DeLand lab crawling with venomous snakes to help save lives

A crowd of locals and tourists sits in a small room, gazing through a window at the Reptile Discovery Center in DeLand, and letting out collective gasps as the next legless lizard is brought onto the table on the other side.

Cobras, mambas, copperheads: pick a venomous snake and Carl Barden’s probably got a few dozen of them in his collection.

"We have about a thousand snakes,” he told the Thursday afternoon crowd at the center.

Barden’s spectators come to see the snakes but it’s the milking show that has most unable to turn away. Barden and his team bring in a handful of their snakes one by one to bare their fangs and release their venom into jars.

Some like the rattlesnakes bring hollers from the crowd as they squirt out large streams of yellow venom while others like the coral snakes barely let loose a drop. The milking process has to happen multiple times a week every week in Barden’s lab.

"Takes me about 150 extractions to create a gram of coral snake venom,” said Barden.

The DeLand lab is one of only three in the state and about 40 in the world doing this work on a large scale, Barden said. 

The Center takes the extracted venom, turns it into a powder, and sells it to pharmaceutical companies that turn it into anti-venom. Barden can make anywhere from about $100 per gram of cottonmouth venom to $4000 per gram of the coral snake’s venom.

While the profits keep them going, Barden said the lab’s work is all about saving lives.

The anti-venom projects they contribute to create the lifesaving drugs to be used here in Florida and across the world in snakebite cases. As he said, it takes a lot of venom to create even a single dose of the drugs, so ‘strength in numbers’ is necessary.

Plus, being positioned in Central Florida the DeLand lab not only breeds a lot of their own snakes, including many exotic ones, but also takes in a lot of the area’s venomous snakes when they’re caught by local trappers and wranglers.

Barden said that’s why it’s so important Floridians don’t kill venomous snakes on sight but instead call an expert for extraction.

"You are the first step in creating a life-saving medication,” he said. "So it's an important animal. We always say don't run them over, don't kill them."

Barden opened the doors of the Center to the public a decade ago to help educate and spread that message.