The Story of a... Serpentologist

You could say George Van Horn, 67, is snakebit, but he’s still lucky to be alive.

Photo By Norma Lopez Molina

I grew up in Miami and always had an interest in snakes. . . . At six years old I met Bill Haast [the late director of the Miami Serpentarium], who worked with snakes seven days a week. Bill was my mentor. I drove the poor guy nuts. It was quite a saga. I went down there with a friend at 12 years old and broke into the serpentarium. We wanted to check out the snakes. But I guess Bill was working late that night and he gave us hell.
The first snake I picked up was a rattlesnake. It bit me, but it hit my fingernail so it didn’t penetrate my skin. Then, I tried a cottonmouth in my grandmother’s basement. I made my own vial and started collecting venom from it.
I can feel the snake’s intentions. He has fear and anger. I can feel his muscles getting ready [as it prepares to strike]. It comes with experience.

I’ve been bitten at least 12 times. In 1977 I was bitten by a king cobra and went to the emergency room with my antivenin. They shot it in and it was done. I was home two days later.

In 1995, it was different. We had 11 king cobras on the venom line when one came right at me. He didn’t slow down and did a walk up my left arm. I just froze, which is what you are supposed to do. I felt tired after the bite. I woke up three days later in a hospital. My family told me that I needed to quit and become a schoolteacher.

I don’t carry health insurance because a snakebite lasts only about two days. I bring my own antivenin.
I provide the venom to people who do physiology research. My major thing from the beginning was to help researchers at universities all over the world.

I’ve got about 600 snakes; 500 on the venom line right now. But they are not pets. They contribute to our knowledge of ourselves, but they aren’t pets that will love you. A pet python will choke and kill you. I have a friend who thinks that they are pets, but he gets bitten all the time.

If you ever come in contact with a snake, don’t pick it up. That’s my biggest piece of advice. It’s always a guy who tried to do something to the snake and ended up getting bitten.

Van Horn opened Reptile World Serpentarium in St. Cloud in 1972

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