The herpetology world lost one of its oldest and most celebrated members with the passing of the legendary Bill Haast on June 15, 2011. Although surrounded by controversy for (literally!) most of his 100 years, Mr. Haast inspired millions of reptile enthusiasts, myself included, and saved countless lives by harvesting the venom needed to produce antivenin (the medicine used to treat bites from venomous snakes). He even donated his own blood, which he believed to contain antivenin, to snakebite victims (please see below).
I grew up reading all the classic books written by and about great herpers and naturalists, including Bill Haast’s story as relayed in Cobras in His Garden (please see below). In time fortune smiled upon me, and I was able to meet and even work with several of my childhood heroes. But, sadly, Bill Haast eluded me, despite our crossing paths at 1 or 2 points. Several of my older co-workers knew him well, however, and my grandfather regaled me with tales of Bill’s exploits after visiting his famed Miami Serpentarium.
Smitten and Bitten
Like so many budding herpetologists, Mr. Haast’s fascination with serpents began with the capture of a Garter Snake at age 7 (Note: the attached photo is of my 3-year-old cousin with his first catch, not a young Bill Haast). Unlike most of us, however, by age 12 he had been bitten by a Timber Rattler and a Copperhead!
Again in common with fellow herpers, Mr. Haast began ordering live snakes through the mail and, noticing that most originated in Florida, was drawn to the Sunshine State in search of reptile adventures. By age 16 he had left his native New Jersey and was travelling with a roadside snake show, bound eventually for the herp paradise in the Southeast.
The Famous Miami Serpentarium
Once settled, Mr. Haast opened the Miami Serpentarium, which for nearly 40 years was a “must see” destination for snake fans the world over. Hand-grabbing and “milking” (harvesting venom by causing a snake to bite into gauze) up to 100 snakes a day, Mr. Haast suffered over 170 bites, 20 of which nearly proved fatal. The venom he extracted was used to manufacture antivenin, and saved countless lives. For a time, he and the equally dedicated Ross Allen were the only sources of venom in the USA.
Mr. Haast and several doctors also researched the use of snake venom as a treatment for polio, multiple sclerosis and arthritis, treating up to 6,000 people at one point. Although new medications did not materialize, snake venom is now again being in as a medication; Gila Monster venom is already in use.
Tragedy Brings an End to the Serpentarium
In 1984 a young visitor to the Miami Serpentarium fell into a crocodile exhibit and was killed. Mr. Haast moved his operation to Utah, but returned to Florida several years later. He established a laboratory for venom extraction in Punta Gorda, but no longer held the public snake handling demonstrations for which he had become famous.
Working at 90+ Years of Age
Mr. Haast continued to manually harvest venom into his early 90’s, when snake-bite induced injuries to his hands caused him to take a (well-deserved!) respite from his dangerous profession. At age 97 he was still manufacturing antivenin in his lab. I’m sure the temptation to milk just one more snake was hard one to fight…and I wouldn’t bet that he resisted entirely!
Controversial to the End
The years between Mr. Haast’s decision to work with snakes and his eventual fame were filled with intrigue. Catching snakes in the Glades while working for bootleggers, smuggling serpents in his tool box as an airline mechanic, secret deals by the US government to get rare antivenin out of Iran to save his life, honorary Venezuelan citizenship for lives saved there, and so on…details are not well-known (but he knew, I’m sure!)
What is certain, however, is that for a period of 60 years Mr. Haast injected himself with the venoms of various snakes in order to develop immunity to their bites. Although not scientifically documented, he believed that success had been achieved. Indeed, he was flown round the world to donate blood to snakebite victims, some of whom recovered. Mr. Haast said he would be sure if he reached the age of 100, which he did – to, I imagine, the great surprise of 3 ex-wives, 9 children through great-great grandchildren, and most of the current herp community! I’d bet on good genetics if forced to, but then again…
Practical Advice from One Who Knows
Despite his daredevil reputation, Mr. Haast was very practical in his outlook, especially when addressing pet-keepers. I frequently quote from an interview he gave to Outsider Magazine many years ago. All pet keepers, but especially the increasing numbers who insist on treating snakes more like dogs than as their true natures demand, should heed his words:
“You could have a snake for 30 years and the second you leave his cage door cracked, he’s gone. And he’ll never come back to you unless you’re holding a mouse in your teeth”.
Rest in peace, Snakeman.
Note: Keeping venomous snakes is not something to be undertaken by private individuals. I’ve been called to bring antivenin to many snakebite victims and can attest to the permanent injuries and deaths that have ensued. Just this week (June, 2011), a woman was killed by a “pet” Black Mamba in NY State (please see article below).
Milking a snake image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Krause, Earnst