GORDON, Ala. (AP) — Ken Darnell spends his days wrestling with rattlesnakes, extracting venom from them to sell to medical companies which use it to make life-saving drugs and conduct research. Soon he may also be in a tussle with the federal government and environmental groups seeking to declare the eastern diamondback rattlesnake an endangered species and put limits on its use.
All things considered, Darnell would rather face the rattlers.
The first thing you notice when you walk into Darnell's lab near Gordon are racks and racks of plastic containers. The second thing you notice is the smell. Darnell keeps a clean, professional facility, but the musk of more than 200 rattlesnakes is unmistakable. The third thing you notice is the sound of dozens of snake rattles issuing their clear warning.
At that point, if you haven't already, you realize what's in the plastic containers.
Darnell, 67, has been "milking" snakes for about 35 years. He has small newborn snakes at his lab as well as large adult snakes, including a few six-footers. Darnell says he is one of just a handful of people in the U.S. who harvest venom and sell it to medical companies.
A former Johns Hopkins University instructor and patent attorney, Darnell is very precise and scientific about his work. He carefully tends to his snakes, providing them with food and medical care. Darnell buys his snakes from local residents who call him to retrieve them. Darnell doesn't mind providing the service - it keeps the snakes from being killed and allows him to keep them to harvest venom.
Darnell's system for milking the snakes is simple. He takes them to a screened-in porch outside his lab, removes them from their plastic bins with a metal hook and places them on a table. He then positions himself where he can grab the snake by the head and restrict its mobility. He then places the snake's mouth over a beaker and presses causing venom to run down the fangs and into the beaker.
"You can't be afraid of them, but you have to respect them," he said.
Darnell doesn't like to say whether he's been bitten by one of his snakes before, dancing around the question with answers such as, "My wife bit me last night," when asked. He eventually owns up to being bitten on a finger and having lost part of it. He said missing digits and limbs are common among people who handle snakes for a living.
Darnell can milk a snake once every two weeks to produce venom, which he then runs through a centrifuge to separate out undesirable material and freeze dries the product. Darnell sells the venom to medical companies, which use it for research and to produce antivenin and other drugs. One product derived from snake venom is Integrilin, which is used to help treat stroke and heart attack patients.
"Someone you know's life has been saved by that," Darnell said.
The venom trade can be a profitable business. According to the Medtoxin Venom Laboratories website, in 2009 they were selling eastern diamondback venom for about $350 per gram.
A possible move to declare the eastern diamondback an endangered species may hamper Darnell's business. The Center for Biological Diversity, a non-profit organization that works to protect species via legal action and scientific petition, wants the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to give the snake "threatened" status on the Endangered Species List. This designation would restrict killing of the snakes and require permitting, monitoring and consultation regarding uses of the animals.
Denise Rowland, a spokesperson for USFWS, said that if the snake receives threatened status, the department would work with venom harvesters to ensure collection would continue. Rowland said harvesting from already captive snakes or snakes born in captivity likely wouldn't be affected by the ruling at all.
Darnell said USFWS has told him that his activities in harvesting venom would be able to go on if the snake receives threatened status, but he is worried that restrictions on the capture of snakes by outside parties - currently his main supply source for new snakes - will dry up if the snake is protected.
Rowland said USFWS will conduct a one-year status review of the petition to grant the eastern diamondback protected status and will examine data to make a determination. After about a year, the agency will propose a rule, if necessary, and seek public comment before making a decision.
Whether the eastern diamondback is truly endangered is a point of contention between groups like the Center for Biological Diversity and business interests.
In addition to Darnell's business, Alabama timber producers could be impacted by a decision to list the eastern diamond back as an endangered species.
"If this animal is eventually listed as threatened, it will be treated the same as other species that have been placed on the federal threatened and endangered list," Rowland said. "Landowners or federal action agencies would enter into negotiations with USFWS to find ways to avoid or reduce impacts to listed species."
Chris Isaacson, executive director of the Alabama Forestry Association, said designating the eastern diamondback as an endangered species would create new restrictions on what landowners could do with their property and could hurt timber businesses.
"Any time a species is listed, the fish and wildlife service is supposed to designate a critical habitat," he said. "Once that's designated, there are usually restrictions on how that habitat can be managed."
Isaacson said the current petition does not make a clear case for the status of eastern diamondbacks as a threatened species. He said the petition is based on a lack of data about the snakes, and that environmental groups are trying to pass that lack of data off as lack of a population.
Collette Adkins Giese, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, disagrees. Giese said the disappearance of the snake from states where it used to thrive such as Louisiana, the decline of the forest habitat of the snake because of development and declining snake sizes reported at rattlesnake round-ups are clear indicators that the snake population is in decline and the eastern diamondback deserves protection.
Giese said eastern diamondbacks have many features that make them interesting to nature enthusiasts, including heat sensing organs that allow the snake to track its prey.
"It's really a charismatic species," she said.
Giese said the eastern diamondback is a misunderstood and underappreciated part of the ecosystem. Giese pointed out that the snake is helpful to agriculture in that it helps control rodent populations. Giese also said that despite common public fear of the snake, fatal snake bites are very uncommon.
Giese noted that even if the USFWS gives the snake protected status, humans are still legally allowed to kill the snake if it is threatening human life.
Giese said protecting the eastern diamondback is important to preserving nature.
"They're part of the web of life and were put on this planet for a reason," she said. "Every species has the right to continue."
Information from: The Dothan Eagle, http://www.dothaneagle.com