But the biggest challenge scientists are facing isn’t selling people on the healing properties of poison; it’s the cost. Mackessy notes that a vial of antivenin can fetch thousands of dollars in the U.S. But Harrison isn’t getting rich; the Kentucky Reptile Zoo is a nonprofit organization, and Harrison, a former police officer, lives in a small cabin on the premises with his wife, Kristen Wiley, the zoo’s curator. The pair is known among the venom-research community for their generosity.
Mackessy — who extracts venom from rattlesnakes in Colorado, where he lives — says Harrison and Wiley have provided venom free of charge for some projects, as he doesn’t have access to some of the species living at the zoo. “They’ve been very supportive of research,” he says.
The couple has also shipped venom to Italy, Spain, France, India, Australia, Mexico, Germany, Argentina, Egypt, South Africa and other nations that have some of the largest snake populations — and therefore the biggest problems with snakebites — but often have a shortage of venom to make lifesaving antivenin. Sri Lanka has one of the highest snakebite-fatality rates in the world, with 1,000 people dying as a result each year. Harrison and Wiley recently visited the island republic to help set up a venom-extraction facility there. Though they are aiding in the creation of what could potentially become their own competition, that’s of no concern to them.
“It’s the right thing to do,” Wiley says. “It’s way more important to get these people taken care of than it is to worry about whether they’re going to be competing with us to sell venom in 20 years.”
Though Harrison’s work has taken him all around the world, he always makes his way back to his beloved zoo in Kentucky, near the Red River Gorge, where his family vacationed when he was a boy.
“It’s a beautiful area,” he says. “The people have always been good to me.”
And aside from those 19 times, the snakes, it seems, have been kind as well.