From The Miami Herald, August 3, 2006
FLASHBACK | THE MIAMI SERPENTARIUM
'Miami snakeman' is 95 and still injects himself with venom
BY LUISA YANEZ
IN PUNTA GORDA: Bill Hasst sold his Miami Serpentarium site in Pinecrest in 1984, and settled in southwest Florida. 'There is no reason to visit Miami. I've outlived all my friends down there.'
FOR THE MIAMI HERALD
King cobras. Green mambas. Palm vipers. Name a deadly snake and Bill Haast has either tamed it or been bitten by it.
For almost four decades, Haast charmed curious tourists who flocked to his South Dixie Highway attraction, the Miami Serpentarium, to watch his snake show.
Haast's death-defying act didn't disappoint. In his trademark white lab coat, he would approach a venomous reptile, lure it with one hand and grab its head with the other. He would shove the snake's fangs into the top of a vial and watch the venom trickle down.
Jaws dropped. Children shrieked in horrified glee.
''It was the best snake show there ever will be,'' said George Van Horn, a frequent visitor who now runs a similar attraction in Central Florida.
Haast, the world-renowned ''Miami snakeman,'' is now 95 and living on a sprawling Punta Gorda ranch with his third wife, Nancy -- and 400 snakes that supply his venom-selling Miami Serpentarium Laboratories.
''I know a lot of people in Miami still remember the Serpentarium and wonder what became of me, that's why I'm talking to you,'' said Haast, who would only be interviewed by telephone.
''At 95, he doesn't like to do anything that takes time away from his lab work,'' added his wife.
Haast is still trying to prove a point: He'll go to his grave believing venom can heal.
VENOM `POSTER BOY'
The medical establishment -- and the Food and Drug Administration -- never bought into Haast's enthusiasm for the lethal snake juice as treatment for multiple sclerosis, lupus, arthritis and Parkinson's disease.
In his case, he claims the venom has helped him live a long and healthy life -- with the exception of his snakebitten hands.
''I could become a poster boy for the benefits of venom,'' Haast jokes. ``If I live to be 100 I'll really make the point.''
Every week, Haast still injects his arm with a cocktail of venom from five snakes -- cobras, mambas, kraits, cottonmouths and rattlesnakes.
The injections are a routine he began in 1948 -- the year he opened the Serpentarium -- and continued after he closed it in 1984. Originally, the shots immunized Haast against snake bites, an occupational hazard.
Now, he believes, the long-term benefits of the shots have spared him from many of the maladies of old age. ``I feel like a man in his 60s.''
But Haast no longer can handle the forked-tongued killers that made him famous. He said his last snakebite, Number 173 suffered in 2003 -- courtesy of a Malaysian pit viper -- was the final blow to his hands, already mangled from years of enduring the nerve- and tissue-destroying poison that snakes spew when biting.
His hands are gnarled and deadened, some fingers hang immobile, some look stunted in growth, and a pinky and index finger have been amputated at the knuckle, photographs taken by his wife reveal.
''I can no longer open my hands wide or make a fist,'' Haast explained. ``I can't complain. My hands served me well.''
RESEARCH WAS GOAL
For Haast, the bites, the snakes and the Serpentarium were only a means to an end.
''I always meant for the attraction to support the venom research, but it just kept growing and growing. It became bigger than I expected,'' he said.
Haast really wanted to find the cure or treatment for polio and feels he came close.
In the late 1940s, it occurred to Haast that the symptoms of polio mirrored the nerve and muscle disruption caused by a cobra bite. He gathered 400 cobras and took his findings to a University of Miami researcher. At the UM, Haast led in the testing of the serum on monkeys. The findings were very encouraging, Haast said. But Jonas Salk produced a polio vaccine in April 1955, ending Haast's first effort to turn venom into a miracle drug.
In the 1970s, along with his friend, respected Miami physician Ben Sheppard, Haast distributed PROven, a venom-based serum. Sheppard gave injections to patients with MS. His clinic became famous and was featured on CBS's 60 Minutes.
But the FDA shut it down and banned the drug, saying PROven had not been properly tested for humans. ''Failing at this is one of my biggest regrets,'' Haast said.
Despite the medical debacles, the Serpentarium continued to flourish. During its heyday, it attracted about 50,000 Florida visitors a year.
The Serpentarium's landmark 35-foot-high, hooded, concrete-and-stucco cobra stuck out its forked tongue at motorists and arriving patrons on South Dixie Highway and Southwest 126th Street.
