How This Guy Turned His Obsession With Snakes Into a Career Milking Them
Have you ever witnessed a room full of 50 first-graders suddenly go pin-drop silent?
All it took was a southern copperhead snake baring its fangs to them before chomping down to release a stream of venom.
I saw — and heard — this myself at the Reptile Discovery Center, where owner and director Carl Barden spends his days extracting venom from the 1,000 or so snakes in his collection.
Protective glass safely separates the kids from the reptile and Barden, but it makes the demonstration no less tense.
Field trips are a big part of the crowds that regularly visit Reptile Discovery Center, which shares the building with Barden’s Medtoxin Venom Laboratories in Deland, Florida.
Barden does presentations twice a day Thursday through Saturday and once on Sunday.
For his first demonstration of the day, the 53-year-old venom extractor disappears for a few seconds among three aisles of plastic bins that reach toward the ceiling. He emerges with a bin slightly larger than a shoebox, which holds a beautiful red and yellow coral snake, whose small size belies the danger it poses.
Barden’s soothing, pre-recorded voice plays over the speakers, informing the audience that four to five milligrams of the serpent’s toxin is enough to kill a human adult.
After allowing the snake to slither around the table for a few moments, Barden calmly grabs it by the head and body, holding the reptilian star up to the glass to give his audience a better view. He then steadies the snake over a covered receptacle; it bites into and releases a yellowish death liquid into the cup below.
For this presentation, Barden also extracts venom from cobras and rattlesnakes. He uses two or three snakes of the same species to extract venom, but none of them produces enough to fill a vial that could fit in the palm of your hand.
The kids don’t seem to mind, though — they’re enthralled.
Milking a Snake
An older term for venom extraction — milking a snake — still circulates, but Barden uses an updated process.
“In the old days, you would see those guys put those snakes up on the glass and they would squeeze those venom glands, mash their head, and we just think it’s hard on the snake,” says Barden, who also breeds snakes. “So we allow him to bite.”
But how does he get the snake to do it? “I’ll tickle him, I’ll squeeze his tail a little sometimes, I’ll aggravate him because I want him to bite — but he decides what he gives us,” Barden says.
Barden, who describes himself as more of a farmer than a scientist, understands a title as striking as “snake milker” is hard to shake.
“People come in all the time and say, ‘What time are you milking the snakes?’ Because that’s the term, and that’s fine — we get it.’”
Snakes on a Plane (Yeah, I Went There)
Barden simply can’t resist the snakes’ charm.
“It’s almost on the level of an obsession,” he says. “In a sense, it’s been wonderful, because it has literally given my entire life a direction.”
Barden started collecting snakes when he was 7 years old. At age 12, he discovered his future career while watching a segment on “60 Minutes” about a man he fondly recalls: Bill Haast, the former director of the Miami Serpentarium Laboratories in Florida.
“When you’re 12 years old and you’re a snake fanatic and you see that guy, that’s the end of that equation,” Barden says of the man he eventually met and considered a mentor.
Barden may have known what he wanted to do, but he didn’t know how he was going to do it. After completing a bachelor’s degree in liberal science with an emphasis on biology at the University of Central Florida, Barden received some advice from his oldest brother, an airline pilot.
The brother suggested that a career in aviation could give him the money and extra time Barden needed to launch his serpentarium and venom collection business.
Barden worked as a commercial airline pilot for 22 years, balancing his time between flying and building his snake business, which he initially ran out of his house.
By 1999, he had made enough money to buy land and build his serpentarium.
Surviving a Snake Bite
Barden has nearly loved his job to death 11 times — that’s how often the snake milker has been bitten by venomous snakes.
And that’s not the worst of it.
He’s also allergic to venom — as in, 10-minutes-or-less-and-he’s-dead anaphylactic allergic.
As harrowing as it may seem, many snake handlers develop venom allergies, Barden explains, because of long-term exposure to dried venom, which ends up on cages or in the freeze-dried form that Barden uses to sell and ship his product. The venom contains foreign proteins that enter the body.
Depending on the snake, a bite can kill you. The CDC estimates that 7,000 to 8,000 people get bitten by venomous snakes in the United States each year, but only about five of those people die, mostly thanks to early interventions and the availability of antivenom medications at medical facilities.
So let’s say you get bitten by a cobra. How long do you have to get to the emergency room for antivenom treatment before you’re dead? Estimates clock in around 30 minutes. Unless you’re like Barden, who only discovered he was allergic to snake venom when he was bitten by a cobra on March 26, 1993. Barden says that when it happened, he momentarily thought he could simply drive to the emergency room with his antivenom since he thought he was fully prepared for bites.
