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A midnight bite from a rare venomous snake was just the beginning of Nathan Tow-Arnett's animal problems.

The former Gopher football player is embroiled in an unusual legal battle with the city of Minneapolis, simultaneously fighting criminal animal cruelty charges and trying to retrieve more than two dozen exotic animals and domestic cats.

The case stems from a Mangshan viper's decision last July to strike at Tow-Arnett's forearm at his northeast Minneapolis home as he reached into its aquarium for an egg. The Chinese snake is so rare in the United States that hospital officials could not locate antivenin in Minnesota to treat the wound. Still, he survived — the snake's venom prevents blood clots, and antivenin was ultimately located.

But owning venomous snakes is also illegal in Minneapolis. And after learning of the incident, police and animal control officers forced open the door of the house and removed 15 snakes — including two diamondback rattlers — 11 cats, two lizards and 22 snake eggs. More than 20 lizards and an "aggressive" cat were left behind because they could not fit in the city's van, according to court documents.

Tow-Arnett, who told city officials he was breeding animals for sale, launched a civil case to retrieve them last November. Months later, the city charged him with three counts of misdemeanor animal cruelty relating to his cats and one count of having too many cats without an appropriate permit.

His attorney, Jared Reams, denies the cruelty allegations.

"I think they found a house where a guy surrounds himself with animals, and they thought that was weird," said Reams, who did not make his client available for comment. "But that doesn't make what he was doing animal torture. It doesn't make it animal cruelty."

Hatched at animal control

More than anything else, Tow-Arnett is pleading for the city to return three cats: Jeffy, Mambo and Whisper.

"Really, what he wants back the most are his three cats that are his favorite pets," Reams said.

The reptiles were more of a hobby. Tow-Arnett said some came from sellers in Florida and New York. He caught some racer snakes in the wild in Florida.

When officers raided Tow-Arnett's house, they found the snakes in enclosures that "were not sanitary." A Mangshan viper was living in a plastic trash can with a secured lid, according to court documents.

The trash can was intended to replicate the cave dwellings of the Mangshan, Tow-Arnett said in court filings, and the ability of the snakes to lay eggs proves that the buildup on their enclosures was not harmful.

Indeed, 18 of those eggs — 13 of them Mangshans — later hatched at animal control's north Minneapolis facility, a feat that, according to Tow-Arnett, means his is the largest collection of Mangshans outside of China.

The snakes are now living at Reptile Gardens, a zoo in Rapid City, S.D., that specializes in rare and exotic animals.

"Each photograph of their habitats seems to indicate mold, fungal growth, excessive bacteria and is fairly clear to me that there is a pattern of poor husbandry efforts," Terry Phillip, the reptile curator there, wrote in a letter to the city.

Tow-Arnett has responded in filings that, as the likely beneficiary of the snakes, Reptile Gardens is biased.

Animal control occasionally responds to calls about venomous snakes. But City Attorney Susan Segal said, "We think that the keeping of venomous snakes is rare in our city. And that is certainly our hope."

Animal cruelty?

The animal cruelty charges stem from the condition of Tow-Arnett's cats.

A number of cats were living without food or water and with a full litter box, according to a criminal complaint. A veterinarian who later examined several of the cats noted their thinning coats and dirty ears as indicators of poor care.

Tow-Arnett responded in court filings that the cats had been fed earlier that evening. According to court documents, the raid occurred on the day he would normally deep-clean the cat area — but he was delayed by his hospital stay after the snake bite.

Tow-Arnett has pleaded not guilty to the allegations of animal cruelty and argues, in the civil case, that the city should give his snakes back if he pays any fines and moves them.

"The justification really for the city keeping them is animal cruelty," Reams said. "And he wasn't cruel to any of his animals."

Eric Roper • 612-673-1732

Twitter: @StribRoper