Snakes were Bill Haast's business and his calling. When they bit him — poisonous snakes bit him more than 170 times — he never blamed them, never vowed to give them up, almost never went to the doctor. The painful encounters only made snakes more interesting to him.
He died last week in Punta Gorda, where he was quietly operating a lucrative business collecting venom for snakebite medicines. The cobras, mambas or rattlers didn't do him in. "Death by natural causes," the doctor announced. Bill Haast, who could have been a character in a Carl Hiaasen novel, was 100 years and almost six months old.
"The snake bit the mouse. The mouse died. I found it intriguing,'' is how he once explained his fascination.
He was the most interesting Floridian I ever knew. In fact, when I was boy, he was my idol. He ran a place in Miami called the Serpentarium, which he had started as a roadside tourist attraction in 1947. I started going to the Serpentarium in the 1950s when Florida theme parks tended to be small anything-can-happen family businesses. My dad also took me to the Monkey Jungle, the Parrot Jungle, Coral Castle and the Seminole Indian Village at Musa Isle, but it was my many visits to the Serpentarium that fired my interest in natural history and Florida culture.
Haast was a terrific showman who dressed in white as if he were a distinguished scientist. He was actually a former carnival worker who had once roomed with a moonshiner at a speakeasy. Yet he conducted more research than many university-trained scientists, using his own body in unprecedented experiments.
Over the years he built up his immunities by injecting himself daily with a cocktail of various snake venoms. Bites that might have killed or crippled ordinary people usually only made him ill or eroded his flesh. Sometimes he refused to go to the hospital and instead took careful note of his symptoms while resting at home.
Haast enjoyed performing for tourists, but he earned most of his money selling venom to companies that manufactured snakebite medicines. At least 10 victims of deadly snake bites who were allergic to antivenin medicines received transfusions of Haast's immunized blood and survived.
The best day to go to the Serpentarium was always Sunday, when Haast released a 14-foot king cobra on a roped-off section of the lawn — no worries about liability insurance back then — and tried catching it by hand. When the snake inevitably slithered toward the audience, Haast jerked it back by the tail.
King cobra venom can kill an elephant. In fact, the cobra had twice almost claimed Haast's life, despite his immunities, paralyzing him and shutting down his lungs. A breathing machine had kept him alive while his body fought off the venom.
On the Serpentarium lawn, the great snake's head rose several feet above the ground. Puffing up, it gazed into the eyes of Haast, who was kneeling within easy striking distance.
They were old antagonists. As Haast weaved left, the hissing cobra followed the movement as if hypnotized. The snake always struck sooner or later. Like an agile mongoose, Haast sprung backwards.
"Be careful, Bill! Don't use your hands! Use a stick to catch him, Bill!"
Haast's second wife, Clarita, was supposed to be narrating the show. On Sundays, her angst touched the heart of every tourist. One time as I watched, the cobra launched an attack. Its fangs tore open Haast's white pants at the knee and venom streamed down his leg like an egg yolk. Clarita began weeping. "Did he get you? Oh, Bill, did he get you? Tell me, Bill!"
He didn't answer, merely focused on the cobra. Next time it struck and missed, he was able to grab it behind the head. A minute later it donated another load of venom, this time into a glass vial. Nobody was surprised when Clarita divorced Bill.
He closed the Serpentarium after a six-year-old child fell into a pit and was drowned by a 12-foot Nile crocodile in 1977. Haast jumped onto the croc, but failed to save the boy. The next day he shot the crocodile with a pistol.
The Serpentarium limped along until he retired to Utah in 1984. But his love for snakes called him back in 1990. He settled in southwest Florida, opened the Miami Serpentarium Laboratories and focused on snake-venom production for pharmaceutical companies.
In 1995, he invited me for a visit. I was expecting to see a bent-over old guy. Surely I would find him sitting in a chair from which he could watch his young assistants conduct the deadly work. We'd talk about the old days. But when I arrived, Haast was milking a cottonmouth, a common Florida water snake known for its painful and destructive bite.
"I'll never quit,'' he told me. "What else am I going to do?''
Except for his mangled hands, which had taken the brunt of his snakebites over the decades, he looked at least three decades younger than his 85 years. His gray hair was still flecked with black and he still moved gracefully like Rikki-Tikki-Tavi in the Rudyard Kipling tale. He claimed the daily injections of snakebite venom kept him young.
I immediately noticed the missing fingertip. A year earlier, a cottonmouth had bitten his pinkie. The poison had eaten away his flesh and turned what was left of the finger black.
Haast avoided doctors. Eventually, he asked his young third wife, Nancy, to perform the surgery
She snipped off the dead digit with rose clippers.
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8727. His latest book is Pilgrim in the Land of Alligators.