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Maxim takes on one of the world’s most dangerous jobs—extracting snake venom! Prepare to meet 800 snakes, six alligators, and one very nervous writer.

Check out our video, Maxim vs. Cobras and Alligators

“After a cobra bite in 1993, where I stopped breathing, we reviewed our safety procedures,” says Carl Barden, a friendly-looking guy in cargo shorts and sturdy boots who also happens to be wrestling with a huge, writhing rattlesnake. “The real key is not to get bitten, of course,” he deadpans while manhandling the vicious reptile onto the table. I inquire how that strategy has worked out for him.

“Great!” he grins. “Until 1997, when I was bitten by a nine-foot black mamba.” The rattlesnake clamps its fangs onto a glass and unleashes a dose of deadly yellow-green venom, which Carl looks at approvingly: It’s just another day at the strangest job in the world.

Safety Tip 1: Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow-

For most people, a venomous snake is something to be avoided. Carl Barden, however, is not most people. In love with snakes since he was a boy, he has deliberately handled more than 300,000 of the beasts in the past 18 years, turning it into a profitable business by selling their venom to medical labs (who use it to make antivenom, which saves around 7,000 lives annually in the United States).

Safety Tip 1: Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow-

Started in 1994 by Carl, an ex-airline pilot (and, yes, he does love Snakes on a Plane), Medtoxin Venom Laboratories–housed at the Reptile Discovery Center on the swampy outskirts of DeLand, Florida–is completely dedicated to the commercial production of snake venom, a process even more fraught with hazards than you’d imagine.

“I’m terrifically allergic to snake venom,” Carl admits as I enter his “office”—actually a lab containing 800 lethal snakes. “If bitten I go into anaphylactic shock, where my throat closes up and I can’t breathe.” It’s a surprising confession from someone who has dedicated his life to creating this lab, funding the difficult first 11 years with his pilot’s wages.

Safety Tip 1: Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow-

Showing me around, he introduces me to some of his favorite animals, including Daniel, a 13-foot king cobra, which he assures me I could “outrun very easily” if he got loose. It’s not very comforting: Even coiled up in his tank, Daniel looks fucking enormous. “We have 100 southern copperheads, 100 cottonmouths, 50 coral snakes, 85 eastern diamondback rattlesnakes, 10 Pakistan cobras, six spitting cobras–those kinds of things.” he says casually. Spitting cobras? “Yeah. They squirt venom into your eyes.” I turn and see that I’m inches from a tank that reads "Spitter: Must Wear Glasses" and quickly back away.

Safety Tip 3: Don’t Forget to Wash Your Hands-

Carl opens the fridge to show me some poison he extracted recently. Slopped in a plastic cup, the half-frozen venom looks like the world’s most dangerous lemon slushy. Once refrigerated, it gets purified in the centrifuge and freeze-dried, leaving a powdery yellow substance: pure venom, just add water. “This is about a kilogram of venom,” he says, holding up a large jar, sealed tightly and filled to the brim. “It takes about 10 handlings to produce a gram, and it sells at about $100 a gram. A coral snake would take 200 handlings to produce a gram, but that would then sell for $3,000.” That sounds like a lot, but it’s not a job you get rich doing. “Venom labs can earn anywhere from $10,000 to $200,000 a year,” Carl says. “The venom market is unpredictable, and the overhead can literally eat you alive...”

Safety Tip 2: Don’t Lean on the Cobras-

As we prepare to start the day’s extractions, Carl shows me his antivenom stockpile. Since he works with exotic snakes, most hospitals don’t carry the antidotes he requires, so he has to bring his own: The fridge is packed with them. The inside shelf is also stuffed with raw venom and, I can’t help noticing, a Dunkin’ Donuts iced tea. I ask if it’s safe to keep his beverage there, and he shrugs. “America runs on Dunkin’, right?”

Safety Tip 2: Don’t Lean on the Cobras-

At this point I meet the lab’s assistant director, Denisse Abreu, a beautiful woman with a passion for snakes. “I’ve been bitten twice,” she smiles. “The first time it was a coral snake, and I wasn’t even in the lab: I was gardening. I couldn’t believe it.”

“It was a bad bite,” says Carl. “She started to hemorrhage, her arm swelled up. She went through six vials of antivenom, which for a coral snake is a lot. For a bad rattlesnake bite, you might go through 50 vials, at $10,000 a vial. A snakebite is no joke!”

Safety Tip 2: Don’t Lean on the Cobras-

Considering most guys wouldn’t trust their ex to make them a sandwich, let alone be responsible for keeping them alive, I’m amazed to discover the two used to date. “My buddy was just like, ‘Dude, what if she’s mad at you?’¿” Carl laughs.

It’s clear the pair have fun at work, but when it’s extraction time everything gets super-professional.

