Nearly every day, Jim Harrison, founder of the Kentucky Reptile Zoo, extracts venom from approximately 100 snakes. He takes a break only on holidays and days with bad weather because, as he points out, when you’re dealing with predators bearing one of the most potent natural poisons on the planet, you want to make sure the roads are passable — just in case.
In the event that he is bitten, which has happened 19 times in his 53 years (five times while extracting), Harrison goes to the emergency room armed with his own medicine. The venom he methodically extracts, therefore risking his own exposure, is, in fact, the key to his recovery: The poisonous liquid dispensed by the zoo’s 2,000-plus snakes is what is used to create lifesaving antivenin. It’s a curious capability of a mysterious toxin that scientists are still working to fully understand.
Not only can venom be used to nullify its own deadly effects, but it also can be used to treat a host of other diseases, including cancer, Parkinson’s disease and diabetes. It is undeniably ironic: The same substance that dooms so many — estimates vary, but the number of annual deaths from snake bites could number in the tens of thousands, according to experts — also holds the key to survival for many others. It’s why Harrison has been working with these creatures — a lifelong fascination and, now, a livelihood — at his facility in Slade, Ky., nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains about an hour southeast of Lexington, since 1990.
“When I think of venom, I think of life,” Harrison says.
Still, he rarely blinks during the extraction process, which involves him pulling one snake after another from individual enclosures and gently massaging their heads as they bite down on and pump venom into a small glass container. As the animals’ well-being is a top priority, the process is completely harmless for those that provide the poison. It can, however, be energy consuming for the reptiles, so the snakes get two weeks off between extractions and get twice as much food as snakes kept for display.
That level of care is consistent across the board here; more than a research facility, the Kentucky Reptile Zoo is also a safe haven for other species of snakes that have been confiscated from private homes and unscrupulous dealers. The animals, some of which have been sent to the zoo from as far away as Germany and Thailand, are so well looked after that they can live far longer than they would in the wild. Even snakes that don’t produce venom for science are still kept and loved. The zoo keeps careful track of the serpents’ eating habits, as changes in appetite can signal illness. And ailing snakes — which can develop the same types of diseases as humans, including cancer and heart problems — receive treatment.