Blessed are the venom milkers
Kids dream of dangerous jobs: lion tamer, fireworks specialist or perhaps bounty hunter. Yet most adults settle into more mundane and risk-free occupations.
Not so for John Weigel and Liz Vella, who work at the Australian Reptile Park -- a privately owned wildlife sanctuary about an hour’s drive from Sydney.
As respective snake and spider handling specialists, their daily routines include milking venom from funnel-web spiders and other native Australian species that helped give Australia its reputation as home to some of the most dangerous creepy-crawlies on the planet.
Why would someone milk venom? To treat patients who are bitten by them.
The Snake Charmer
“Have I every been bitten by a snake? Sure – thousands of times,” says park director John Weigel. “We’re setting up this new python enclosure and I get bitten there every day."
"But those aren’t poisonous snakes," Wiegel says. "Interestingly, I hold the world record of milking the highest number of poisonous snakes without being bitten –- I think it’s around 40,000.”
After emigrating from the United States to Australia in the 1980s, Weigel helped modernize Australia’s anti-venom program. Today he runs one of the largest anti-venom production units in the world, helping save the lives of people bitten by brown snakes, tiger snakes, taipans and death adders.
“It’s rare to get bitten by a snake in Sydney,” Weigel says. “Every once in a while someone gets bitten in the western suburbs, but most victims are brought in from rural areas for treatment at city hospitals.
“The anti-venom we help create is used to treat about 200 snake-bite victims every year,” he says.
“So depending on how you look at that, that’s 200 lives saved by us turning up for work every morning.”
Every week, Liz Vella milks anywhere from three to 300 Sydney funnel-web spiders, the most toxic venomous spider in the world.
Shiny, black and hairy with elongated fangs, these ghastly looking arachnids emerge from of garden burrows at night to breed.
But come sun-up they’ll hide anywhere they can –- and if they happen to be indoors, they’ll scamper under a pile of laundry, an old newspaper or a warm shoe.
“Spiders are not aggressive,” says Vella, who holds the title "Curator of Spiders" at the park. “Most people who are bitten by them have unwittingly scared them."
"You can imagine how scared you’d be if you were hiding in what you thought was a cave and a giant foot came in and squashed you,” she says.
Until anti-venom was developed in 1980, most people bitten by Sydney funnel-webs died. But there have been no fatalities since then thanks to Vella and her team, who host daily spider milking shows at the Australian Reptile Park.
“There is an element of danger in this job,” says Vella. “But I’ve never been bitten and hope I never will be.”
To reach the Australian Reptile Park by road, follow the Sydney-Newcastle Freeway north to the Gosford exit and follow the signs. For coach pick-up from Sydney hotels, call AAT Kings on +61 (0)2 9700 0133.
The park is open 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. every day of the year except Christmas . Check the website for schedules of funnel-web milking, reptile show and other daily shows.
Tickets: Adults $24.50, concessions $17.00, children under 15 years $12, family passes for two adults and two children are $64.00.
Facilities include Hard Croc Café, barbecue breakfasts and lunches, gift shop and a children’s playground.
The park offers a number of fully guided tours and safety awareness seminars that let visitors get up close and personal with snakes, spiders and other native Australian creatures.
The Australian Reptile Park, Pacific Highway, Somersby, +61 (0)2 4340 1022, www.reptilepark.com.au