Ken Darnell, Snake Wrangler
Rattlesnake venom is used to make lifesaving medicines. But you have to be brave – and a little crazy – to take it from the snake. Ken Darnell is a bit of both.
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Diamondback venom is a potent hemotoxin that kills red blood cells and causes tissue damage. It is also something that pharmaceutical companies and research labs need for medical research, in order to develop new drugs (and to make antivenin). But milking poisonous snakes is as dangerous and difficult as it sounds, and most pharmaceutical companies are not equipped to do it. Instead, they rely on a small network of eccentric, autonomous, and unaccountably brave men like Darnell. Consider the barriers to entry to this potentially lethal factory-and-farming job: finding a legal production location, finding buyers, liability, difficulty, danger, expense, danger. As someone who is both obsessive and entrepreneurial, Darnell may be the most successful of the bunch. "Down in Florida," Darnell says, "my two major competitors are having a tough time getting enough snakes to have a commercially viable group. I'm producing at least five times as much venom as they're producing together."
Credit: Photograph by Michael Edwards
Every so often, snake men like Darnell will get a call from someone who's heard about the value of venom. "Hey, I'm going to start a venom lab," they'll say. "What do I do?" Carl Barden's response: "Get 500 venomous snakes, and take care of them for one year. Just keep them alive. Call back when the year is up, and then we'll teach you all about venom production." No one ever calls back. "Unless you have some borderline obsession with the animals," says Barden, "it is impossible to do this work. Most of us agree that it was never the money that got us here. It was all about the snakes."