• Image about Jim Harrison
As wife Kristen Wiley looks on, Jim Harrison, founder of the Kentucky Reptile Zoo, wrangles an almost 10-foot long king cobra.
Pablo Alcala


“Kentucky Reptile Zoo has a very good reputation for taking care of the animals,” says Stephen Mackessy, a biologist at the University of Northern Colorado. “It is in the best interests of all concerned that the animals are kept as healthy as possible, because the product suffers otherwise.”

Mackessy uses venom from the Kentucky Reptile Zoo in his research of snake poison and how it works. The complex nature of the substance remains something of a puzzle to scientists like Mackessy; it’s still unknown why venom can contain as many as five to 10 different neurotoxins, depending on the species, when one, presumably, would accomplish a hungry snake’s mission.

“If you want to kill something, why not just have this or that?” Mackessy ponders.

In fact, instead of attacking just one biological system, venom typically targets cardiovascular, neurological and respiratory systems all at once, changing the way vital functions are regulated — a fact that science has taken advantage of. Proteins in rattlesnake and viper venoms, for instance, cause blood to stop clotting, and researchers have used those proteins to develop drugs to treat or prevent heart attacks and strokes.
  • Image about Jim Harrison
King cobra venom is placed in a vial to be shipped to a client. Venom can be used to treat a host of other diseases, including cancer, Parkinson’s disease and diabetes.
Pablo Alcala


Captopril, a drug used to control high blood pressure, was developed in 1975 by researchers who studied venom from South American vipers. It was the first commercially successful drug that came from venom research, and it proved highly profitable for Squibb (now Bristol-Myers Squibb), the company that funded the breakthrough.

The serpents also hold hope for scientists who purchase venom from the zoo in hopes of finding cures for other human ills. Venom from Gila monsters, which also live at the Kentucky Reptile Zoo, has been used to develop Byetta, a drug that helps diabetics.

“I tell people we’re using lizard spit to control diabetes,” Mackessy says. “People [wonder], ‘How can you have a drug developed from that?’ ”