Ken Darnell, Snake Wrangler
Credit: Photograph by Michael Edwards
Every two weeks, Darnell milks his snakes in three eight-hour shifts. His wife and dog stay clear. Gretchen hates the smell of the lab, and the dog, well, Sadie knows better. I am one of only two strangers Darnell has invited to stand on his porch as he milks. He doesn't like questions while he is working, especially ones that seek to understand the obscure economy in which he plays an important role. "You absolutely have no reason," he told me later in an email, "to inquire about my inventory and its value in monetary terms or my annual income unless you want to go into the venom business or are a government revenue agent." Darnell extracts approximately four-tenths of a gram of venom from each diamondback. The venom is processed in a centrifuge, freeze-dried, and – because it can fetch as much as $7,000 an ounce and because Darnell is paranoid – hidden. Later, when I emailed Darnell to ask where he kept the venom, he replied, "Please do not ask about this kind of thing again, or you will become persona non grata."

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.