Callahan man bitten by rattlesnake in heroic act to protect grandson

Thatcher Nightingale hospitalized after venomous pygmy rattlesnake bite

By Erik Avanier - Reporter

CALLAHAN, Fla. - A Father's Day gathering in Nassau County took a scary turn when a grandfather was bitten by a venomous rattlesnake in a heroic act to protect his grandson. 

Thatcher Nightingale, of Callahan, was hospitalized Sunday at UF Health in Jacksonville after he sacrificed himself by jumping between a pygmy rattlesnake and 3-year-old Shelton Dawkins.

Thatcher Dawkins, the boy's father, said his son was picking berries with Nightingale when Shelton discovered the slithering threat.

"He was, like, 'Poppa, snake. Poppa, snake,'" Thatcher Dawkins recounted to News4Jax on Monday. 

Though small, it was a venomous pygmy rattlesnake. 

Fearing the snake would strike the child, the grandfather took action by jumping between his grandson and the snake.

"He interfered with it and took the bite instead of my son," Thatcher Dawkins said. 

The 43-year-old grandfather was bitten in the finger. The venom traveled from his finger to his arm, attacking his nervous system and causing excruciating pain in his chest. 

"He said he couldn't image Shelton going through that pain because, even for a grown man his size, it was still curling him up," Thatcher Dawkins said. 

Neither could Hadyn Dawkins, Shelton's mother, who is aware of the danger posed by the pygmy rattlesnake's venom.

"Especially for a 3-year-old," she said. "It probably would have traveled through his system a lot faster."

According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, pygmy rattlesnakes are small, venomous pit vipers that usually grow to be about 18 inches long. They have small fangs, which can deliver venom potent enough to produce pain and swelling and, in some cases, could cause death.

Immediately after the snake bit Nightingale, Thatcher Dawkins managed to kill the snake, bag it and take it to the hospital so that doctors knew what they were dealing with.

As of Monday, Nightingale remained in the intensive care unit at UF Health.

In addition to antivenin, Thatcher Dawkins told News4Jax that doctors are treating his father with blood thinner medication because the venom caused clots in his arm that could turn fatal. He said Nightingale was alert, but also under observation to make sure he makes a full recovery.

According to FWC, there are six species of venomous snakes in Florida: the eastern coral snake, the southern copperhead, the cottonmouth, the eastern diamondback rattlesnake, the timber rattlesnake, and the dusky pygmy rattlesnake. 

IMAGES: How to spot venomous snakes in Florida

For more information on venomous snakes in Florida, visit

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