July 01, 2011
Farewell to Bill Haast
By David E. Petzal
by David E. Petzal
As readers of this blog know, I am no friend of our fanged friends; I believe their proper place is under the wheels of a pickup or on the receiving end of a bullet or charge of shot. But Bill Haast, who died on June 15 at the age of 100, did not agree. Mr. Haast was the foremost venom milker in the history of the profession, and he received 172 bites from all manner of lethal serpents over the course of his lifetime, some of which nearly killed him.
I went to see him at work in 1970 at his serpentarium near Punta Gorda, Florida. He did the milking right in front of his audience, on a concrete podium, with nothing between the serpents and the audience. The first two reptiles were Russell’s vipers, which kill lots of people in India and are about 4 feet long. He milked them in classic fashion, getting them to bite down on a piece of latex stretched over a test tube. Then he pressed on their venom glands and a trickle of amber death ran down the side of the tube.
Next on the menu was a cobra; I forget which variety, but there was a lot of it. Haast kept it in wicker basket and when he took the lid off, the thing reared up out of the basket, looked around, and said: “Hello. I will be your cobra today. Who do I get to kill?”
With his left hand, Haast slapped the serpent in the back of its head. When the serpent whirled around, Haast grabbed it behind the head with his right and hauled it out of the basket, all 8 feet of it, or whatever there was. He then coiled it around his right arm, got it into milking position, and what I remember is, the venom filled up the tube like it came from a water tap. It did not trickle; it poured like beer vomit at a fraternity party.
I left. Quickly.
Mr. Haast had a lot of courage, and saved who knows how many thousand lives. And no matter what you think of snakes, you have to admire him.