Saying goodbye to an extraordinary man

Most of us don’t greet Mondays with TGIM (Thank goodness it’s Monday!). I believe that’s because our careers chose us, instead of vice versa. There are a few, however, like Miami Serpentarium’s founder, Bill Haast, whose play–his pleasure–was his work. He could hardly wait for any day of the week to begin.

Those days ended, however, in June. He was 100, the landmark he had hoped to reach to demonstrate the efficacy of a weekly injection of snake venom. Perhaps, though, it was Haast’s passion to unlock venom’s secrets that fueled his drive to tackle such an unforgiving vocation, rather than the venom itself.

I met Haast in 1965, as the newest Serpentarium tour guide employed by his second wife, Clarita. His two daughters, Naia Hannah (a king cobra’s scientific name) and Shantih (East Indian for peace) spent a lot of time with me, since we were all near the same age.

My ambition was to become one of Haast’s lab assistants. As it turned out, his lab assistant then, Nancy, became wife number three and remained his assistant until he died at their home in Punta Gorda on Florida’s west coast.

A tour guide seemed to be the perfect job for me, though, since my fear of snakes had long been mitigated simply by being raised in rural Homestead. Four years spent as a Ranger Aide in the Everglades, escorting hundreds of visitors down the Anhinga boardwalk and Gumbo Limbo trail, showing off to tourists, also had prepared me well for the Serpentarium job.

Each day I started an hour earlier than I’d been told, though it was an unpaid hour, just so I could make a good impression on Haast–who might promote me to the laboratory–but he was already at work. I went a little earlier every day until I figured out the time to be there: 7:30am–in eager anticipation of watching him stride across the parking lot from home to lab. He never saw me.

Haast wore white cotton pants, white shoes, and a short-sleeved white shirt. He carried a quart jar full of an orange-colored, carrot-juice concoction he’d blended that morning. That routine never varied, his daughter told me, seven days a week. I didn’t doubt her.

The Serpentarium also became home to many of Naia’s former birthday presents, including lion cubs, an ocelot, parrots, a monkey, all of which she attempted to keep in their house–even a pony. The lions eventually were caged for a time inside the Serpentarium’s courtyard.

Haast’s own animal preferences remained reptilian. In the center courtyard–loose not penned–lived a 2,000-pound crocodile, Cookie, so pampered he was downright chubby. Cookie roamed at will, often sunning himself on the visitors’ concrete walkway. We stepped around him. Cookie seldom moved, until a visitor would mistake him for a statue and attempt to sit on his back. He would wriggle a little, not much, just to rid himself of the nuisance., which always succeeded. When youngsters began kicking Cookie to make him move, Haast built a pit in the courtyard to protect him. A few other crocodiles, actually caimans, a smaller relative, were added, and it became quite an attraction on its own.

Unfortunately, in 1977, one of those enamored visitors sat his six-year-old boy atop the edge of the pit. The boy fell in, and Cookie, expecting his dinner of raw chickens, reacted instinctively, clamping his jaws onto the boy’s chest. Visitors screamed. Haast jumped into the pit, and pounded on Cookie’s head. Instead of letting go, Cookie slid into the water. The boy drowned.

Late that night, after Haast returned from the hospital, and he was alone in the courtyard, he shot Cookie in the quarter-sized spot at the back of a crocodile’s skull that is vulnerable. Then, all alone, he began to dig a hole in the middle of the courtyard to bury his crocodile. He dug all night.

Today Cookie lies under the asphalt of a McDonald’s parking lot, which covers all of the former Serpentarium compound on US Highway One, just north of Homestead.

Seven years after the boy’s death, Haast shut down the Serpentarium amid rumors that the tragedy had led to a lawsuit by the boy’s family. Not true, Haast told reporters a decade later. The family took only the liability insurance payout, because they blamed themselves. They wanted remittance only for the cost of burial.

Not a lawsuit but a Food and Drug Administration ruling is what caused the closing of the Serpentarium. The FDA shut down the manufacturing portion of the tourist attraction–the part that created antivenin and medicines. The FDA also ruled against Dr. Ben Sheppard, a Miami physician with whom Haast had been affiliated since the early ‘50s, when Haast developed a serum from venom that cured polio. At that time, the National Institutes of Health looked askance at Haast’s manufacturing processes, thus nodding instead to Jonas Salk to manufacture his polio vaccine.

Dr. Sheppard continued to use Haast’s polio serum, though, to cure dozens of stricken children who lived within the Dade County. His success with those polio victims–one of whom was one of my father’s patients–convinced Haast that vast medicinal potential for humans lay locked within snake venom. His mission was to find its key.

Thirty years after the polio episode, Dr. Sheppard was stricken with severe rheumatoid arthritis. He sought help from Haast, who supplied him with medication manufactured at his lab. So impressed was Dr. Sheppard that he began providing injections to his arthritis patients, but those with lupus, muscular dystrophy, and more.

Patients traveled to Dr. Sheppard’s clinic in Miami from throughout the U.S., which lead to a CBS 60 Minutes interview. That report attracted the attention of the FDA.

Haast had only disdain for the tourist attraction part of the Serpentarium. He considered it only a means to an end, so he was not distraught when it closed. He moved his venom extraction lab to Utah, so he could ensure a steady supply of venom to medical researchers.
After a few years, though, he discovered–to his great surprise–that he truly missed the tourist attraction, so he moved to Punta Gorda to open a scaled-back version of the original Serpentarium.

He did not, however, give a public demonstration any longer of his skill with a King Cobra, which had made him famous. Every time I watched him let that 14-foot snake loose on the ground, knowing the potential that one bite could inject 80 drops of venom when only one drop was enough to kill a man, my nerves jangled. I had to remind myself: I am not afraid of snakes.

Yes, I am. I am afraid of this one, especially, because Haast had demonstrated that a new shipment of cobras, whose heads popped up when the box was opened, could be easily plucked like daisies. Older cobras, however, remembered the tricks of distraction by handlers, learned through their capture.

An old cobra grows wise, thus more dangerous over time, and this cobra had lived more than a decade there. When that King Cobra lunged at Haast, the crowd would gasp. I’d nearly faint because I knew more than they, yet I could not keep from watching him.

Haast, bitten once by the King, was not immune to its venom, and it nearly killed him. His 100+ bites brought press attention, furthering an image he detested: the sideshow snake handler. That reputation along with his lack of formal education–the credentials that proved he knew what he knew–had contributed, he felt, to the rulings against his work. He did not let that stop him, however.

What stopped him was losing a thumb four years ago to one last snake bite, leaving him physically incapable of performing his life’s work. His passion ended, and so did his life.

Had he been able to continue, perhaps he would have lived another 100 years, with help from those venom injections and a little bit of carrot juice.