Legacy of Snake Milkers and Herpetologists
(Photo by Michael Masciantonio)
Fear of snakes is one of the most common phobias in the world even though many people have only seen pictures and have never encountered a live snake. The fear seems to be born within us, a survival skill.
Some people, however, have learned to get past this fear and build their career out of working with snakes, doing something so deadly that most people would run the opposite direction. These people are called “snake milkers,” because the process of removing the venom from a snake’s fang is called “milking.” Snake milkers intentionally help snakes express venom so that the venom can be used to help people.
Snake milkers remove snake venom by getting the snake to bite its fangs into a latex covered jar and manually assisting the snake to express the venom. Sometimes, the milkers use an electric shock, which has the same effect.
The venom is then shipped to a laboratory where it is usually freeze dried. The milked snake venom is used to make anti-venom so that people who are bitten by a poisonous snake can be given an antidote. Anti-venom is made by injecting the venom in a diluted form into a cow, goat, sheep, or rabbit so that the animal produces antibodies to the poison. Then, the animal’s blood is used to produce the antidote.
Other medicines now use snake venom to treat excessive bleeding and strokes, as well as for anti-aging creams. Snake venom is believed to have potential for treating neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, as well as has been considered as a possible treatment for breast cancer and leukemia.
People who milk snakes usually need a degree in herpetology (the study of reptiles), chemistry, or biology. They work in a laboratory with hundreds of snakes and are usually responsible for breeding them. Herpetologists and snake milkers need to make sure the snake is healthy enough to be milked, and they work with strict regulations to ensure they use the safest method possible for extraction. The Natural Toxic Research Center at Texas A & M is one of the best-known herpetology facilities in the world.
Snake milking involves pressing a snake’s fangs through a piece of latex to release the venom. (Photo by Walter aka WalterPro4755)
Many snake milkers suffer snakebites. An employee of the Kentucky Reptile Zoo, Jim Harrison has been bitten eighteen times by the poisonous snakes he milks for the zoo. The zoo ships the venom to laboratories to be made into medicines. He has lost some of his fingers, or parts of them, to the bites. But, the injuries haven’t fazed him. Harrison was featured on the television show Fatal Attractions, selling his story to help pay for the medical costs to recover from the bites.
In 2011, the famous snake milker, Bill Haast, passed away at 100 years old. He was the director of the Miami Serpentarium Laboratories in Punta Gorda, Florida. Haast was bitten over 173 times and got in the habit of injecting himself with a mixture of venom every day, believing that the injection provided immunity to the bites. He was generally very healthy and gave the injections credit for his long life. He often donated blood because of the antibodies that helped snakebite victims.
Today, as summer kicks off and we spend time making memories with family and friends outdoors hiking, biking, camping, or just enjoying the sunshine, let’s take a moment to stop and remember a group of people who help keep us safe in an emergency. Snake milkers – people who harvest snake venom for medical use – may not get a lot of attention, but they leave their legacy in the lives of every person they help save.
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