On August 20th of this year, The Sun newspaper released a story, suggesting that the tragic death of a man in Cork was the result of a bite from a redback spider (Latrodectus hasseltii). Later that day, The Herpetological Society of Ireland, issued a release highlighting some concerns we had with the piece. Our primary concern was that the symptoms reported were in no way indicative of a redback bite and as such, in the absence of a coroners report, attributing the cause of death to the spider was both premature and irresponsible.
Last Friday, The Irish Times reported that an inquest into the death has returned a verdict of death by misadventure. Pathologist, Prof Nollaig Parfrey, confirmed that the death was not related to a spider bite.
The inquest, conducted by Cork City Coroner’s Court, heard that the deceased suffered a bite to the neck in January 2013. The tragic death occurred 18 months later, but was deemed to be completely unrelated to the incident.
The result of the inquest has confirmed The Society’s suspicions regarding this story. This article should never have gone to print for several reasons. Chief among them:
- The species of spider that allegedly bit the deceased has never been found in Ireland.
- The animal in question was never identified by an expert.
- The symptoms observed were not indicative of a redback bite.
- Death occurred 18 months after the alleged bite. A delayed, lethal reaction of this magnitude has never been attributed to a bite from any species of spider.
Perhaps the most egregious failure of the journalists behind this story, was that they neglected to contact an expert on spider venom. The HSI were able to secure an interview with an expert (Dr. Michel Dugon) and release a statement within hours of reading the story. Had The Sun gone to the same effort, it would have been immediately apparent that the claims being put forward had no basis in fact. In light of all these failings, the publication’s decision to run this story on the front page can be described as nothing less than reckless. It spread needless panic and took advantage of a family in mourning.
This irresponsible journalism only served to spread unwarranted anxiety among the general public, as well as bringing a grieving process of a bereaved family under public scrutiny. In light of this we would renew our request that readers refrain from trusting tabloid newspapers with stories concerning “dangerous animals”. In contrast, the reporting from the Irish Times has been commendable, and will hopefully go a long way towards quelling the misguided fears that were sparked by the original article.
Once again, everyone here at The HSI would like to express our sincere condolences to the family and friends of the deceased.