Victims of Venom

There are not many people in the world who know more about snakes and snake venom than Bill Haast does. After all, Haast, director of the Miami Serpentarium, has been bitten by venomous snakes more than 160 times — and lived to tell the tale. But, as he points out, those bites occurred over the course of many years and more than 3 million handlings of snakes. When you spend your days around as many as 20,000 snakes, as Haast does, you’re bound to end up on the wrong side of a fang every now and then.

Haast, featured in the NATURE program Victims of Venom, has spent more than 50 years working with venomous snakes. Like many people, he became fascinated with snakes as a child. Unlike most, however, his fascination continued into adulthood, and, in his travels around the world as an airline flight engineer, he was able to pick up and bring home many snakes.

At the Serpentarium, Haast “milks” his snakes by forcing the reptiles to release their venom into a beaker. Then he sells the poisonous liquid both to medical researchers and to the pharmaceutical companies that make antivenin, the antidote for snake bites. To produce antivenin, scientists inject horses with small, non-lethal doses of venom. Over time, the horses naturally build up antibodies specifically designed to neutralize the injected venom. Eventually, samples of the horse’s blood are collected, and the antibodies within are extracted and processed into commercial formulations of antivenin. Some antivenins will work against venom from several species of snake; others are specific to a single type.

Haast might consider his snakebites to be all in a day’s work, but most people are a bit more traumatized by such an event. Venomous snakes can be found in nearly every state in the nation, and about 8,000 people suffer bites every year. While a snakebite can certainly be a scary event, not all are life-threatening. Different species of snakes carry different types of venom, with varying degrees of toxicity, and larger, older snakes typically pack more wallop into a bite than their smaller brethren.

However, young snakes, born primed with venom, tend to be less discriminating and more aggressive than adults. Nine to 15 people do die of snake bites every year, so experts at the American Red Cross advise treating every snake bite as a medical emergency: bite victims should wash the bite with soap and water, immobilize the bitten area and keep it lower than the heart, and get medical help.

One of Haast’s scariest bites occurred in 1990, when he was bitten by a very dangerous species, the soft-scaled viper, while harvesting its venom. “Their venom completely prevents the clotting of blood,” says Haast. “It’s even worse than the disease hemophilia. But there is very little pain to make you think anything’s wrong. Some people who have been bitten by this species are released from the hospital, thinking they are fine, then they go home and die of internal bleeding a week later.”

When, the next day, Haast noticed his own bite was still bleeding, he began seeking the best possible treatment. A fellow snake expert, Dr. Sherman Minton, told him he needed a rare type of antivenin that was available only in Iran. “As you can imagine, that wasn’t easy to do,” says Haast. He spent nine days in a hospital, being very careful not to bump against anything lest he start bleeding, waiting for the crucial antivenin to arrive. A courier finally managed to smuggle it out of Iran and deliver it to Florida just in time.

The soft-scaled viper carries a type of venom known as hemotoxin, a venom that attacks the circulatory system and causes blood to clot severely or else to stop clotting entirely, either of which can be fatal. Other venoms, such as those of the deadly Asian cobras and kraits, are neurotoxins, which affect the nervous system, causing paralysis and sometimes respiratory arrest. Myotoxins, found mostly in Australian sea snakes, affect the muscles.

Whatever the mechanism, the purpose of the venom is usually to immobilize the victim and start the process of digestion, much as human saliva does. In general, neurotoxins act more rapidly than hemotoxins and may be more serious.

  • Dr. Robert Heinrikson

    Can you tell me if Bill Haast is still in business? I am interested in obtaining fresh venom from the Malaysian pit viper. Thank you.

  • EBSmith

    I grew up in Homestead, Fl. and I remember the
    Serpentarium being a favorite place to visit. It’s good to know he is still around!

  • Mike B

    I grew up in Miami and loved going to the Serpentarium for field trips. I remember once Bill Haast was handling a King Cobra in the courtyard with the audience surrounding him. That was one of my most memorable trips.

  • Heather – Toronto Canada

    31 years ago on a family vacation, my parents took us to the Miami Serpentarium and we still talk about it today. Hopefully I can bring my children in a few years.

  • Denise

    I was aquainted with an older woman who had MS and received venom injections from Dr. Haast back in the 70’s. She reported that prior to his treatments she was unable to walk and more or less completely dependent. When I met her she was walking and able to go out to dinner with us in Coral Gables!! Dr. Haast was more enlightened about the benefits of venom..years before his time. He was shafted by the FDA.
    I also met him and was able to get over my fear of snakes by holding an Indigo Racer. It was so silky and gentle. I sure wish Dr. Haast was still able to help because I am loaded with Degenerative Joint Disease and and live in a great deal of pain.

  • Sue Toney

    Hi, Bill and Nancy!
    Just wanted you to know that Suzanne is doing fine and her eyesight is still excellent after all these years. My heart is forever greatful for all your hard work and dedication your PROven research. Without your help and PROven, I shutter to think of the difficult life Suzanne would have endured.
    Mere words cannot express my gratitude for your kind and generous spirit.You are one of a kind!
    Sue Toney

  • Ian – Topeka, Kansas

    Snakes like that are probably the most interesting animals i have ever seen.

  • Sue- Sioux Falls, SD

    Dear Dr. Haast,
    My husbands dream is to be ale to milk snakes and sell the venom, is this at all possible and what would he have to do in order to fulfill this dream?

  • Sione Fefeka

    I too would like to milk venom as I am surrounded by western diamondback rattlers. Is it possible to make this a job and reality. Like Haast I grew up interested in snakes and have been around them my whole life.
    PS. I just caught and killed two west. diamondbacks in the last three days in my back yard.

  • Mike Boyll

    That was a Saw Scale Viper not a Soft Scale Viper.

  • Brenda

    Is it possible to get Lyme Disease from a pigmy rattle snake bite?

  • Joe

    Bill Haast’s 100th birthday is Dec. 30th, 2010.

  • Reid

    Super happy special birthday, Dr. Haast. I remember myself as achild seeing you at work, 1960. Thank you for a century of wonderment for all of us who thrive because of your accomplishments and kindnesses. We all care more for nature and nurture for having known of you and your great life’s work.

  • Troll

    You guys are fail

  • Joy Lovett, mother of W.E. Haast IV

    I remember moving to Miami Florida in 1974 and with in a week of arriving, I made it a priority to visit the Miami Serpentarium. I had never seen an alligator before. I was more amazed at Bill Haast catching a king cobra.
    I had the pleasure of meeting him a month later. He is truely an amazing man with all his accomplishments!

  • Hal Pritzker

    Know how they play Russian roulette in India? They get six cobras…and one is NOT deaf.

  • Elizabeth Rassiga

    Is venom dangerous if it just touches the skin? In other words, how dangerous is it to handle venom once it has been collected? Thanks

  • Malaria Sickness

    is venom a sickness?

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