Jim Harrison’s hands – mangled by 30 years worth of snake bites – tell one-of-a-kind story

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Kentucky Reptile Zoo director Jim Harrison doesn’t much like to talk about his hands because he says they call attention to “mistakes” he’s made while extracting snake venom. (Photo by Jane Auge)


 

By Roger Auge II
KyForward correspondent
 

What remains of the normal lengths of the 10 fingers on Jim Harrison’s hands tells a chapter of his one-of-a-kind life’s story.
 

“Except this one,” he says, pointing to a right forefinger shortened to the second joint. “That was from a defective weight machine when I was kickboxing.”
 

All others were from the results of snake bites during thousands and thousands of venom extractions from serious snakes such as cottonmouths, rattlers and copperheads at the Kentucky Reptile Zoo near Slade in the Red River Gorge area.
 

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Jim Harrison extracts venom from a Russell’s viper. (Photo from Kentucky Reptile Zoo)

Harrison, 54, however, does not like to talk about the bites – 19 over 30 years of thousands upon thousands of venomous snake encounters – because they call attention to “my mistakes.”
 

The most recent envenomation, or bite, was on the right pinkie by an Asian or monocled cobra and put him in the University of Kentucky Medical Center on life support for about 20 hours back in April and May. The pinkie now curls like a jagged half-moon, a souvenir of the big cobra. Three years ago, Harrison’s wrist suffered from a Bothrops bite, putting him in the hospital almost three weeks.
 

His left forefinger is normal, unshortened in any unusual way. The left thumb is twisted by a copperhead and shortened from a cape cobra, about 10 years ago. A desert horned Viper altered the left middle finger. The right ring finger and pinkie were manipulated by a western diamondback rattlesnake. Scars on his left wrist, thumb and palm are from the viper bite; internal abscesses, like inward boils, were removed surgically.
 

A rubber bracelet on his right wrist is a tribute to his father, also named Jim Harrison, who was a semiprofessional baseball player. Jim the baseball player was Jim senior and Jim the snake handler is Jim junior, but these men let the person stand for the person, no seniors and no juniors, just Jim and Jim, standing for what they stand.
 

Kickboxing, living in wilderness Kentucky, handling venomous snakes every day to earn a living? What kind of a guy is this Jim Harrison?
 

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Kristen Wiley (Photo from Kentucky Reptile Zoo)

Harrison and his wife, Kristen Wiley, of Cleveland, Ohio, curate the Kentucky Reptile Zoo adjacent to Natural Bridge State Resort Park near Slade, on the Middle Fork of the Red River. KRZ provides venom from lethal snakes for medical and pharmaceutical research all over the world. The zoo provides venom that is manufactured into anti-venom, necessary for treatment of otherwise lethal snake bites. The Harrisons and their legion of snakes are the only venom producers in all of Kentucky and one of only three or four in the United States.
 

Lots of people play with snakes, and snake mythology is embedded in culture. Children catch them, as do cats. The asp, a small venomous African snake, is part of our Adam and Eve creation story. Pet stores sell kings and black snakes as pets.
 

But Jim Harrison and Kristen Wiley are serious business people. Harrison’s expertise is called up in criminal trials, for television shows and for school presentations. From 30 years of experience, Harrison knows snakes as thoroughly as John Calipari knows basketball science. Kristen, armed with a master’s degree in biology from Eastern Kentucky State University, manages the operation. A handful of full-time keepers and part-time interns, attracted for the quality of the extracting effort, fill out the staff.
 

The reptile zoo is a collection of small, windowless gray buildings. Temperature and humidity is better controlled without windows allowing heat to enter or snakes to escape. One building is labeled “North American.” Other buildings are “Giants” and “Tropical.” The giants are anacondas and pythons; the tropicals have great names such as Gaboon viper and the Papua New Guinea death adder.
 

But extracting and selling the venom, a job that’s not high on many lists and not included in many college course descriptions, is what pays many of the zoo’s bills.
 

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Venom extraction from a suphan phase monocled cobra (Photo from Kentucky Reptile Zoo)

Jim Harrison is a legend in the business, having caught a garter snake at age 6.
 

“But Jim prefers not to harp on catching things as a child, since it seems to encourage risky behaviors in others,” says Wiley.
 