Inside, the snake shows were pure drama with no frills, no fanfare, no drum roll, no silence please, no ladies and gentleman. Haast's second wife, Clarita, simply narrated, setting the mood for the audience.
Sometimes a snake would upstage Haast, biting him in front of spectators. He suffered 17 bites that nearly killed him, one put him in an iron lung for three days, his system paralyzed. The attackers included cobras, a krait, green mambas, a pygmy rattlesnake, a European asp and a palm viper.
National television shows hosted by Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas and Johnny Carson invited him or featured him during visits to Miami.
In 1965, Cobras in his Garden, a book about Haast's exploits, was published. Today, out of print, it's coveted by collectors and sells on eBay for more than $100, a testament to Haast's popularity.
Television, a book, big crowds, all helped to build up Haast's image and popularity. But Haast had detractors. They considered him a glorified snake-handler, a showman, a medicine man.
''I know some people have said that about Bill, but he is one of the hardest-working, most diligent, focused individuals you'll ever meet,'' said Van Horn, 62, who worked at the Serpentarium as a young man.
Today, Van Horn owns Reptile World Serpentarium near St. Cloud, a venom business where the public can pay to watch workers extract venom from snakes.
''From the first day I walked into the Miami Serpentarium, I knew that was for me,'' he said. Ditto for Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Lt. Jeffrey Fobb, who frequented shows as a boy. Now 39, he is a member of the rescue department's anti-venin unit that rushes to inject those bitten by a poisonous snake.
''Haast was an iconic figure in the snake world and innovator in the field of venom collecting,'' said Fobb, who keeps a photo of Haast and a king cobra in his office.
The story of how Haast made his way to Florida has a certain Huck Finn appeal. He was born in 1910 in Paterson, N.J., to German-American parents -- his father was a mechanic, his mom a housewife. Haast caught his first snake at 7; his first serious bite was at 12.
He purchased his first exotic snake, a diamondback rattler, from a catalog. The seller's address: Eureka, Fla. Haast knew he had to head south, to a warmer climate favored by snakes.
At 19, he got a job with a roadside snake attraction. When the show headed to Florida, Haast convinced his parents to let him go. It was 1929. The Depression killed the snake attraction, so Haast went to work for a bootlegger based in the Florida Everglades, until revenue agents busted their still.
Haast eventually returned home, married and enrolled in airplane-mechanic school, but Florida called. He landed a job with Miami-based Pan American Airways. His dream of creating a snake sanctuary grew nearer.
During World War II, he was aboard flights that delivered food and medicine to Africa and Asia. While the rest of the crew was out having fun in the exotic locales, he bought exotic snakes.
How did he get them through Customs? ''I would hide them in my tool box,'' he said.
Haast eventually sold his family home to buy the land on South Dixie Highway where the Serpentarium would rise. Haast and his teenage son, Bill Jr., began constructing snake pits, the beginning of the Serpentarium. Opening day was Jan. 1, 1948.
The attraction prospered until a tragedy in 1977. A 6-year-old boy fell into a crocodile pit and was killed.
Haast still grows somber when retelling the story: It was a Sunday. People were lining up for a show. Suddenly, he heard screaming and ran toward the commotion.
Haast saw that a boy had fallen into the crocodile pit. Haast jumped down into the pit. By then Cookie, the 12-foot, 2,000-pound crocodile, had the boy in its mouth. ''I hit him over the head, trying to get him to let go.'' Others joined Haast. Cookie broke free and took the boy underwater. ''I knew it was over then.'' Haast calls it one of the lowest points in his life. The night of the accident, he took his Luger, walked out to the pit and shot Cookie in the head. It was buried on the grounds. The boy's family never sued, accepting only the maximum insurance payment, Haast said.
But if a life was lost at the Serpentarium, Haast wants it known that transfusions from his immunized blood to snake victims helped save 21 lives. Among them a zoo director from Des Moines, a local construction worker and a Venezuelan father.
By 1984, interest in such roadside attractions like the Serpentarium had waned. Haast finally sold the 5.2-acre lot, now in Pinecrest, for $3.2 million and headed to Utah for more snake research.
Today, a McDonald's and a shopping center sit where the Serpentarium once thrilled. The giant concrete-and-stucco cobra was donated to South Miami Senior High but fell apart during its move to the school.
