The “milking” of snakes is the collection of venom from live snakes. The process is the only effective way to obtain snake venom: vital to produce supplies of antivenin. Several companies around the world collect and breed snakes to be used in producing venom, and the practice is vital in protecting snake species while providing income for traditional snake hunters. Snake milking is a dangerous occupation, and has resulted in several fatalities.
Snake venom has been used in medicine for thousands of years – not always effectively. The process of snake milking has changed very little in that time, though one modern method now uses a weak electric shock. Antivenin for snake bites cannot be produced without ample supplies of venom from the various species of venomous snakes, and this must be produced by regular milking of captive populations.
How to milk a snake:
The manual method involves a membrane (usually latex) being stretched over a glass or plastic receptacle. The only snake milker I know uses a small beer glass abstracted from HMAS Cerberus in Victoria, Australia. The snake is held behind its head, and the firmness of the grip usually brings its fangs to the fore (some venomous snakes have fangs that rest along grooves in the mouth when not in use). The snake is induced to bite through the thin latex membrane covering the collecting vial, and pressure is applied to the venom glands. The venom collects in the vial.
In milking through electrical stimulation, the snake’s mouth is held open over a collecting container. Another operator touches electrodes to the sides of the snake’s head, and a very weak electrical charge – about two to five watts - is applied for one or two seconds. The electrical stimulation causes the muscles around the venom glands to contract, forcing venom into the collection container.
The latter method requires two operators and more sophisticated equipment, while the manual method requires only one operator, and, as was mentioned – very basic equipment indeed. However, a method that requires two people to perform may not be a bad thing – as many people have been bitten while milking snakes, and ensuring that another person is present should be a basic safety requirement.
After the venom has been collected, it is dried (usually freeze dried) in the vial, then collected by workers wearing protective masks, to guard against inhalation. It is usually produced for serum laboratories - to be used in the production of antivenin.
The dangers of snake milking:
In order to develop and produce antivenin, the venomous snakes had to be captured, milked and bred. The number of snake milkers who have not been bitten during a milking is low. Eric Worrell – founder of the Australian Reptile Park that for 50 years has supplied the venom for Australia - was bitten many times – including his first milking for the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories (CSL). Kevin Budden was bitten by a Taipan he captured in the 1950s, and refused to go to hospital until bystanders had promised not to kill the snake, but to send it to CSL for milking. Budden died from the bite, but that snake produced the first Taipan venom collected, which allowed research into an antivenin to begin (note – his chance of survival was only around 3% anyway – so delaying his arrival to hospital did not reduce his chances by much, and gave many other people a chance at life).
Fortunately, these days most snake milking in developed countries is done by specialists under controlled conditions, and antivenins are already available (and close by) for the species being milked. Still, most snake milkers will be bitten at some stage in their careers.
Snake milking as environmental protection:
The Irula people in Tamil Nadu, India, have for generations been snake hunters, and the main suppliers of snakeskins to the southern Indian industry. When the trade was banned in 1972, the Irula tribe lost what was virtually their only source of income. However, they formed a co-operative venom collection unit – now India’s largest supplier of venom. The traditional snake hunting skills are now used to capture snakes such as the Indian krait, which are milked once a week for three weeks and then returned to the wild. The co-operative is the only such organisation in India that leaves the snakes alive – in the other venom collection units, venom is extracted repeatedly until the snake dies.
All over the world – as snake venom has become such a necessary commodity, snakes are being valued for their milking potential, rather than being killed for their skins or because of the fear of being bitten. The same benefits are enjoyed by some other venomous creatures – there are several Sydney funnel web spider collection points around the city, where male funnel webs can be brought to be sent to the Australian Reptile Park for milking. With some types of snake venom fetching US$2000 per gram, snake milking can be a viable source of income.