Bare-handed snake milking requires steady nerves and a funnel.
Bare-handed snake milking requires steady nerves and a funnel.

Kentucky Reptile Zoo: Snake Milking

Field review by the editors.

Slade, Kentucky

"This one here is kind of psychotic," said Jim Harrison, pulling a 12-foot-long King Cobra out of its cage. "It supposedly killed a guy in London."

Jim deftly flipped the snake with a handling hook, effortlessly moving the hardware like a performing chef in a Japanese steakhouse. Grabbing the snake just behind its head, Jim carried the writhing reptile to a floor-mounted hopper. With a practiced squeeze from Jim, gold-colored venom spilled from the snake's fangs into a glass funnel and down to a collecting tube.

Jim Harrison prepares to grab a King Cobra. Tourists watch from behind snake-resistant glass.
Jim Harrison prepares to grab a King Cobra. Tourists watch from behind snake-resistant glass.

"I have a couple in here that people used to commit suicide," said Jim, nodding toward the dozens of cobras in surrounding cages. "It's only one, actually," corrected his wife and business partner, Kristen Wiley. "We try not to say which one."

This is a typical day at Kentucky Reptile Zoo, one the few places where the art of bare-handed snake milking is still practiced. King Cobras are among dozens of the Zoo's deadly snake species, part of what it calls, "One of the Largest Collections of Venomous Snakes in the World." Jim, by his own estimate, milks from 600 to 1,000 of them every week. It's a job with unique workplace hazards. Kristen pointed to the clamp locks on the venom funnel; they were devised by her and Jim after their big snakes would simply bite the glassware and spit it onto the floor.

Snake milking at the Zoo is not done solely for public enjoyment, although visitors have an excellent view of the action through large windows. The venom helps develop drugs that treat everything from cancer to diabetes, and creates antivenom for people who are bit by these same species of deadly snakes. Jim, in his 40+ years as a professional, has been bitten many times. "You may lose a finger, or part of your body, but you're probably gonna survive," he said, an assessment that we did not find entirely reassuring. Jim's scarred hands are a record of his hard life -- he once helped amputate and dissect one of his own fingertips -- although he stressed that much of his bodily damage was caused by inanimate objects and humans, not snakes.

Jim Harrison and Kristen Wiley. Behind them, more snakes.
Jim Harrison and Kristen Wiley. Behind them, more snakes.

"Snakes are far less dangerous than human beings," said Jim. He felt that we engaged in riskier behavior by driving hundreds of miles out of our way to visit him than he did by staying at the Zoo and wrangling a psychotic King Cobra.

Jim has had the kind of colorful career you'd expect from a snake milker -- including stints as a bounty hunter, professional kick boxer, and alligator wrestler -- but snakes have always been his passion. He's widely respected as a snake authority, and his expertise is routinely sought by university researchers and law enforcement. Kristen has more traditional credentials in herpetology, but shares Jim's belief that his vast collection and extracting prowess should be shared with the public. At the Zoo, college interns serve as tour guides to make certain that visitors get their facts straight, and to show people that even venomous reptiles deserve a little human respect. They also help Jim whenever he wrangles an especially long or vigorous snake.

A lot of work for a little serpent spit.
A lot of work for a little serpent spit.

The Zoo is unlike any other we've seen: a mini-village of windowless buildings up on cinderblocks. Some of the buildings serve as showcases for the Zoo's more noteworthy specimens. Others are designed for feeding and milking, stacked with snakes in trays, with an indoor window at one end for the public to watch the action. Jim simply moves from building to building, pulling out snakes, milking as needed. Despite this utilitarian approach, the Zoo works to keep its snakes as happy and stress-free as possible. They're more active than those we've seen in other nature exhibits, because they're kept warm and well-fed to produce more venom.

Jim chose the Red River Gorge of Kentucky for his Zoo not because it has a lot of deadly snakes (it doesn't) or because Kentucky has venomous snake-handling churches (it does) but because he liked the area, which is popular with outdoor-minded tourists. The cinderblocks beneath the buildings keep the reptiles high and dry above the river's occasional flooding, and ensure that the neighbors downstream won't find themselves facing a wave of spitting cobras and pissed-off rattlesnakes.

Black Mamba. Without antivenom from snake milking, its bite is deadly.
Black Mamba. Without antivenom from snake milking, its bite is deadly.

Jim's long tenure as a milker raises an obvious question: who will replace him? We were surprised to learn that he hasn't trained anyone for the job, and that he's not waiting like some Jedi Master for the right tourist to walk through the door and be anointed The One. "We get approached constantly by people who want to learn venom extraction," said Kristen, but Jim turns them all away. "People want to do it, but for the wrong reasons," he said. They're seeking fame, or they think they'll get rich selling venom. They don't really care about other people -- or the snakes.

Science is also eroding the need for milkers by cloning and synthesizing compounds that formerly required venom from hundreds of deadly reptiles. Jim expects that there'll soon be no more work for bare-handed milkers such as himself, and that's fine with him and Kristen, who've visited local emergency rooms too many times. "They know we're not crazy when we show up and say, 'Hey, we have a cobra bite,'" said Kristen.

However, until science catches up with Jim, he plans to keep squeezing out venom in front of his Zoo's wide-eyed visitors and, he hopes, convincing some of them to feel better about snakes. "I want to die a good death," he said, sounding more philosophical than cocky. "To me, sitting on my butt on a couch is not dying a good death."

Kentucky Reptile Zoo: Snake Milking

Address:
200 L&E Railroad Place, Slade, KY
Directions:
Mountain Pkwy exit 33. Turn south onto Hwy 11, then make an immediate right into the rest area, then an immediately left in front of the caboose. Drive about a hundred yards. Look on the right for the Zoo entrance sign.
Hours:
Summer daily 11-6; Spring and Fall F-Su 11-6. Snake milking usually at 1pm, but call ahead. (Call to verify)
Phone:
606-663-9160
Admission:
Adults $10.
RA Rates:
Major Fun
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Nearby Offbeat Places

Wild Things of Kentucky: Goats on the RoofWild Things of Kentucky: Goats on the Roof, Slade, KY - < 1 mi.
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In the region:
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September 21, 2018

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