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Bill Haast, a True Florida Pioneer

Published: Friday, June 17, 2011 at 6:34 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, June 18, 2011 at 2:07 p.m.
Bill Haast figured he had handled more than 3 million poisonous snakes over the years, and he had the hands to prove it.
An eastern diamondback rattlesnake left one hand looking like a claw. A Malayan pit viper mangled an index finger. A cottonmouth bit a finger, which instantly turned black, prompting his wife to snip off the fingertip with garden clippers.
Haast was bitten at least 173 times by poisonous snakes, about 20 times almost fatally. It was all in a day's work for probably the best-known snake handler in the country, a scientist-cum-showman who made enough money from milking toxic goo from slithery serpents to buy a cherry-red Rolls-Royce convertible.
A secret of his success was the immunity he had built up by injecting himself every day for more than 60 years with a mix of venoms from 32 snake species. He suspected the inoculations might have explained his extraordinarily good health, but he was reluctant to make that claim, he said, until he reached 100.
Haast, who was director of the Miami Serpentarium Laboratories, a snake-venom producer near Punta Gorda, Fla., died of natural causes Wednesday at his home in southwest Florida, his wife, Nancy, said. He was 100.
Haast's story was good enough in its day to land him in Walter Winchell's syndicated column, on "The Tonight Show" and, hardly surprising, in Ripley's Believe It or Not attractions. His original Miami Serpentarium, south of Miami on South Dixie Highway, attracted 50,000 tourists a year for four decades.
Outside was a 35-foot-high concrete statue of a giant cobra, forked tongue flicking menacingly. Inside, Haast, the self-proclaimed "Snakeman," entertained paying customers by using his hands to grab snakes below their heads and force their teeth into soft plastic. Venom would then drain into test tubes fastened to the plastic. He did this 100 or so times a day.
The serpentarium was more than just another roadside attraction. The price of a gram of freeze-dried venom from exotic snakes, requiring 100 or more extractions to accumulate, could exceed $5,000. The substance is an essential ingredient in making a serum to treat snakebite victims. It has also shown promise as a medicinal ingredient.
Haast and a Miami doctor treated more than 6,000 people with a snake-venom serum that they and their patients contended was effective against multiple sclerosis and arthritis. After the CBS News program "60 Minutes" did a report on the subject in December 1979, interest in the serum surged. But in 1980 the Food and Drug Administration banned the product as useless after saying that numerous deficiencies had been found in Haast's manufacturing process. Nevertheless, researchers have continued to work on drugs made from venom in the hope of using it to treat cancer, Alzheimer's and other diseases.
Haast himself indisputably saved lives. He flew around the world to donate his antibody-rich blood to 21 different snakebite victims. Venezuela made him an honorary citizen after he went deep into the jungle to give a boy a pint of blood.
The favor was returned in 1989 when, according to The Associated Press, the White House used secret connections to spirit a rare serum out of Iran to treat Haast as he fought to recover from a bite by a Pakistani pit viper. (Different venoms require different antidotes.)
William E. Haast was born on Dec. 30, 1910, in Paterson, N.J. He caught his first garter snake at 7 at a nearby canal. His first serious snake bite came at age 12, when he was bitten by a timber rattlesnake at Boy Scout camp. The same year, a copperhead's bite put him in the hospital for a week. When young Bill brought his first poisonous snake home to the family apartment, his mother left home for three days, he said. She finally agreed to let him keep a snake or two in cages.
''The snake would bite the mouse," he said in an interview with The Miami Herald in 1984. "The mouse would die. I found it intriguing."
He bought his first exotic snake, a diamondback rattler, from a catalog. Noticing that it had come from Florida, he knew then, he said, that Florida was his destiny. After dropping out of school at 16, he joined a roadside snake show that made its way to Florida in the late 1920s.
The snake attraction soon failed during the Depression, so Haast went to work for a bootlegger in the Everglades, where he was pleased to find plenty of snakes. The bootlegger was arrested, and Haast found his way to an airline mechanics school.
Finding a job as a flight engineer with Pan American World Airways, he began traveling around the world. That gave him a chance to use his toolbox to smuggle snakes, including his first cobra.
Haast's dream of a first-class snake farm came true when he opened his Miami serpentarium in 1947. His near-fatal snakebites became legend in the news media, particularly after the total passed 100 in the mid-1960s.
His first wife, Ann, divorced him over his snake obsession. His second, Clarita, and third, Nancy, pitched in enthusiastically.
Besides his wife, the former Nancy Harrell, he is survived by two daughters, three grandchildren, two great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren.
Haast closed the serpentarium in 1984 after a 6-year-old boy fell into his crocodile pit and was fatally mauled. He moved his venom-gathering operation to Utah. Six years later, he returned to Florida and opened the facility in Punta Gorda, where he raised and milked snakes but did not resume his snake show.
For all the time he spent with snakes, Haast harbored no illusions that they liked him.
''You could have a snake for 30 years and the second you leave his cage door cracked, he's gone," he told Outside magazine in 1997. "And they'll never come to you unless you're holding a mouse in your teeth."
Just 3 years ago...