Safety Tip 2: Don’t Lean on the Cobras-

“Don’t lean on anything,” says Denisse. I realize what she means as Carl slides a drawer open and, faster than I can blink, a goddamn cobra jolts a couple of feet out of it. It sways, hood up, hissing as Carl fearlessly picks it up, using what is essentially a modified golf club with a hook on the end. He plonks it on the table, where Denisse holds it down with a padded T-press. Carl deftly reaches behind its head, picks it up, and holds it in front of the specially prepared glass, into which the snake promptly spews enough venom to kill several grown men. “Nice,” murmurs Carl. One down…

Safety Tip 3: Don’t Forget to Wash Your Hands-

Carl asks if I can help him out by holding the next snake to stop it twisting out of his grip. No small task, since this snake is an eastern diamondback rattlesnake–- the most dangerous slitherer in North America. As he grabs its head, he motions for me to step forward and take the rear end. I grab the monstrous creature, one hand in the middle, one right by its thrashing, rattling tail, and try to remain calm. Controlled environment or not, my brain is gibbering uselessly that I’m holding a fucking rattlesnake, and frankly, it’s terrifying. Despite being a viper rather than a constrictor, it’s tremendously strong, and I feel it flexing in my hands like a scaly sack of pure savage muscle. I try to keep it still as Carl allows it to bite down on the glass, then takes it from me. My hands are shaking–it’s frightening, but it’s also exhilarating as all hell!

Safety Tip 3: Don’t Forget to Wash Your Hands-

We work through a few more rattlers, then we move on to the cottonmouths, which, while a little smaller and lacking the terrible toxins of the diamondbacks, are still capable of causing major damage to human tissue. Just as I’m starting to feel like I know what I’m doing, we move on to the monocled cobras—malevolent, iconic, and very recognizable snakes. As I take hold of the lethal hooded serpent, it instantly wraps its tail around my arm and tries to twist out of my grip. This is not a snake to be messed with!

Safety Tip 3: Don’t Forget to Wash Your Hands-

A few cobras later, Carl reveals a particularly impressive specimen: an albino, cream-colored all over and spooky even in the bright lights of the lab. As I grab hold, it struggles briefly, then goes calm in my hands. Is this mutual respect, I wonder? Have I shown such poise that this magnif-icent reptile knows its equal or, dare I say, its better? Does the beast see me as its master? My dreams are rudely shattered as the bastard fires a vile-smelling stream of liquid shit up my arm and all over my hand. So much for mutual respect. I may be the top of the evolutionary ladder, but as far as this thing’s concerned, I’m only good for a port-o-potty.

Safety Tip 3: Don’t Forget to Wash Your Hands-

The final snake comes in the form of my nemesis: Daniel. My jaw drops as Carl hauls him out of his tank, foot by horrible foot, stretching halfway across the lab, a creature capable of killing us all. It’s clearly going to take all three of us to hold him up, and I want to be as far from its fangs as I can. Still, after my last experience, I grab the middle and, with a shocking lack of chivalry, let Denisse take the pooping end.

Safety Tip 4: Don’t Punch Yourself in the Face With a Rattlesnake-

After taking me to visit some of their other “pets”—in addition to the poison dart frogs and gila monsters, Carl has six alligators, one of which roams free in the backyard—Carl talks me through some of his war stories. He’s been bitten 11 times, which sounds like 11 too many to me, but as he reasons, 11 bites over 300,000 successful extractions is a pretty good ratio.

Safety Tip 4: Don’t Punch Yourself in the Face With a Rattlesnake-

“There was the monocled cobra in ’93, the black mamba in ’97, the green tree viper in ’98. In ’99 it was a five-foot cottonmouth. Somewhere in there was also a copperhead bite and one from a mojave. In 2003 I had two eastern diamondback rattlesnake bites, then two mambas back to back in 2004–one a West African green, the other an East African green. I’ve been through anaphylaxis seven times now.”

Safety Tip 4: Don’t Punch Yourself in the Face With a Rattlesnake-

The worst one, so far, was Carl’s last bite, in 2006. Handling a rattlesnake in his home, he tripped, twisting his ankle and falling on his elbow. Disastrously, the force of the blow propelled the hand holding the rattler into his own face.

Safety Tip 4: Don’t Punch Yourself in the Face With a Rattlesnake-

“She was furious. She was in my face, hanging from it. She bit down and held on. One of the fangs went right through my cheek and stuck in my gum, the other was in my lip. I still get chills remembering how I pulled it out of my face, thinking, What have you done?”

Safety Tip 4: Don’t Punch Yourself in the Face With a Rattlesnake-

The three-and-a-half-foot snake pumped Carl’s head full of venom, a kind he is super- allergic to. “The venom stops coagulation, so blood was just pouring out of my face,” he shudders. “The whole front of me was covered in blood. I ran out, screaming, ‘Snakebite to the face! Snakebite to the face!’ Denisse got me to the ambulance. I was unconscious for 20 minutes and still hemorrhaging three days later. It took 24 vials of antivenom to clean it up.”

Safety Tip 4: Don’t Punch Yourself in the Face With a Rattlesnake-

As the day comes to an end, Carl introduces me to a mass of friendly, nonvenomous pythons, which promptly crawl all over my head and into my shirt. It’s scary at first but quickly becomes funny as Carl and Denisse laugh at my startled face. I realize that, despite the danger, the expense, and the difficulty in starting and running this business, Carl is one of the happiest guys I’ve ever met: a self-made man, surrounded by the things he loves. He’s basically living his dream, and you have to respect a man who’s living his dream. Even if his dream is completely insane.

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