MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Today we start a series we're calling: You Do What?
(Soundbite of music)
NORRIS: It's about people with unusual jobs really unusual jobs.
NPR's Kathy Lohr kicks off our coverage, profiling a man who spends his work days milking Eastern diamondback rattlesnakes.
Mr. KEN DARNELL: I'm Ken Darnell, and I'm in Southeast Alabama, and I extract venom from venomous snakes.
(Soundbite of rattlesnake rattling)
Mr. DARNELL: We're here in an area that is right in the corner of Alabama, bordered by Georgia and Florida, and out in the middle of glorious nowhere.
LOHR: Among the long leaf pines and scrub brush off Alabama Highway 95, is an outbuilding that's the home of Ken Darnell and Bioactive Laboratories. One building kept at a steady 78 degrees, contains rows and rows of plastic bins filled with poisonous snakes.
(Soundbite of rattlesnakes rattling)
LOHR: These snakes sleep most of the time and are awakened every few days for milking.
Mr. DARNELL: The only difference between me and any other company in the world that produces something is that the means of production here can kill you - and wants to.
LOHR: You don't have gloves or anything that you use?
Mr. DARNELL: Well, if you use gloves, you wouldn't be able to feel what the snake is doing. You got to have that contact, so that if he moves, you feel it immediately. If he's going to do something, you adjust to it.
LOHR: Darnell has a simple setup. A venom-collecting tube sits in an ice bath. A glass funnel is on top of that. He opens a tub and, using a long-handled hook, picks up a classic brown and black diamond-patterned specimen, sets him on a mat and using the end of the hook, pins down the snake's head.
Mr. DARNELL: Very gently, don't let him know what you're doing. By the time he finds out and is ready to fight, you've got him. He's a caught cooter(ph).
LOHR: Darnell then holds the snake's head with a firm hand, pressing down on three key points, and picks up the rest of the snake that's 6 feet long and weighs about 8 pounds. Slowly, the very sharp fangs are exposed, and Darnell gently sets the mouth on the side of the glass funnel.
Mr. DARNELL: Okay, mouth up here. And you'd be amazed at how difficult it is for somebody who doesn't know how to do this to get his mouth open under the funnel.
LOHR: He squeezes just enough, and in just the right spots, to allow the venom to run down the fangs and into the collection tube below.
Mr. DARNELL: Gotcha. Good girl.
(Soundbite of rattlesnake rattling)
Mr. DARNELL: Good girl.
LOHR: It's a yellowish liquid - the darker the color, the more potent the venom. Darnell used to work in patent law, now he says about 75 percent of his time is spent collecting snake venom.
Mr. DARNELL: So, see? Nothing to it.
LOHR: Darnell milks thousands of snakes - 200 of his own and hundreds at rattlesnake roundups across the South. Although he doesn't agree with everything that goes on there - including killing and skinning the snakes - he wants to collect the venom that he says would otherwise be lost. This afternoon, he got a tiny amount, 45ccs, from about 20 snakes that's about 3 tablespoons.
Mr. DARNELL: All right, into the centrifuge.
LOHR: Darnell processes the thick liquid into a freeze-dried powder. He sells it to research laboratories, where it's used to develop drugs to treat blood clots, heart attacks and high blood pressure, and used to make anti-venom for those who get bitten by poisonous snakes.
Mr. DARNELL: I'm 65. I hope I'll be doing it the day I die.
Mr. DARNELL: Why would it be otherwise? Someone asked me one time: What do you consider yourself to be with all these snakes around you a snake man? I said, no, I consider myself to be lucky. I'll do it just as long as I can. Retire why?
LOHR: A dangerous job? Yes. But one Darnell says is worth the risk.
Kathy Lohr, NPR News.
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