Snake man is master of poison and cure

Bill Haast, 97, is lauded for pioneering work with snake venom

Bill Haast, center, is recognized by members of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Venom Response Unit for his work helping snake-bite victims. He received the key to the city.
Published: Friday, July 11, 2008 at 1:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, July 11, 2008 at 4:49 a.m.
CHARLOTTE COUNTY - Bill Haast's 97-year-old fingers, withered by scores of snake bites, are too weak to handle cobras and pit vipers anymore. But he still wakes up each morning to turn snake venom from across the globe into freeze-dried powder for medical laboratories.
Those same hands that for decades eased venom from the world's most poisonous snakes held the key to the city of Miami on Thursday.
The honor, bestowed by Miami's mayor, was delivered to Haast at his home east of Punta Gorda by members of the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Venom Response Unit. With 43 types of antivenin, a diverse enough supply to treat 90 percent of all bites, the unit's antivenin bank supplies the U.S. military and hospitals around the nation -- sometimes the world.
"Our unit wouldn't be around if it wasn't for him; he's the inspiration," said Al Cruz, the unit's founder, standing beneath the tall branches of a live oak that Haast had allowed to grow through his screened pool patio. "We're the only fire-based response team in the world."
The emergency services unit celebrated its 10th year recently at the Metro Zoo in Miami. Haast could not make the ceremony, so part of the ceremony came to him.
Haast maintained a similar bank in Miami when he ran the Serpentarium theme park, which closed in 1984. He briefly lived in Utah and returned to Florida to live in Charlotte County 18 years ago.
His contribution to antivenin science is unparalleled and earned him recognition throughout his life.
Early in Haast's career, he slogged the wilds of the Everglades collecting cottonmouths and rattlers. When he had enough, he opened the Serpentarium in Miami in 1946.
Soon, his quest for exotic snakes stretched around the world. He made special trips, bringing back such perilous species as cobras and saw-scaled vipers.
"Any time I saw an unusual snake I brought it back," Haast said, sitting on cushioned patio furniture. Behind him rose an 8-foot concrete cobra statue that once decorated the serpentarium.
Eventually, his collection became one of the most diverse venomous snakes on the planet. Crowds cheered as he collected venom from the snakes in dramatic displays.
Haast routinely injected himself with venom to build up resistance to the ill effects of the inevitable bites. It was an experiment, but having received his first venomous snake bite as a teenager, Haast was used to risks.
"I just have a curious nature," he said.
Horses had developed resistance to the poisons through the same process, and the blood of those horses was used to create life-saving antivenin.
For Haast, the weekly shots paid off, helping him to survive 172 venomous snake bites. His powerful blood also rescued 21 snake-bite victims.
In his heyday, he was flown around the world to hospitals where people bitten by rare snakes would have died without his blood.
His unique contribution to medicine earned him widespread recognition. In 1964, a book was written about him. He later received commendations from President Gerald Ford and Miami Mayor Stephen Clark.
Still recognized as a top authority on venomous snakes, Haast, who moved his snakes to a lab on his sprawling Charlotte County complex in 1990 (he no longer has snakes there), said he answers questions from callers every day.
Some questions, like the one a decade ago from Cruz, the venom unit founder, mean the difference between life and death.
Cruz called Haast after a man was bitten by a Black Mamba, one of the most poisonous snakes of Africa.
Although Haast did not have antivenin for that snake, he knew a collector who did and who provided the 15 vials of antivenin that saved the victim's life.
It was a close call, one that underscored the county's need for an antivenin bank, Cruz said. For inspiration and advice, he leaned on Haast.
"When he closed his doors there was a lapse and there were some fatalities related to exotic snake bites," said Chuck Seigert, of the Miami unit.
Miami is a hotbed for venomous snake bites because it is the entry point for almost any exotic snake, whether it is bound for a collector or a zoo in another state.
Since the county revived the antivenin bank in 1998, it has saved 1,000 snake-bite victims, Seigert said.
On Thursday, members of the rescue unit came to shake Haast's hand. Besides the mayor's key, they gave him a firefighter's helmet bearing the unit's name: Venom 1.
"He's like an icon to people that know him," Cruz said.

This post first appeared on Remembering Old Miami, please read the originial post: here

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Bill Haast, a True Florida Pioneer


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