Venomous rattlesnake found dead 100 yards from Zoo Atlanta

A venomous rattlesnake on the loose from Zoo Atlanta for two days escaped due to human error, a top zoo official confirmed Monday.

The adult female tiger rattlesnake escaped through an "unsecured cage door," Zoo Atlanta deputy director Dwight Lawson told the AJC. It was found across the street from zoo grounds -- roughly 100 yards away on Atlanta Avenue -- where it was clubbed to death by a resident unaware the reptile was on the lam.

Zoo spokeswoman Keisha Hines said Sunday the nocturnal snake was believed to be still inside the building where it was housed, which is not accessible to the public. But Hines could not say why staff thought the snake was still in that building. Hines said signs warning the public were not needed.

"Hindsight being 20/20, we probably should've knocked on a few doors," Lawson said. The local neighborhood association was alerted, he said, and an announcement was made to visitors at the zoo Saturday, he said, though there was no follow-up announcement Sunday.

"Having since heard concerns from our guests, we now realize that we should have made ongoing announcements," zoo spokeswoman Keisha Hines told the AJC. "We apologize to anyone who was not aware of this incident and will continue to evaluate and make adjustments to communications procedures."

Lawson said zoo officials were concerned about creating a panic.

The wife of the man who killed the snake called zoo officials on Monday after hearing about the escaped reptile in the media.

"We're still looking at how it got there," Lawson said.

A reptile staff member went to the home and found the dead snake on the front porch.

Though Lawson said an announcement was made, many zoo visitors were unaware that the rattler was missing.

“We had no idea. I didn’t see any signs or anything, not even at the reptile exhibit,” said Nancy Fowler, who brought her three children to the zoo.

Tony Lankford, who lives nearby on Sydney Street and volunteered at the Summer Shade Festival held in Grant Park over the weekend, said he was "furious" that neighbors weren't alerted.

"We could have very easily had a dead Grant Park resident or guest, perhaps a child, instead of a dead snake," Lankford told the AJC. "My wife and I spent much of late Sunday allowing our 3-year-old daughter, Kaley, to play in the field right outside of the zoo. She, or the little boy playing with her, could have easily come across the highly poisonous snake."

"I love the zoo, but as a neighbor, I believe Zoo Atlanta underplayed this event and failed their responsibility to maintain the safety of the guest and residents of this neighborhood," Lankford said.

Jason Spruill, who lives two doors east of the house where the snake was killed, told the AJC on Monday that zoo officials should have notified neighbors that the snake was on the loose.

"I would've looked out for it. I wasn't worried about being bit; I grew up around snakes. If you don't bother them, they won't bother you. ... It was sad it was killed."

The snakes are generally found in the southwestern United States and in northwestern Mexico. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources reports the population of tiger rattlers remains healthy and  "is unlikely to be declining fast enough to qualify for listing in a more threatened category."

David McLeod, owner of Georgia Wildlife Services, said tiger snakes are extremely dangerous.

“They are real toxic,” he said. “Even if you survive the bite, the greatest risk is losing parts of the body like fingers or hands from the death of the tissue.”

McLeod said he has removed pythons and other large snakes, along with raccoons, bats and other critters from many north Georgia homes. Snakes are one of the hardest animals to catch, he said.

“They have a slower metabolism rate so they spend the bulk of the time digesting meals,” he told the AJC. “If it catches a large rat, it may go two, three weeks without a meal.”

That digestion and nap time is usually spent curled up in a dark hidden place, such as under a bush or furniture.

“A search for a snake like that is tough because you've first got to locate all their hiding places, looking in all kinds of cracks and crevices,” he said.

The at-large snake also didn’t deter crowds from the Summer Shade Festival.

Beth Ann Trammell, who ran a booth selling knitted baby clothes, said she heard about the snake from friends and was surprised the festival was still going on.

“No one’s mentioned it and business has been pretty good,” said Trammell, owner of Burly Bunny in Montgomery, Ala. “But I’ve spent all day listening for a rattle.”

The snake was one of 16 obtained by the zoo last Thursday from the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife, Lawson said.

The employee who failed to secure the reptile will be disciplined, Lawson said.

--Staff writers Rhonda Cook, Megan Matteucci and Alexis Stevens contributed to this report.