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Colorado man dies after bite from Gila monster he illegally kept as a pet

By Amanda Musa, CNN

(CNN) — A Colorado man has died after a bite from a large venomous lizard, called a Gila monster, that he illegally kept as a pet, according to Lakewood city officials.

Christopher Ward, 34, owned two of the reptiles and became ill after being bitten on the hand by one of the animals, an incident report from the Lakewood Police Department shows. Lakewood is a suburb of Denver.

Ward’s girlfriend called 911 just before midnight February 12 after she entered the room where the reptiles were kept and found that one of them had “latched onto Ward’s hand,” LPD Animal Control officer Leesha Crookston wrote in the report. Ward immediately started showing symptoms, vomiting several times before he passed out, and his breathing stopped, the report said.

Ward’s girlfriend told Crookston that she did not know exactly what led to the bite because she was in a different room at the time but said she heard Ward say something that “didn’t sound right,” according to the report.

Ward was taken to a local hospital, where he was put on life support and was later “declared brain dead,” according to the report. He died February 16, LPD Public Information Officer John Romero told CNN on Wednesday. The cause of death has not been released.

Crookston told Ward’s girlfriend that it is illegal to own Gila monsters in the city of Lakewood, the report said. The lizards were removed from Ward’s home last week by Crookston and officials from Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the Department of Natural Resources.

Officials plan to relocate the lizards to an animal park in South Dakota, according to the report. Twenty-six spiders of different species that Ward kept in terrariums were also removed from the home.

Ward’s girlfriend says that the lizard who bit Ward was named Winston and that Ward bought him at a reptile exhibition in Denver in October, when the reptile was about a year old, according to the report. The second Gila monster, named Potato, was bought as a hatchling from a breeder in Arizona in November.

Gila monsters are the largest lizards in the United States and can measure up to about 22 inches long, according to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. The reptiles primarily live in Northern Mexico and several southwestern US states including Arizona, California and New Mexico.

The venom from a Gila monster is as toxic as that of a western diamondback rattlesnake, the Smithsonian says. Although the reptiles can hold their bite for more than 10 minutes, they produce a “relatively small amount of venom” when they do.

“There is no antivenom for Gila monster bites,” the San Diego Zoo says, noting that a bite from a Gila monster is painful but rarely causes death.

“The bite of a Gila monster is very strong, and the lizard may not loosen its grip for several seconds,” the San Diego Zoo says. “It may even chew so that the venom goes deeper into the wound.”

The Jefferson County Coroner’s Office has not responded to a CNN request for comment regarding Ward’s cause of death and whether he died from the reptile’s venom.

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