The Concept

Bill in uniform with the Air Transport Command, WW II

True to his visionary talents, the concept of the Miami Serpentarium was formed in Bill Haast's imagination when, during the war on those long transatlantic flights between navigating and engineering duties with nothing to do but listen to the unremitting drone of the engines, he had time to think about what purposeful way he wanted to apply himself when the war was over. There are many fascinating accounts of his wartime adventures, but those will be the subject for another time.

He knew it would have to be something to do with snakes, and that if ever venoms were to achieve full and equal status as a legitimate, viable natural resource deserving of thorough investigation by the scientific community, it would be up to him to provide the quantity, variety of species and most of all reliable quality, an absolute prerequisite to be allowed entry into the high-standard realm of scientific research. He knew that without refinement in collection and availability of species, venoms would remain limited in their use and as he had intuitively determined years before, it would be his destiny to change that for all time.

In 1945 most snake venom collecting was conducted for the purpose of manufacturing antivenin* , and in countries throughout the world where snakes were abundant and bites were common, the antivenin (once referred to as antivenom serum) production was mostly carried out by government run facilities, but not all.

The process by which the the antidote for venomous snakebite is manufactured is one in which large animals, usually horses as it is possible to take a large amount of blood upon occasion from a horse without detriment, are injected with small but carefully scheduled and ever increasing amounts of sub-lethal doses of snake venoms. Over time the animal's antibody levels increase, and as the resistance becomes greater, at some time in the process it is determined that when the antibody levels are high enough, then the horses (sometimes sheep or other host animals) are bled, the colorless fluid of the blood known as serum which contains the antibodies, is separated from the red blood cells, and then preserved and provided for use in the treatment of venomous snakebite. In more recent times the blood serum is often put through a refining process to make it less reactive, as some people are highly allergic to horses or sheep and the life saving antivenin itself and how to administer it safely is a conundrum for many physicians.

Frequently venoms collected in these antivenin manufacturing centers were supplemented with venoms supplied by indigenous peoples living near those centers, having been collected without benefit of refrigeration, often air-dried on glass out in the sun, sometimes gathering bits of leaves and debris, in an uncontrolled fashion. Dried venoms are quite stable however, and even so are very capable of producing antibodies in animals, but for scientific research it had to get a whole lot better than that. Today, of course, antivenin centers worldwide are highly sophisticated, and both their methods of venom collection and the products they manufacture are excellent.

In addition to there not being a scientific-grade natural resource material available, the technology to be able to really do much in the way of scientific investigation had yet to be developed, but that would change with time. He envisioned the concept of one central venom collection facility where snakes of many species would be brought from around the world, housed under strict laboratory conditions, fed a scientifically controlled diet, and by providing reliable, scientific-grade venoms to the research community worldwide would stimulate their interest to help unlock the secrets of the snake for the benefit of all mankind forever.

Of course he recognized that in order to see that vision realized he would have to find a way to support the effort, for since there was no market for venom other than antivenin, the venom supply of which for the most part was already satisfied by the production centers themselves or the local people nearby, he was about to set upon a project to produce an item that nobody wanted. But they eventually would, and still do.

So, until venoms became sought after for scientific research, he decided to open the Miami Serpentarium to the public, with the idea that since he would be collecting venom at intervals (and often continuously) throughout the day anyway, why not share his vision and skill with the visitors, who would then be entertained and enlightened, for after all, as the sign at the venom collection area where people gathered at the end of a tour to watch the demonstration proclaimed, "Nothing is quite so delightful as to look at danger from a place of safety."

Tourists viewing a venom collection demonstration
Photo by U.P.I.

Visited by tourists, scientists, and celebrities alike, the paying public kept the doors open for a long while until the sale of venoms began, and with time, accelerated. Even long after the support of the attraction was no longer necessary, the Miami Serpentarium remained one of the most educational and fascinating places to visit in South Florida and the world.

Once described as, ....a strange place where serpents sink their fangs into the world and relieve it's pain, such a description in hindsight is perhaps not so strange now that venoms have achieved their rightful status as sources of potent, bioactive proteins and enzymes whose use and value in basic research is unquestioned, but whose full potential in the healing arts has yet to be fully explored and appreciated by mainstream medicine in the way that Bill envisioned. Hopefully that too, will come.

So it was that the world-renowned Miami Serpentarium began it's life in the vivid imagination of the mind of Bill Haast, on long, tedious flights somewhere over the atlantic ocean during World war II, and it became the pioneering and premier venom production center of the world.

And now, 66 years later, it can be said unequivocally that Bill Haast, with his intuitive foresight, determination, pioneering efforts and sacrifice, has done more to advance the use of venoms in science and medicine that any other person in the world. And the Miami Serpentarium was his vehicle to do it.

*Albert Calmette, originator of antivenin

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