One recent summer afternoon, as Harrison describes the inadvertent adjustments to his digits, he deftly uses his left thumb and slightly bent index finger to pin a 7-pound eastern cottonmouth water moccasin to a metal table top. He holds the angry reptile right behind its arrowhead-shaped head, near the venom glands.
 

He clothespins the reptile’s slashing tail between his legs as he simultaneously splays two deceptively cottony fangs over the lip of a small clear funnel and carefully massages about a half teaspoon – 1 or 2 grams – of venom from the snake’s glands.
 

As a group of children and adults watch closely from behind the safety of a Plexiglas window, Harrison extracts venom from a group of 20 cottonmouths, carefully, one at a time.
 

“The cottonmouths are actually one of the smaller groups we have,” Wiley says. “For example, Jim routinely extracts 180 cobras and about 120 rattlesnakes in one day.”
 

Every day, he extracts venom from one lethal snake or another, up to 300 in a day, 600 to 1,000 per week.
 

“How would you feel if someone grabbed you by the back of the neck and tried to squeeze out your saliva?” says Harrison, a narrow smile emanating from the corners of his mouth. The children in the hot, stuffy, small room shift their feet, and slide gently backwards.
 

Dr. Edward Otten, chief of toxicology at the University of Cincinnati’s Emergency Medicine Unit, calls Harrison’s work “heroic.” The venom industry is a specialized sliver of the snake industry, which includes pet shops and online sources for a variety of snakes, venomous and nonvenomous.
 

Harrison almost routinely extracts venom from cottonmouths, rattlesnakes, copperheads – the three indigenous to Kentucky. He also extracts from coral snakes and exotic tropical snakes, such as the magnificently marked gaboon viper and the sleek-looking black mamba.
 

As a result of his work, Harrison has been featured on Animal Planet, National Geographic and PBS and has been widely written about. He found himself in controversy recently when he labeled an episode of the Call of the Wild Man filmed in Danville as “staged.”
 

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Venom extraction from a king cobra (Photo from Kentucky Reptile Zoo)

“I know it was staged,” Harrison said firmly. “You don’t find the kind of snakes he said he found next to a public swimming pool in that part of the country. And no snake can live in chlorinated water like a public pool has in it.”
 

Harrison’s also a candidate for right hip repairs, initiated when he was hit by a car at age 26, while he was a police officer. Pain is evident in his face as he twists and turns in an asymmetrical dance with one cottonmouth, then another, then another. Surgery is to be scheduled later this summer.
 

“We save lives,” he says matter-of-factly as he coaxes a thick, 7-pound, shiny black Florida cottonmouth into position for venom extraction.
 

Inside a sweltering windowless building, Harrison goes about his deadly business. The room adopts an acrimoniously pungent odor.
 

“That’s their musk,” Harrison says of the odor. “You get used to it.”
 

The room is organized with racks of rattlers on the left, cottonmouths straight ahead and a wall of copperheads on the right. Six rattlers are in sight, while perhaps 200 more rest in plastic storage boxes along the walls.
 

On the other wall, 10 copperheads are visible in mildly lighted clean boxes, while 300-400 rest in storage boxes along the wall. The cottonmouths, straight ahead, number perhaps 30. The keepers must knock twice when entering a building to alert those inside.
 

The keepers wear thick, knee-high, well-laced and padded boots. Each keeper is a college graduate with an appropriate degree. Interns also are, for the most part, college educated.
 

“Two-thirds of our customers are overseas,” says Wiley, who met Harrison while a student intern from Case Western University in Ohio.
 

No doubt, snake venom is powerful stuff. Researchers study the chemical makeup of venom to seek cures for such diseases as cancer. Others are seeking verifiable applications in cosmetics for men and women.
 

“They control how much they disperse,” says Harrison as he returns an Eastern cottonmouth to its display box after extracting its venom. “You have to show them respect.”
 

Roger Auge II is a former reporter with The Kentucky Post and now a freelance writer and instructor at Gateway Community and Technical College.

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One Comment

  1. Marilyn Brown says:

    Hey Jim…Thanks for all you and Kristen do!! I respect you both so much. Keep up the awesome work

Reply to Marilyn Brown Cancel Reply