Haast physically extracts venom from venomous snakes by holding them by the head and forcing them to strike a rubber membrane covering a vial. As a result of handling these snakes, Haast had been bitten 170 times as of early 2003, more often than any other known human.
Bill Haast was born in Paterson, New Jersey in 1910. He became interested in snakes while at a Boy Scout summer camp when he was 11 years old. Haast was bitten for the first time at summer camp a year later, when he tried to capture a small Timber Rattlesnake. He applied the standard snake-bite treatment of the time (making crossed cuts over the fang marks) and then walked four miles to the camp's first aid tent, by which time his arm was swollen. He was rushed to see a doctor, but quickly recovered without further treatment. His next bite, later the same year, came from a four-foot Copperhead. Haast was carrying a snake-bite kit, and had a friend inject him with antivenin. However, this bite put him into a hospital for a week.
Bill Haast started collecting snakes, and after initial opposition from his mother, was allowed to keep them at home. He soon learned how to handle the snakes, and found one timber rattler so easy to handle that he posed for a photograph with the snake lying across his lap. He started extracting venom from his snakes when he was 15 years old.
Never a good student, Bill Haast dropped out of school when he was 16 years old. When he was 19 he joined a man who had a roadside snake exhibit, and went with him to Florida. While there Haast ended up rooming with a moonshiner on the edge of the Everglades, and became proficient at capturing all kinds of snakes.
Bill Haast eventually returned home. His mother had leased a concession stand at a lakeside resort, and Haast added a snake exhibit to the business. There he met and eloped with his first wife, Ann. They moved to Florida so that Haast could pursue his dream of opening a snake farm. After Ann became pregnant, and Haast lost his job when the speakeasy he was working at was raided by revenue agents, they moved back to New Jersey.
While in New Jersey, Bill Haast studied aviation mechanics, and was certified after four years. With his certification, he moved to Miami to work for Pan American World Airways. After the United States entered World War II, Haast served as a flight engineer on Pan Am airliners flying under contract to the United States Army Air Corps. These flights took him to South America, Africa and India, where he bought snakes, including his first cobra.
In 1946 Bill Haast decided he had enough money saved to start his snake farm. He bought a plot of land facing U.S. 1 south of Miami, then sold his house and started construction on the Serpentarium. His wife Ann did not approve, and they were divorced. Haast retained custody of their son, Bill Jr. Haast continued to work as a mechanic for Pan Am while he built the Serpentarium. During this time Haast met and married his second wife, Clarita Matthews.
The Serpentarium opened at the end of 1947, still not completed. For the first five years Bill, Clarita and Bill Jr. were the only staff. Bill Jr. eventually left, having lost interest in snakes, but not before he had been bitten four times by venomous snakes. Haast constantly improved the Serpentarium. By 1965 the Serpentarium housed more than 500 snakes in 400 cages and three pits in the courtyard. Haast was extracting venom 70 to 100 times a day from some 60 species of venomous snakes, usually in front of an audience of paying customers. He would free the snakes on a table in front of him, then catch the snakes bare-handed, and force them to eject their venom into glass vials with a rubber membrane stretched across the top.
Soon after opening the Serpentarium Bill Haast began experimenting with building up an acquired immunity to the venom of King, Indian and Cape cobras by injecting himself with gradually increasing quantities of venom he had extracted from his snakes, a practice called mithridatism. In 1954 Haast was bitten by a common, or blue, krait. He at first hoped that his immunization to cobra venom would protect him from the krait venom, and he continued with his regular activities for several hours. However, the venom eventually did affect him, and he was taken to a hospital where it took him several days to recover. A krait antivenin was shipped from India, but when it arrived after a 48-hour flight, Haast refused to take it.
Haast received his first cobra bite less than a year after he started his immunization program. During the 1950s he was bitten by cobras about twenty times. His first King cobra bite was in 1962. Haast has also been bitten by a green mamba. On several occasions Haast has donated his blood to be used in treating snake-bite victims when a suitable antivenin was not available.
In 1949 Haast began supplying venom to a medical researcher at the University of Miami for experiments in the treatment of polio. The experiments gave encouraging results, but were still in preliminary clinical trials when the Salk polio vaccine was released in 1955.
Haast's hands have suffered venom-caused tissue damage, culminating in the loss of a finger following a bite from a Malayan pit viper in 2004. As a result of the damage, Haast no longer attempts to handle venomous snakes. As of 2008 he continues to have his wife inject him with small amounts of snake venom.
Farewells: the past year has seen a number of notable Floridians pass away.(Randy Savage)(Claude R Kirk)(Stetson Kennedy)(In memoriam)
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