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Woman Who Kept Poisonous Snakes in Home Found Dead

Reptiles: Anita Finch is discovered in living room of Van Nuys trailer with puncture wounds to her hand. It is believed she was bitten by an African viper.

December 17, 1999|ANDREW BLANKSTEIN and ROBERTO J. MANZANO | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

VAN NUYS — A woman who kept a menagerie of poisonous snakes, piranhas and other exotic animals in her Van Nuys trailer was found dead after apparently being bitten by a rare African viper, authorities said Thursday.

Anita Finch, 33, was found Wednesday night in her living room curled in a fetal position with two puncture wounds in the back of her hand, said Scott Carrier, a spokesman for the Los Angeles county coroner's office.

She was clutching a note that read "Northridge hospital ask for ICU [intensive care unit]," he said.

'Whatever happened, happened very suddenly," Carrier said. "She obviously did not get a chance to call 911."

Carrier said the bite marks suggest the attack may have come from a rare foot-long Gaboon viper owned by Finch.

The multicolored snake, which can take on a black, purplish or pink appearance, has the longest fangs of any snake, according to Los Angeles Zoo officials. The fangs, which can grow up to 2 inches, enable them to pump venom deep into the veins of their prey.

Los Angeles Animal Control officials said Finch had 11 caged serpents, six piranhas and several goldfish in her home at the Vicabob trailer park at 7560 Woodman Ave.

In addition to the Gaboon viper, authorities confiscated and later euthanized four rattlesnakes, a hognosed sand viper and two copperhead snakes, Carrier said. Other reptiles found at the residence included gopher and king snakes.

Family members said Finch, who lived alone, had long tried to get a job with the Los Angeles Zoo and was an avid snake collector.

"She was really an expert in snake-handling," said Finch's mother, Tania Johnston, who lives in Camarillo.

Dan Knapp, general manager of the city Department of Animal Services, said keeping poisonous snakes is generally against the law.

"I know of no instance where an official with the state Department of Fish and Game, which would regulate this activity, would issue a permit to allow these types of venomous snakes," Knapp said. "They are illegal [to possess] in the state of California."

Acquaintances said Finch would often handle the snakes by hand, a practice that experts say is unsafe.

"She thought she was immune to the venom at this point in her life," said Finch's sister, Karin Taylor.

Steve Schatt, vice president of the Los Angeles-based Southwestern Herpetologists Society, has known Finch for 10 years and said his friend had been bitten at least six times by her rattlesnakes.

Schatt said Finch studied geology in college but became interested in reptiles 15 years ago and began collecting them, especially rattlesnakes. He said she grew very protective of the animals.

"If she saw one that was run over by a car, she freaked out," Schatt said. "She would take them home to try to keep them alive."

This past year, he said, she began acquiring more exotic--and dangerous--serpents. Two months ago she brought home a Gaboon viper from Texas.

"I'm not sure if she traded for it, paid for it or it was given to her," Schatt said. "But the minute I found out about it, I told her to get rid of it. I told her many times, it's deadly."

A bite by one of the vipers is usually fatal within two to four hours, he added.

Schatt said Finch never used snake sticks to handle her reptiles.

"She used her hands every time. I'm surprised this didn't happen years ago."

One neighbor said he was surprised to learn the victim's death may have been due to a snake bite.

"With the number of children that are around in the area it's surprising that these type of pets can be kept in a residential area," he said. "What if one had gotten loose and one the kids was bitten."

Finch was found by a neighbor, Kerry Bittner, about 8:30 p.m. Wednesday. Bittner also said Finch had been bitten in the past.

"She was careless," Bittner said.

Carrier said a time of death had not been established, but that Finch's puncture wounds would be examined today to help determine the cause of death and which snake may have been responsible.

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