Snake ‘milking’ is the process where a qualified professional extracts the venom from a snake. This is a dangerous profession as the snake may bite you. But with proper training and protective equipment, the risk of getting bitten by a highly venomous snake can be much reduced.
Qualifications in herpetology or toxicology, or at least biology or zoology, are necessary. You will need a degree and perhaps a postgraduate degree in one of these subjects. Venomous snake handling experience, even as a hobby, is needed. Serpentariums, zoos, and research facilities may have positions available for new entrants.
Given the danger of being bitten and envenomated by a lethal snake, the job has obvious health risks. Snake milker pay is lower than you might expect. But it’s a career path that appeals to people who are really interested in deadly snakes.
How Do You Milk a Snake?
The term ‘milking’ is typically associated with cows and other dairy animals. But the process of milking a snake is different. The term refers to the extraction of venom in a particular way.
The first step is to extract the venom from the snake. The snake stores its venom in glands at the rear of its head. However, you can’t extract it with a syringe. The only way is to get the snake to use its venom is the way it would do so in the wild.
To collect the venom, you need a jar or flask. Over the top of this flask, you draw a sheet of latex. This provides the snake with something to bite into. You have to annoy the snake to the point that it strikes. The snake is positioned so that it will strike the jar.
Naturally, this process should involve protective equipment, such as venomous snake-handling gloves. These are thick enough that the snake’s fangs can’t pierce them. You should also wear goggles, especially if milking a snake that can shoot its venom, such as a species of rattlesnake.
The snake is left to pump out venom into the jar. You must continue holding the snake by the rear of its head to allow it to continue. Once the snake isn’t producing any more venom, it is put back into its enclosure. The process is then started with another snake.
Venomous Snakes That Are Milked
Not all venomous snakes are milked. That’s because snakes are milked either to create antivenom (snake venom antidote) or for research. Most ‘poisonous’ snakes don’t have venom strong enough to hurt you seriously, so there is no need for antivenom. These snakes are also researched less.
Some snakes are milked more frequently than others. The most common are those that bite the most. These snakes bite frequently, and also have venom that is interesting for scientists to research. Snakes that are milked include the following:
- Asps and vipers
- Coral snakes
However, not all of these snakes are milked to the same extent. Coral snakes, for example, were always milked to produce coral snake antivenom. The only company to do so in the United States was Wyeth Pharmaceutical.
Wyeth created a coral snake antivenom from the 1960s until 2003. But in that year they stopped production because it was so rarely needed and unprofitable.
According to the Orianne Society, Wyeth and their old stock were bought by Pfizer. They have not recommenced production, but did tests to ensure that existing stock, even when outside of its original date, was still usable.
PLoS One said that research is ongoing to find a new antivenom. However, there is still no antivenom being produced for the American market.
The lack of antivenom for a reasonably common deadly snake in the U.S. is indicative of the rarity of snake milking jobs and pharmaceutical companies producing antivenom for profit.
It’s no surprise that snake venom is the crucial ingredient in the creation of antivenom. Scientists haven’t yet come up with a reliable method of creating antivenom that doesn’t involve real venom.
However, ‘milking’ is only half of the antivenom-creation process. If you injected a person with pure venom, it would kill them as quickly as the snake that bit them. The venom has to be processed before it can be used.
This is done by injecting it into an animal that has some resistance to the venom. Historically, horses, sheep, and cows have been used. The venom is injected into their bloodstream. The animal will then produce antibodies intended specifically to fight off the venom.
How Do You Get Antivenom for Snake Bites?
Over time, enough of these antibodies are produced that they can be harvested in useful amounts. A safe amount of blood is drawn from the animal, and a serum containing the antibodies is spun out.
When injected into a person, these antibodies function as they would have in the animal that produced them. They break down the venom into something more manageable than the body can handle.
The venom extracted from the snake can either go through this process to create antivenom, or be used as it’s collected for scientific research. The former is the more common use, but research into snake venom is ongoing.
Required Snake Milker Skills and Aptitudes
The primary skill needed is that you can handle venomous snakes safely. If you are unable to do this, you can’t become a snake milker. Safe snake-handling requires:
- Follow in-house procedures
- Patience and calmness
- Record keeping
- Gentleness, but with the application of force at crucial moments
- Knowledge of snake behavior and body language
Knowledge of how to breed snakes may also be required. Most snake milker positions don’t just entail milking the snake. They may also require you to breed and look after venomous snake species.
How Dangerous is Snake Milking?
You only work with dangerous venomous snakes, and some of these snakes can kill with only one bite. Some snakes even spit their venom from a distance, which can damage your skin or blind you.
However, snake milking is only dangerous if the professional doesn’t do his/her job properly. You have to wear protective equipment, such as:
- Gloves thick enough to prevent bites
- Goggles, especially with snakes that can spit venom
With this protective equipment, there’s little chance of the snake being able to hurt you. But any facility in which snakes are milked will have antivenom on hand for that species of snake anyway.
Why Is Antivenom So Expensive?
Antivenom can cost thousands of dollars per vial. That’s because of the way it is obtained. The process of milking snakes is a difficult and slow one. The dangers of milking snakes mean that precautions have to be taken. It’s not as easy as grabbing the snake and extracting the venom.
