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Dangerous Jobs: ‘Milking’ deadly snakes to make anti-venom

Snake milking

Snake milking

Ophidiophobia is defined as “an extreme, overwhelming fear of snakes”, which probably means applying to become a professional “snake-milker” is an unlikely career move for those who suffer from it.

However, there are people who don’t suffer from it, and who actually find themselves in the fascinating, and very dangerous, world of “snake milking.

Snake milkers are responsible for extracting, or “milking,” venom from poisonous snakes in a safe and controlled environment.

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This venom is used in a variety of applications, including the production of antivenom for snakebite treatments, medical research, and sometimes in making specialized drugs.

If you’re keen on the job, you’ll need to have huge knowledge of some of the world’s deadliest snakes, and, perhaps more importantly, know how to handle them without being given a fatal dose of really nasty venom.

Here’s a typical day in the life of a snake milker

  • Preparation

A snake milker’s day typically starts with preparation. This includes ensuring that the milking area is clean and sterile, checking the equipment such as venom collection jars and snake-handling tools, and observing the snakes for any signs of illness or stress

  • Snake Handling

The snake milker carefully selects a snake from its enclosure, using special tools and protective gear to ensure safety. The snake must be handled with care, both for the milker’s safety and to avoid causing unnecessary stress to the snake.

  • Venom Extraction

The snake is then gently encouraged to bite down on a specialized container, typically a venom collection jar covered with a piece of latex that the snake’s fangs can puncture. As the snake bites, its venom glands are massaged to promote the flow of venom, which drips down into the container.

This is a delicate process and requires a lot of precision and patience.

  • Post-Milking Care

After milking, the snake is returned to its enclosure and monitored for any signs of stress or discomfort.

The milker then safely stores the collected venom and cleans the equipment and milking area.

  • Education and Research

Snake milkers also play a role in educating others about snakes and their important role in ecosystems. They may also collaborate with researchers studying snake venom and its potential medicinal uses.

  • Record keeping

Detailed records are kept about the species of snake, the amount of venom collected, the snake’s health condition, and other relevant information.

This data is vital for research and for tracking the health and wellbeing of the snakes.

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“It’s always my fault when I get bitten”

One well-known snake milker is Jim Harrison, the director of the Kentucky Reptile Zoo, one of the largest venom operations in the United States.

In an interview with National Geographic, he said: “I’ve been bitten by a lot of venomous snakes, and it’s always my fault. […] When I was a kid, people told me that I can’t make a living playing with snakes. And they were wrong.”

And speaking to The Mirror in 2014, he revealed an encounter with a lancehead viper left him needing three operations and a month in hospital.

He’s been bitten eight times and has some of his fingertips missing as a result, but that doesn’t stop him.

He said: “We have around 2000 snakes on site and average between 600-1000 extractions a week.

“The perception of anyone who keeps snakes is a little weird – people don’t understand why you would risk your life.

“But the reality is it’s not that much risk if you use precautions, I think people get carried away from watching TV and the danger.

“Truthfully any of the snakes could be dangerous but they’re only dangerous if you do something stupid.”

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