August 29, 2014

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Icon: Bill Haast

Snake handler, venom researcher. Haast died June 15, 20911 at age 100.

Art Levy | 8/1/2008
» Four years ago, I got bit by a Malaysian pit viper, and that was the end of my right index finger. The bone just dissolved. Most of my fingers were pretty bad anyway from all the bites, but when that finger went, that was the end. I can’t trust my hands anymore. I tried to hold snakes after that, but I couldn’t.
See Florida's six most dangerous snakes up close and learn how to survive a venomous bite. Watch here.
Bill Haast
Bill Haast [Photo: Jeffrey Camp]

» These days, what I do mostly, is breathe.

» Hurricane Charlie moved right over our house. I wanted to see it. I stood by the window and put my hand on the glass and could feel it moving.

» The FDA always pooh-poohed it, but I think snake venom has the potential to cure disease. Multiple sclerosis, it would put on hold. Arthritis. Polio. This is my unfinished business.

» Aging is hard. Sometimes, you feel useless. But I always felt I would live this long. It was intuitive. I always told people I’d live past 100, and I still feel I will. Is it the venom? I don’t know.

» I’ve been bit more than 170 times and maybe almost died 20 or 25 times. I don’t count the little bites.

» The initial bite is no worse than a bee sting. But when there’s tissue damage, it feels like your hand is caught in a vise. There have been times I’ve been rolling on the floor.

» When I was a child, I lived right in the middle of Patterson, N.J., in an apartment, and I brought home a timber rattlesnake, my first venomous snake, and I had to promise my mother that I would never open the cage in the house. That’s how I got started.

» I’m not afraid of any animal. I’ve petted a rhinoceros. I once walked up to an elephant right in the heart of the Congo. If you’re really genuinely not frightened, you can walk up to any animal in the wild. They have a sense. They know if they can trust you.

» Occasionally, my wife will give me a shot of snake venom. Just a little bit. It burns when it goes in. I think without fail it’ll help me make 100 easy. I think what it might do, and I don’t have any proof, is it makes the heart function stronger and longer.

Bill Haast
Bill Haast [Photo courtesy Bill Haast]
» My blood pressure is normal. My cholesterol is very low. I don’t eat much, and I never eat before noon.

» My slogan, when I first started the serpentarium, was ‘venom production for venom research.’ The attraction was just a vehicle for the research. It was the only way I could make money to support the work. The attraction grew and grew. Being in front of people wasn’t particularly fun for me — I wanted to be in the lab — but it was a chore that had to be done.

» The boy that fell in the pit, that was rough. It happened in 1977. He was 6. I remember I was in the lab doing something and one of the employees comes running in and said a person fell in the crocodile pit. I remember running. I jumped over the wall and on the crocodile’s head. He was partially submerged. I was expecting him to let go, but he didn’t. He backed up in the water and took the child with him.

» I was up all night. What should I do? What should I do? I debated with myself. The crocodile did only what he knew to do. What should I do? I shot him and buried him in the pit, next to a monument. That was a time I considered closing the serpentarium.

» Will anybody remember me? If they do, what will they remember? And when they die, they take the memory with them. What’s the purpose? Memory is a funny thing.

» Some of the most important things I’ve done had nothing to do with snakes. This is during World War II. I was a flight engineer. We took off from Natal, Brazil, in a C-87 transport plane loaded with detonators, and we were on our way to Dakar in Africa. The moment we got off the ground the captain said we lost hydraulic pressure. We blew a gasket, and the hydraulic oil was gone. We always carried a gallon of reserve hydraulic oil and always fortunately carried chewing gum. I got everybody to chew gum, and then I made a new gasket out of the gum with some cutout cardboard from the back of the log book. It worked. We had our wing flaps. Otherwise, we couldn’t have landed. Well, we could have landed, but we would have crashed.

» When you’re in the wild, in Africa, and a lion roars, even in the distance, the ground shakes. I miss that.

Tags: Florida Icon, Environment

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