But in less than a minute, Barden began experiencing the onset of serious symptoms, starting with the telltale sensation of a warm rush through his body. Because he had learned about snake bite-induced anaphylaxis years earlier, Barden recognized the peril and told his then-girlfriend to call 911.
He injected himself with two EpiPens before passing out.
At that point, his airway was constricted from a lack of oxygen, and he began convulsing and turning blue. Guided by the 911 operator, Barden’s girlfriend performed CPR until paramedics arrived and intubated him.
By the time they reached the hospital, Barden’s girlfriend had contacted another snake expert, who was able to explain to doctors which kind of antivenom Barden needed.
After his recovery, Barden says he started working with a local hospital, which set up a team that is prepared to go into immediate action if they get an emergency snake-bite call from him.
And Barden no longer sticks around for help to arrive.
“We don’t wait for an ER evac anymore,” Barden says. “We get in the car, I do my injections, we put on an airway kit and we take off. And then what we usually do is meet the ambulance or the fire truck on the way.
“And we’re on the phone with 911 — they know us, as you might imagine.”
A Career in Venom
Although the Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t track numbers of how many snake venom extractors there are in the United States — they’d likely fall into the broader zoologist category — Barden estimates there are only six institutions like his in the country.
Snake venom is mostly used to produce antivenom, which is essential for treating the estimated 1.8 million to 2.7 million people worldwide poisoned by snake bites each year. Researchers also study venom for its potential medical uses, such as the treatment of cancer, arthritis and Alzheimer’s disease.
Based on the amount of research being done, the demand for venom changes from year to year.
Some venoms sell quarterly, some venoms sell biannually, says Barden, who then rattles off a list of federal, state and local agencies he must work with for licensing and other regulations. “We produce about a kilogram of material a year of about 30 different venoms, but you’re never selling everything you’re producing.
“Venom is very uncertain — it is a very tricky market.”
Due to non-disclosure agreements, Barden can only say that his clients include antivenom producers, universities, private labs and research and diagnostic facilities. About half of them are international.
Project contracts can range from $50 to $50,000, says Barden, so his earnings fall between $50,000 and $100,000 most years.
But people who only see the dollar signs might not understand just how long it takes to get tiny amounts of venom. Barden notes that it’s necessary to allow snakes to rest between extractions to reduce the chances of stress and injury.
So what do clients pay for his product?
“At the low end, you might see cottonmouth [venom] at $100 a gram, and at the high end of that is coral snake venom — it fluctuates a little — but probably north of $4,000 a gram,” Barden says. “On a cottonmouth, seven snakes will give me a gram; on a coral snake, it might take 150.
“They can only be handled every two weeks or every month — it depends on the snake, so it takes you a long time.”
His goal each week is to extract venom from 300 snakes, which comes out to milking approximately 50 to 100 per day based on a five-day schedule Barden designed for his own safety.
“Years ago, I would do 300 snakes in a day,” Barden says.“You can’t do it — you would have a bite at 276. You can’t concentrate that well that long. So now I do groups of 30, 15, 21, and I can really focus. And consequently we haven’t had a bite in 12 years.”
To amateur collectors dreaming about starting their own venom business, Barden has some advice.
“People email me every other month and say, ‘I’m going to build a venom business,’” Barden says with a laugh. “My answer is always, ‘Don’t quit your day job.’”
Psychology of Snake Handling
When you’re constantly a millimeter away from a brush with death, you have to be on your game every day, so Barden prioritizes staying calm and relaxed.
“I come here in this great mental place,” he says. “I’m never freaking out… It’s a safety thing.”
Mara Roberts, his assistant and the only other full-time employee, agrees that a self-assessment each day is important, since mistakes can result in a lost limb or death.
“The snakes are at 100%, so you don’t want to be messing with them when you’re at 50,” says Roberts, who adds that she has never been bitten by a venomous snake. “If I’m thinking about 800 other things, it’s just no good.”
OK, so being calm and happy is great, but after watching Barden speak fondly about milking snakes, flying planes and riding motorcycles (a hobby of his), I have to ask him: Is he simply one of those guys who loves to live on the edge?
“I would never say to you I’m a risk taker, and I would never say to you I think my job is dangerous,” Barden says. “It is, but I don’t ever come here thinking this is dangerous. I always think it I have the know-how and the skills to make this completely safe.
“If you were terrified, this would be a disaster.”
Tiffany Wendeln Connors is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She has what she considers a healthy fear of snakes, alligators and platypuses.