''I miss the excitement of the Serpentarium,'' Haast said. ``Funny, the very place I wanted to get away from, I now miss. But there is no reason to visit Miami. I've outlived all my friends down there.''
Snake man is master of poison and cure
Bill Haast, 97, is lauded for pioneering work with snake venom
By Kate Spinner
Published: Friday, July 11, 2008 at 4:30 a.m.
CHARLOTTE COUNTY - Bill Haast's 97-year-old fingers, withered by scores of snake bites, are too weak to handle cobras and pit vipers anymore. But he still wakes up each morning to turn snake venom from across the globe into freeze-dried powder for medical laboratories.
STAFF PHOTO / ED PFUELLER Order photo
Bill Haast, center, is recognized by members of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Venom Response Unit for his work helping snake-bite victims. He received the key to the city.Those same hands that for decades eased venom from the world's most poisonous snakes held the key to the city of Miami on Thursday.
The honor, bestowed by Miami's mayor, was delivered to Haast at his home east of Punta Gorda by members of the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Venom Response Unit. With 43 types of antivenin, a diverse enough supply to treat 90 percent of all bites, the unit's antivenin bank supplies the U.S. military and hospitals around the nation -- sometimes the world.
"Our unit wouldn't be around if it wasn't for him; he's the inspiration," said Al Cruz, the unit's founder, standing beneath the tall branches of a live oak that Haast had allowed to grow through his screened pool patio. "We're the only fire-based response team in the world."
The emergency services unit celebrated its 10th year recently at the Metro Zoo in Miami. Haast could not make the ceremony, so part of the ceremony came to him.
Haast maintained a similar bank in Miami when he ran the Serpentarium theme park, which closed in 1984. He briefly lived in Utah and returned to Florida to live in Charlotte County 18 years ago.
His contribution to antivenin science is unparalleled and earned him recognition throughout his life.
Early in Haast's career, he slogged the wilds of the Everglades collecting cottonmouths and rattlers. When he had enough, he opened the Serpentarium in Miami in 1946.
Soon, his quest for exotic snakes stretched around the world. He made special trips, bringing back such perilous species as cobras and saw-scaled vipers.
"Any time I saw an unusual snake I brought it back," Haast said, sitting on cushioned patio furniture. Behind him rose an 8-foot concrete cobra statue that once decorated the serpentarium.
Eventually, his collection became one of the most diverse venomous snakes on the planet. Crowds cheered as he collected venom from the snakes in dramatic displays.
Haast routinely injected himself with venom to build up resistance to the ill effects of the inevitable bites. It was an experiment, but having received his first venomous snake bite as a teenager, Haast was used to risks.
"I just have a curious nature," he said.
Horses had developed resistance to the poisons through the same process, and the blood of those horses was used to create life-saving antivenin.
For Haast, the weekly shots paid off, helping him to survive 172 venomous snake bites. His powerful blood also rescued 21 snake-bite victims.
In his heyday, he was flown around the world to hospitals where people bitten by rare snakes would have died without his blood.
His unique contribution to medicine earned him widespread recognition. In 1964, a book was written about him. He later received commendations from President Gerald Ford and Miami Mayor Stephen Clark.
Still recognized as a top authority on venomous snakes, Haast, who moved his snakes to a lab on his sprawling Charlotte County complex in 1990 (he no longer has snakes there), said he answers questions from callers every day.
Some questions, like the one a decade ago from Cruz, the venom unit founder, mean the difference between life and death.
Cruz called Haast after a man was bitten by a Black Mamba, one of the most poisonous snakes of Africa.
Although Haast did not have antivenin for that snake, he knew a collector who did and who provided the 15 vials of antivenin that saved the victim's life.
It was a close call, one that underscored the county's need for an antivenin bank, Cruz said. For inspiration and advice, he leaned on Haast.
"When he closed his doors there was a lapse and there were some fatalities related to exotic snake bites," said Chuck Seigert, of the Miami unit.
Miami is a hotbed for venomous snake bites because it is the entry point for almost any exotic snake, whether it is bound for a collector or a zoo in another state.
Since the county revived the antivenin bank in 1998, it has saved 1,000 snake-bite victims, Seigert said.
On Thursday, members of the rescue unit came to shake Haast's hand. Besides the mayor's key, they gave him a firefighter's helmet bearing the unit's name: Venom 1.
"He's like an icon to people that know him," Cruz said.