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Carpe DeCapello – Seize the Cobra!

Attitude, rather than disposition is more definitive of serpent behavior. From the moment they emerge into this world until they complete their life cycle, their attitude is “Don’t tread on me. I am well equipped to defend myself, but content to pass through life unnoticed. I mean no harm to anything or anyone that our creator has not provided as my bill of fare; I am self-sustaining and I like it that way, please pass me by.” – W.E. Haast

Bill Haast, 1952

Bill Haast, a remarkable self-taught herpetologist, died a few days ago, at the equally remarkable age of 100 years and 6 months.   Haast was an iconic part of Florida history, and an indelible part of my childhood. As a lifelong Floridian, some of my most enduring memories are of time spent at kitschy Florida attractions, back when they were kitschy by both nature and design: The Miami Seaquarium, Parrot Jungle, Monkey Jungle, the Seminole Indian Village (where I got a terrific case of the chicken pox one year) – classic Florida roadside attractions.  Bill Haast’s Miami Serpentarium, though, was something else altogether, part Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, part sideshow attraction.

Of the many obit reports eulogizing Mr. Haast, I think Jeff Klinkenberg’s, in the St. Petersburg Times, comes closest to capturing the wonder and allure of Mr. Haast’s life and times.

He was the most interesting Floridian I ever knew,” writes Kinkenberg. “In fact, when I was boy, he was my idol. He ran a place in Miami called the Serpentarium, which he had started as a roadside tourist attraction in 1947. I started going to the Serpentarium in the 1950s when Florida theme parks tended to be small anything-can-happen family businesses. My dad also took me to the Monkey Jungle, the Parrot Jungle, Coral Castle and the Seminole Indian Village at Musa Isle, but it was my many visits to the Serpentarium that fired my interest in natural history and Florida culture.

I started going to the Serpentarium the 1960s and like Klinkenberg, I was hooked.  Tall and elegant, dressed crisply in white, and looking cool and collected even on the muggiest of Miami afternoons, Haast gave me my first look at someone at home in, and coexisting with, nature. The Snake Man, as he was commonly called –  Miami’s very own Steve Irwin – was particularly in his element when he faced off against a 14 foot king cobra.  I remember standing mesmerized in that square of lawn at the Serpentarium, watching  Haast’s deft dance with the cobra, seeming reared to Haast’s own height, until he grabbed it by its decapello – its hood – and expertly milked it before an appreciative crowd.  Haast was a showman but also a scientist, and his calm, informative manner compelled more interest than fear, at least for me.  Haast’s understanding and appreciation of snakes served as an early template for my understanding and appreciation of nature in general, as I grew up.

His observation that snakes “mean no harm to anything or anyone that our creator has not provided as [their] bill of fare,” and that they are self-sustaining and wish only to be “passed by” is a message that applies equally to many other creatures, and a message I’ve often found myself returning to time and again, most recently in the Florida Allergy Handbook (University Press of Florida, January 2012).  Creatures (and some plants) bite,  sting, stab and abrade, but only because we stumble into their paths.  Haast, at a time when anthropomorphic Disney nature films were common staple, put snakes, one of the most maligned creatures on earth,  in a scientific and clinical light, and in an appreciative one as well.

Given that he was been bitten by venomous snakes over 170 times, Haast’s unfailing charity of spirit towards snakes was impressive. But so, too, was the result of a lifetime of envenomation. Between bites and self-injections of venom to help build immunity, Haast’s blood was actually curative, and credited with saving the lives of ten snake bite victims whose allergies to antivenin would have resulted in their deaths if not for transfusions of Haast’s blood.

As a teen, I attended South Miami High School, home of the Cobras (our yearbook was called “DeCapello”).  While I was still a student at the school,  Haast closed down the Serpentarium, riven with sorrow when one of his crocodiles killed a child.  A few years later, my alma mater with gifted with the enormous concrete cobra that graced the grounds the Serpentarium.  Sadly, the great cobra was improperly transported and crumbled as it was being placed atop the high school’s roof.   I remember feeling devastated, both as an alumnus, and as a Miamian, that we’d destroyed the iconic snake.

For the last couple of decades, Haast ran a lucrative anti-venin business in Punta Gorda nostalgically named the Miami Serpentarium Laboratories  . Lucrative because, according to the NY Times  just “a gram of freeze-dried venom from exotic snakes, requiring 100 or more extractions to accumulate, could exceed $5,000. ”

Snake venom served Haast in many ways.  “Except for his mangled hands, which had taken the brunt of his snakebites over the decades,” wrote Klinkenberg of a visit with Haast 15 years ago, ” he looked at least three decades younger than his 85 years. His gray hair was still flecked with black and he still moved gracefully like Rikki-Tikki-Tavi in the Rudyard Kipling tale. He claimed the daily injections of snakebite venom kept him young.”

Who knows? Maybe Haast even spoke parsaltongue. Whatever his secret, Bill Haast will always be a cherished part of my Florida memories.

Rest in Peace, Snake Man!


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