SLADE — Having been bitten by venomous snakes 18 times, Jim Harrison knows better than anyone that snake venom — which can cause people to lose a limb or a life — can also save a limb or a life.
Harrison, assisted by his wife, Kristen Wiley, "milks" 600 to 1,000 venomous snakes a week at the Kentucky Reptile Zoo, near Natural Bridge State Resort Park.
The venom is then shipped all over the world for use in medical research and to make the antivenin to counteract the effects of bites.
The zoo has about 1,300 snakes representing 100 species, from exotics like cobras and mambas to U.S. pit vipers like copperheads and timber rattlers.
Harrison's most serious bite happened in May, when a lance-headed viper from Brazil sank its fangs into his left wrist.
He spent six days at University of Kentucky Chandler Hospital in Lexington. "And then I had abscesses form in my hand, and they had to open my hand up and take the abscesses out," Harrison said in an interview last week. "So I ended up in the hospital for three weeks. ... I'm just now getting back to where I have strength in my hand."
Harrison sold a video of the bite's progressive worsening to an Animal Planet show called Fatal Attractions "to pay the co-pay for my bills."
Shortly after that incident, he was nipped again by a copperhead, "which was not life-threatening," Harrison said.
But Harrison's hands testify to other close encounters. Half of the left middle finger was lost to a bite from a desert horned viper. Cobras bit his left thumb and right pinkie. His right index finger — well, it was crushed in a weight lifting accident.
Dr. Edward Otten, director of toxicology at the University of Cincinnati Department of Emergency Medicine, calls Harrison "a hero."
"He risks his life every day in his job," Otten said. "And what he does with the venom that he gets saves people's lives all over the United States and the world. You would be surprised how many people get bitten by cobras in downtown Detroit or Cincinnati or Chicago.
"People buy them on the Internet or something, and they don't know how to handle them, and they end up getting envenomated by them, and they come to a hospital, and they expect to be treated," Otten said.
During a recent December morning when the temperature was in the single digits, Harrison and Wiley climbed the snow-covered wooden steps into a one-room building kept at near 80 degrees Fahrenheit for the comfort of its occupants: dozens of western diamondback rattlesnakes kept in clear plastic storage tubs. The simultaneous buzz of tail rattles sounded like steaks sizzling on the grill.
Moving with purpose and concentration, Harrison lifts each serpent out of the box with a long hook. Their tongues darting, each snake writhes and tries to move away from him and toward a corner. Harrison can use the hook to pin the heads of the smaller ones of about 2 to 3 feet in length. For larger individuals, such as a dark-faced rattler of about 6 feet in length, Harrison uses a sturdier-looking triangular device with a handle called a pin stick.
Then he carefully lifts each snake to a 4-foot-tall metal podium where a glass funnel is suspended over a vial. He puts the snake's head up to the funnel, where the fangs puncture a thin waxy membrane and inject the venom. The whole process takes less than a minute for each snake.
"The hardest part is letting go, because the snake is irritated, and you're obviously in contact with it," Wiley said. "So he has to be sure he lets go and gets his hand out of Dodge."
After milking 10 to 15 snakes, the 20-milliliter vial is half-filled with yellow venom and replaced with an empty vial for a new round of extractions. This particular batch of venom will be used for a vaccine to help protect dogs against snakebite.
The liquid venom is then freeze-dried, and shipped to pharmaceutical companies and university researchers in the United States, Europe, Asia and Africa. Prices for venom vary according to the yield produced and the reptile's rarity.
Venom from a coral snake, a small serpent of the southern states with red, black and yellow bands, costs $1,000 per gram.
"To get a gram of coral snake venom takes 300 to 400 extractions," Harrison said.
In addition to making antidotes, venom has been used in the research for treatment of strokes, osteoporosis, blood clots and heart disease.
Copperhead venom has been used in trials for the treatment of breast cancer. Enzymes from cobra venom have been investigated in the search for cures for Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease. Proteins from certain rattlesnakes have produced blood-pressure medicine. Ingredients from red-necked spitting cobras have been researched for possible treatment of leukemia — an avenue of exploration in which Harrison and Wiley want to know more.
"We're trying to find a researcher here in the United States that might be interested in doing that because we have a bunch of those snakes," Harrison said.
The zoo operates as a non-profit and has one full-time employee and an intern. Some people think of snake venom as "liquid gold," but it's not necessarily so, Wiley said.
"It's not a profitable business unless you do a huge volume," she said. "But the problem is, to do a huge volume, you also have to have a huge number of snakes. So your overhead is gigantic. So our heating bill — you don't even want to know, it's astronomical in the winter. And it's not low in the summer, either, because we have to keep them from getting too hot."
For his part, Harrison, who receives a pension from his days as police officer, said: "I do this to save lives. I don't do this for the money. There's a lot simpler ways of making a living than doing this."