Meet the man who handles deadly snakes every day -- and doesn't earn a paycheck doing it

Just imagine you looked down and spotted a rattlesnake. What would you do?

Most people would run. Some might stare for a moment and slowly walk in the other direction. And a few — the really bold ones — might actually touch it or pick it up.

That latter is just one part of Jim Harrison’s everyday life at the Kentucky Reptile Zoo.

On a daily basis, Harrison, 56, holds some of the world’s most venomous snakes by they head and squeezes venom out of their fangs. 

Harrison is the director and owner of the Kentucky Reptile Zoo, a non-profit organisation in Slade, Kentucky. He opened the zoo when he was 26 years old, following a five-year stint as a police officer. (Those days were cut short, however, when he was hit by a stolen car.)

Harrison caught his first snake when he was six years old. He was hooked. His father bought him a book, and he was reading herpetology, the study of amphibians and reptiles, at a college level by the time he was 12. 

From that point on, his interest in snakes and other reptiles only grew stronger. Following his high school graduation in the mid-1970s, Harrison started extracting venom. (Nowadays, that job requires a Master’s degree or a PhD in biology, chemistry, or zoology.)

And while “snake milker” is the more enticing term, Harrison is officially a herpetologist. 

Harrison handles hundreds of dangerous snakes on a daily basis, simply because it’s what he loves to do. But it’s taken a toll on his body, to say the least.

While he couldn’t recall how many total times he’s been bitten, he says he has been envenomed by snakes nine times.

Four of those bites have put him on life support, most recently in January 2015, when he was bitten by a South American Rattlesnake.

But he isn’t fazed by the bites.

“It happens,” he says. “There’s human error in any field.”

While it’s easy to think of these reptiles as dangerous, slithery creatures, what truly sets Harrison apart from most other people is how he views snakes. “Most people think of snake venom and associate it with death,” Harrison says. “I think of it with life because it truly can help save people.”

At the Kentucky Reptile Zoo, Harrison performs between 600 and 1,000 extractions per week. The venom extracted is often used to create antivenom. It can also be used to treat pain and clotting disorders and for cancer and Alzheimer’s research, Harrison says.

Here’s a video of Harrison extracting venom from an Eastern Diamondback rattlesnake: 

Done extracting from Eastern Diamondback rattlesnakes ( Crotalus adamanteus).
Posted by Kentucky Reptile Zoo on Wednesday, April 22, 2015


The potentially life-saving uses of snake venom are the backbone of why Harrison loves what he does. Helping a cause is the best part of his job, he says, and his proudest moment to date is a project that’s currently underway. 

Harrison is involved with an organisation called Animal Venom Research International (AVRI). They are working to develop an antivenom for Sri Lanka, which has the world’s highest rate of snake bite deaths per person, with a large number of the victims being children, Harrison says.

Author Richard St. John writes in his book “8 Traits Successful People Have in Common,” that you should ask yourself one question to determine if you’ve found your passion: Would you do it for free?

Well, for Harrison, that’s an easy answer because he is doing it for free. He lives off of his pension from his time as a police officer and does not take a salary. 

And after doing the same thing, day after day, for decades, most people might be ready for retirement. Harrison, however, says he isn’t even close.

In a way, he plans to follow in his father’s footsteps.

“My dad worked until the day he died,” Harrison says. “He was a baseball coach and died on the field from a stroke. People always say ‘that’s so sad,’ and yeah, I wish he was still here, but he died doing what he loved.”

He continues: “I plan to do [what I am doing] until they pour dirt over me.”

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