Senseman was, but the reticulated python is the world's longest snake. An 18-foot python captured in Florida this summer weighed 200 pounds.

Rudy Arceo, founder of the Venom Institute in Pennsylvania, told the Post-Gazette that because snakes lack arms and legs, they stabilize themselves by wrapping their bodies around what is holding them.

"But if you put this snake around your neck, and you're walking around hanging out with it or whatever, they will wrap around and they'll just basically try to maintain balance," he said. "And unfortunately, if you're not paying attention, they can get around your neck, and then when you try to actually push-pull away from it, it can be really difficult."

No one should handle long snakes alone, Arceo added.

Michael Martin
Michael Martin is a New York City-based writer and editor whose health and lifestyle content has also been published on Beachbody and Openfit. A contributing writer for Eat This, Not That!, he has also been published in New York, Architectural Digest, Interview, and many others. Read more
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