By Erika Webb
Carl Barden of the Reptile Discovery Center in DeLand is allergic to snake venom.
"It's like a bad joke," Mr. Barden said.
Nevertheless, he extracts the dangerous substance from about 300 snakes a week at the center just east of DeLand off of U.S. 92.
The former airline pilot, and zookeeper, is living his dream.
"This was always the plan," Mr. Barden said. "I just had to figure out how I was gonna pull it off."
Eight children sat directly in front of the glass window separating the laboratory from the observatory on a recent Friday. They were mesmerized as Mr. Barden, Mara Roberts and Carter Robertson demonstrated the process of collecting venom from coral snakes, southern copperheads, cottonmouths, eastern diamondback rattlesnakes and cobras.
Mr. Barden is the only person at the center who actually extracts venom, but the handlers assist with the process of getting the snakes out of their containers and into position. Several arms-length tools are employed to retrieve the uncooperative when they slither away or dive for the floor.
Of the 1,300 snakes at the Reptile Discovery Center, about half are part of the venom line.
Once the venom is extracted, the coral snakes are tube fed and placed back into their "clean, comfortable" environments for 14 days until their next offering is due. The other snakes are fed rodents which are delivered frozen and thawed for consumption.
"(Corals) are primarily snake eaters and we simply do not have a supply of 90 small snakes to feed them every two weeks, so we had to come up with a tube feeding formula for only the corals," Mr. Barden said.
While the three center workers perform the procedures, a prerecorded message delivered by Mr. Barden explains, among other things, each type of snake, where it's typically found, how dangerous it is and what it prefers to eat.
His calm, patient demeanor makes him an easy-to-understand educator and a safe venom extractor.
The last time he was bitten was Memorial Day weekend eight years ago.
Fortunately the center is only about six miles from Florida Hospital DeLand where, he said, the facility is well equipped and the staff well prepared to handle venomous bites.
"Dr. Stephen Knight was literally my guardian angel," Mr. Barden said.
He had an eastern diamondback in his hands when he fell. A piece of equipment was in the way and made contact with the snake, which bit him in the face.
A manufactured cocktail of two types of anti-venom -- one older and one newer version -- had pretty good results, Mr. Barden said.
"I spent four days in intensive care, but it cleaned up very nicely," he said. "That was the last one."
The last bite of 11, but considering how long he's been at this and how many extractions he manages in a week, it's a good track record.
Four days a week he confiscates venom from about 75 snakes.
Visitors are invited to watch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday through Sunday.
"We used to do 300 in a day," Mr. Barden said, "but you can't concentrate that well for that long. By snake number 255, I'd make a mistake and get bitten. With (sessions of) 40, 20, 15 I'm hyper-focused and my safety record has come way up."
"It's a very intense 30 minutes," he added.
The center's Medtoxin Laboratories wholesales and retails the venom to the pharmaceutical industry.
"The venoms collected are used in a host of research and pharmaceutical applications. Anti-venom, the medication used to treat snake bite victims, veterinary anti-venom and a dog vaccine against rattlesnake bites are all made initially using whole venom in part of the process," according to the center's website. "A wide variety of research is going on with snake venoms or certain components found in venoms; cancer research, viral research, AIDS, rabies, pain medications, diabetes, neurological and circulatory disorders, immunological and transplant research are just a few of the areas where venoms or venom components are being looked at."
The center doesn't make anti-venom, but is part of an extensive process.
"The venom is dried here and shipped, in freeze-dried form, to the pharmaceutical company," Mr. Barden explained. "They set it up and immunize either a sheep or a horse."
Once diluted and injected into the subject animal, antibodies against the venom's active molecule are produced and blood is drawn, treated with preservatives and manufactured, he said. "We are simply step one."
Venom's components do different things to the cells in the body, he said. Some bind to cells, inhibit clotting, disrupt cellular adhesion, which contributes to cancer growth, and inhibit blood vessel growth.
It is tested and researched by universities and laboratories regularly.
"We sell it all over the world for various applications," Mr. Barden said.
The Medtoxin Laboratory has been in existence since 1998. The discovery center was built a year later and opened to the public six years ago.
Mr. Barden started building his inventory and collecting venom in the early 1990s.
"The venom business is funny," he said. "There are only 30 (labs) in the world and only six in the United States. The market for snake venom is very tiny and very specialized. When I started out, nobody returned your calls. They're not interested until you're established."
Once he began wholesaling to a large laboratory, Mr. Barden knew he could survive in the business and he had access to a broader market.
He expanded to include education.
"I thought it would be fun to get people and snakes together," he said.
The center's busy season is spring and summer. At summer's end the center closes for about seven weeks.
School groups from Volusia, Seminole, Flagler, Brevard and Orange counties visit from February through the end of the school year and, once school is out, lots of summer-vacationing kids descend to learn about the reptiles and what they have to offer.
"People are still discovering we're here," Mr. Barden said.
For more information visit reptilediscoverycenter.com, or call (386) 740-9143. The center is at 2710 Big John Drive in DeLand.