Darnell says he's milked some 300,000 rattlesnakes since he got into the business 35 years ago, probably more than anyone else alive or dead – death being where this work will usher you. He has milked up to 1,000 snakes in a single day. That day on the porch, he did 120.
"It's like anything else," he says of his work with venomous snakes, "except the means of production can kill you."
Darnell has been bitten by a rattlesnake only once, last year, on his left index finger, after an argument with his wife, who rushed him to the hospital – and he hasn't skipped a milking since. Given the number of venomous snakes he's handled, this record is extraordinary. Still, it's a touchy point. "You never ask a lawyer if any of his clients have gone to the electric chair," he said to me. "But you ask a snake handler if he's been bit? It's not polite."
Bill Haast, one of Darnell's role models and competitors in the highly specialized, subterranean world of commercial venom production, died in June 2011 at the unlikely age of 100. Haast is believed to have handled 3 million venomous snakes during his career, which began after World War II. His New York Times obituary stated, without discernible irony, that he died of "natural causes." In his later years, Haast couldn't pick up a snake at Miami Serpentarium Laboratories – a venom production lab in Florida – because his hands were disfigured from the 173 bites he had suffered. Along with Haast are men like Carl Barden, a 46-year-old former airline pilot who says as a kid, he dreamed of producing venom after he saw Haast on 60 Minutes. He has been bitten 11 times in his 20 years running Medtoxin Venom Laboratories in Deland, Florida. George Van Horn, who runs Reptile World Serpentarium in St. Cloud, Florida, is missing a few fingers.
"Any snake handler who's worth a damn," says Darnell, "is missing fingers."
By this logic, Darnell, who has all 10, isn't worth a damn. But, as he says, he is not a snake handler, a snake charmer, a daredevil, a hobbyist, or a reptile-loving weirdo.
"I'm a venom producer," he says.
He shows me an invoice he submitted to one of his clients: At $225 per gram of venom, he was owed $155,925.
Without question, the venom Darnell procures has a benevolent purpose – snake venom is a critical ingredient in medications that treat diabetes and high blood pressure, and help prevent strokes, among other illnesses and conditions – but his motivation is decidedly less altruistic. "An ounce of eastern diamondback venom," he says, "is worth far more than an ounce of gold."
Last July, one of Darnell's customers projected needing four kilograms of "EDB" and four more of western diamondback over the next 18 months. That single venom order, at $7,000 per ounce, could earn Darnell around $2 million and require him to perform about 25,000 milkings – many on his porch.