For decades, Mr. Haast (rhymes with “lost”) ran a Florida roadside attraction called the Miami Serpentarium, but he sought to transcend the inherently creepy nature of reptiles and be taken seriously as a visionary man of science and healing.
Even though he put on shows for tourists, his primary occupation was as the country’s leading producer of raw venom for use in snakebite serums. By the 1990s, he was providing 36,000 samples of venom to pharmaceutical laboratories each year.
He owned as many as 10,000 snakes at a time and had supplies of venom from 200 species of poisonous reptiles, including sea snakes, African tree snakes, cottonmouths, rattlesnakes, cobras, kraits, green mambas, tiger snakes and vipers from around the world. Grabbing the deadly snakes with his bare hands, Mr. Haast would squeeze their jaws open and allow their fangs to pierce a rubberized membrane, releasing drops of venom into a glass vial. It took thousands of repetitions to produce enough venom to be made into an antivenin.
Snakebites were a constant occupational hazard, leading Mr. Haast to adopt an unusual regimen of self-medication. In the 1940s — Sept. 18, 1948, to be exact — he began to inject himself with diluted amounts of cobra venom, which he gradually increased over time. He developed an immunity to most snakebites and became a staunch believer in what he considered the medical benefits of venom.
“It was risky, but I did it very cautiously,” he told the Tampa Tribune in 1997. “When I started in 1948, a doctor said he wouldn’t give me a nickel for me living two years. Well, I’m still here, but the doctor died of a coronary.”
He faced perhaps his most frightening challenge in 1954, when he was bitten by a blue krait, an Asian snake that is among the most highly poisonous in the world.
“I had never heard of a krait bite victim ever surviving,” Mr. Haast told the Associated Press in 1996. “I felt like the skin had been stripped from my body, like every nerve in my teeth was exposed, like my hair was being ripped out of my head.”
He hallucinated, with visions of lambs’ heads and purple curtains, but soon recovered and went back to work. The snake died 10 days later.
In time, Mr. Haast’s venom-enriched blood came to possess healing properties. Transfusions from his blood helped save the lives of more than 20 snakebite victims around the globe.
In the 1970s, a Miami doctor worked with Mr. Haast to develop medications from snake venom that were used to treat patients with multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, arthritis and other ailments. Despite compelling testimonials from patients, the treatments were later banned by the Food and Drug Administration.