Also, each snake only produces a small amount of venom each time it’s milked. This limits the amount of venom to create antivenom. Then, you also have to factor in the expense of keeping the animals necessary to create the antivenom, the cost of offices, paying staff, etc.
How to Become a Snake Milker
Without a proper grasp of the science behind venomous snakes, you could be putting yourself in danger. That’s why there are qualifications that you’ll need if you want to become a snake milker.
While there are qualifications you’ll need, just as important is your background knowledge. Being interested in snakes, and having kept snakes before, is essential. An employer would always hire someone who has this background over someone who hasn’t.
If you have already worked with snakes in some capacity, that will help. Working in a zoo, for example, would be a valuable experience. If you’ve handled snakes as a hobby or in a professional capacity, that’s a big plus.
That’s especially the case if you’ve interacted with venomous snakes before. For example, if you’ve worked as a park ranger or at a zoo that keeps venomous snakes. Having done so shows that you know how to interact with deadly snakes safely.
Snake Milker Qualifications
From high school, you’ll require good grades in subjects like biology, chemistry, and math. This will give you the foundation you need for your further academic education.
You will then need a college degree in a relevant scientific field. Biology would be good enough, but ideally, you should study zoology. This will give you the most relevant knowledge that you would use in your day-to-day job. Minors in subjects like biology and chemistry would help.
If you could find a qualification in something like herpetology or toxicology, that would be even better. These would teach you much of what you need to know. They would also likely allow you to experience handling and breeding snakes first hand, or at least working with venom.
Academic Courses for Snake Milking
If you have a degree in biology, for example, you may benefit from further education. This will allow you to specialize yet further in either the handling of snakes, toxicology, or both. With this added expertise, you stand more chance of success in job applications.
Further academic education in the form of a master’s degree (MSc) or a doctorate would be sufficient. There are master’s degrees relevant to toxicology and snakes, specifically. If you couldn’t find an undergraduate course specializing in these subjects, a master’s would be a good step.
A doctorate likely won’t be necessary if you intend on working a public outreach job, for example. You will only need one if you plan on working in an academic environment. So, if you want to research venom and its effects, then a doctorate will be required.
Where to Apply for Snake Milking Jobs
Snake milking is a highly-regulated industry. The government keeps tabs on the facilities that house venomous snakes.
These are like zoos, but exclusively for snakes. These facilities make money by allowing the public to see the snakes and using the snakes as a resource.
Herpetariums are a similar kind of facility, but they don’t specialize in snakes. Instead, they display reptiles more generally.
It’s less likely that a herpetarium will have a wide range of venomous snakes, but they may still have snake milking jobs available.
There may be vaccine and antivenom biotech companies in your area that offer snake milking jobs. These offer a highly professional and regulated work environment, so they are safe despite the danger of the snakes.
These companies usually focus on one kind of antivenom. They market their product to medical institutions. They will oversee the entire antivenom production process.
You should send your resume directly to these companies, even if there aren’t any adverts you can find. Because this is such a unique job, you’re not likely to find many open snake milker positions. They may keep your resume on record in case one becomes open.
Snake Milking On-The-Job Training
There’s only so much you could learn about snake milking from a book. Qualifications in toxicology would give you background knowledge, but it wouldn’t be that useful on a day-to-day basis.
That’s why you’ll need practical, as well as theoretical, training. This will occur after you’re hired. Unless you have prior experience in the position, they will offer it to you. It will likely consist of shadowing a person already qualified and experienced in milking snakes.
They will show you how to complete the process. This involves the wearing of personal protective equipment (PPE), as well as using safe handling techniques. There are no apprenticeships or similar that you can undertake.
How Much Does a Snake Milker Make a Year?
Because snake milking is such a rare job, it’s difficult to provide an estimate of how much you’re likely to earn. Open positions for snake milking are few and far between. However, the average seems to be around $30,000.
This is less than you could expect to earn from other jobs related to zoology. For other zoology jobs, you could potentially earn $60,000 or more. Considering that it would be possible to get other zoological jobs that involve snakes, snake milking may not be the most lucrative option.
Another drawback is that there would be no promotional opportunities available. There is no relevant position you could expect to be promoted to, at least not one that has the same responsibilities. Again, this is in contrast to other zoological jobs.
You also wouldn’t be able to negotiate a much higher salary elsewhere, even with experience. Both the experience you gain and the qualifications you need wouldn’t enable you to find jobs in many other fields.
Should You Become a Snake Milker?
You may want to become a snake milker is if you’re fascinated by snakes. It’s one of the few jobs where you get to work with snakes every day and get to mix with like-minded professionals.
But there are good reasons to avoid becoming a snake milker. The first is the lack of available openings. You would struggle to find positions near you, so you may have to move. The lack of positions also puts you at a disadvantage when negotiating a salary.
You have to consider whether you’ll work the same job your whole life. If you don’t want to, then the experience you’ll gain from this job is too niche. You won’t be able to use it in any other position.
Then, you have to think about the danger of the job. If done correctly, you will be safe. But you’re still working with deadly snakes.
You should consider all of the pros and cons before training to become a snake milker.