Editor's note: Bill Haast died June 15 at his home in Florida. At age 100, Haast had survived 173 snakebites and died of natural causes. Outside contributor Anne Goodwin Sides caught up with Haast in 1997.
Venom is a subject Bill Haast knows like the back of his hands—hands that are gnarled and mangled from having been bitten 163 times by some of the world's deadliest snakes. At 86, Haast still works year-round at his Miami Serpentarium Laboratories, an indoor-outdoor facility in the chiggery flatlands of rural Florida near Punta Gorda. Home to more than 400 snakes, the 80-acre Serpentarium also boasts a one-of-a-kind serpent "propagation enclosure"—a grassy, palmetto-filled space designed expressly to get its languorous inhabitants in the mood.
A typical day at the Serpentarium finds Haast heading to his "venom library" and choosing one of many large metal cages. He lifts the cover. The snake du jour—a cobra, say—springs up, hisses, and weaves side to side. Waving his left hand to distract it, Haast seizes the serpent with his right, presses its fangs against a polyester membrane stretched over a test tube, and voil€: A "yield" of amber liquid spews forth. Each day Haast extracts venom from as many as 100 snakes. Ounce for ounce, this poison can be worth more than gold. Antivenin manufacturers and research labs pay up to $6,000 for a gram of freeze-dried venom from an African tree snake, and business is steady enough that Haast parks a cherry-red Rolls-Royce convertible in his garage. Obtaining a gram of venom, however, may require 100 or more extracting sessions. Which explains Haast's scars—and why he has no obvious successor. Each of his three children has politely declined offers to inherit the family business.
So with Haast entering his second half-century at the Serpentarium and with the annual man-meets-snake season about to peak—the American Association of Poison Control Centers estimates that as many as 5,000 Americans will be bitten this summer—we checked in with him for some advice about snaky behavior and coolness in the face of fangs. There can be an upside to serpent poison, after all: Haast, who's been injecting himself with a "vaccine" of diluted venom for 50 years, has blood so rich with antibodies that it's been transfused into numerous bite victims. His venom shots also have saved him, he swears—not just from death by snakebite, but from aging, infirmity, and even colds. "I've never been sick a day in my life," he says. "Never have to go to the doctor." Which turns out to be, well, a slight exaggeration.
So what was the worst bite ever?
If you mean the closest I came to death, that would have been in 1956, when I was bitten by a Siamese cobra on national television. It was during a live broadcast of Marlin Perkins's Zoo Parade. The snake struck at my arm, my wife screamed, and the network cut to a commercial. I stopped breathing and was put in an iron lung. It was two days before I was breathing on my own.
Not long before, you'd been bitten by a blue krait, whose venom is even more more lethal than a cobra's. What happened that time?
Krait venom usually makes you stop breathing—it paralyzes your diaphragm. In fact, I've never heard of another krait bite victim surviving. But it also stimulates the nervous system. My sensitivity—touch and sight—was exaggerated by maybe a hundred times. There was nothing horrible about it. It was all just beautiful texture and tapestry and colors. This was before LSD, but that's probably similar to what I was feeling.
What's bitten you most recently?
A western diamondback. I must have blinked at the wrong second. He got me on the back of the left hand.
Do you even flinch at such bites anymore?
Oh, I guess so. I was on the floor with spasms and convulsions this time. I spent the night in intensive care. And my hand was swollen for maybe two or three weeks, which always happens with a viper bite.
About those hands—they're something of a roadmap to your career, aren't they?
They have taken a beating. A bite from an eastern diamondback rattlesnake left one hand curled like a claw. The venom of a Malayan pit viper made my index finger kind of hooked. And two years ago, a cottonmouth bit the tip of my right pinkie. Cottonmouth venom dissolves tissue. So most of the finger turned black and lost feeling. All that was left was a blackened bit of bone sticking out. My wife, Nancy, took a pair of garden clippers and cut that off.
Would those be the same kind of clippers people use on, say, roses?
Similar to that. Yep.
And then you went right back to work. Admit it: You must love handling those snakes.
It can be exciting. There was one time when I was struck by the most dangerous snake in the world, the saw-scaled viper. This was 1989. The bite didn't seem serious at first. But the wound wouldn't stop bleeding; my blood just wouldn't clot. I was starting to worry, especially since, at the time, there was no antivenin for this snake in the United States. But there was in Iran. So Nancy called a person we know there who smuggled some vials past customs by telling them it was for a dying German. By the time they got it to me, I was stabilizing. But it was exciting for a while there.
Life and death and international intrigue just seem to be part of the workaday serpent-handling world, at least for you. True?
When I was younger, maybe. I used to travel overseas a lot then to give bite victims blood. The most dramatic was this time a little boy was bitten by a coral snake down in Venezuela. Congressman Claude Pepper's office sent a jet that flew me deep into the jungle, to this little village hospital. They gave the boy about a pint of my blood, and pretty soon he regained consciousness and asked for his mother. The next day they made me an honorary citizen of Venezuela.
You couldn't have anticipated such perks when you started. How did you ever get involved in the snake business in the first place?
When I was 20, I started working as a snake handler for a roadside carnival. During the Depression, I got into the moonshine business in the Everglades, and I caught all kinds of snakes there. And during the war, I was a flight engineer in Africa, Asia, and South America and got to collect puff adders and cobras and such. That was when I got the idea for the Serpentarium.
I'm sure the neighbors were thrilled. Have you found that snakes make good pets?
Snakes do not make good pets. You could have a snake for 30 years and the second you leave his cage door cracked, he's gone. And they'll never come to you unless you're holding a mouse in your teeth.
But if they don't feel affection, what about aggression? In the new movie Anaconda, the snake's out for blood. Do snakes stalk people in real life?
That's ignorance. Snakes aren't monsters. They're defensive—you know, 'Don't tread on me.' Except king cobras. They'll come after you, striking repeatedly, to protect their eggs. In Burma, they have to close foot trails during nesting season.
Is there anywhere else, besides Burma, you'd advise the snake-phobic to avoid?
India, for one. About half of the deaths from snakes happen there. That's because Indian farmers walk around barefoot near some of the world's deadliest snakes, including the saw-scaled viper. Australia has more toxic snakes, but people wear shoes there.
Ever eaten a snake?
Sure. Back when I was in Boy Scouts, they had something called the Snake Club. To get your Snake Club patch you had to catch a rattlesnake and roast him over the fire.
And did it taste like chicken?
Oh, I thought it was a lot moister and better than chicken, but hardly worth the effort. Rattlesnakes are pretty slim critters.
Photograph by Andrew Kaufman
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