As a schoolboy in India, Rom had dreamt of visiting the Miami Serpentarium, a facility run by the legendary snake man, William “Bill” Haast. Finally, in 1963, when he was 20, he stopped by and was promptly offered a job.
This was the first opportunity Rom had to work with many venomous species. The arrival of a new shipment was always cause for excitement. One memorable shipment came from C.J.P. Ionides (called “Iodine” by locals), a famous African herpetologist in Tanzania. It was a tin can, like our old kerosene containers, that had been soldered shut on top and lettered with these big, black, formidable words: “Beware Black Mamba.” As soon as the canister was opened, out popped the mamba; it had not been secured in a bag. Rom remembers the feeling of awe as the mamba stood up three feet high and spread a thin hood. Haast tiptoed around it, the snake swivelled as it watched him, emerging little by little. When it was fully out, it measured eight feet in length.
Haast was never one to display any emotion, whatever the circumstance. For instance, on one occasion, he opened a cage and before he could peer in, the resident green mamba shot out and bit him on the thigh. Two little dots of red quickly appeared on his white slacks. But he remained calm, caught the snake, extracted venom and put it away in its box. There was no sense of panic or urgency although internally, he may have been cursing himself. To Rom, the delay in getting to the hospital, which had been alerted of a possible emergency, was agonising. Haast waited for symptoms to become manifest, but it was a dry bite (no venom had been injected) and so he continued with the work on hand.
For decades, Haast has been immunising himself to elapid (like cobras, kraits and coral snakes) venom by regularly injecting into himself a very dilute cocktail of venoms. The process is called mithridatisation, after King Mithridates VI of ancient Turkey, who was apparently the first to try it.
In 1965, when a South American kid was bitten by a coral snake for which there was no antivenom serum, the U.S Government mounted a dramatic goodwill rescue effort. Traffic outside the Serpentarium was blocked to land a chopper to take Haast to the Homestead Air Force Base. A waiting jet fighter then flew him to Venezuela, where the boy was battling death. Since Haast's blood was compatible, they gave a direct blood transfusion and, it is said, saved the victim's life. This was one of the 21 snakebite victims he reportedly saved with his ‘antivenom-blood'.
Rom worked for Haast for two years before being drafted into the army during the Vietnam War.
In the mid-1990s, we visited Bill Haast and his wife Nancy at their farm in Florida. His hands were deformed from numerous snakebites, and I watched nervously as he pinned delicate little coral snakes by the neck to extract their venom. Otherwise the 87-year-old was enviously agile, leaping over the five-foot-high wall around his eastern diamondback enclosure. Rom and Nancy reminisced about the old days, especially the time he took her snake hunting without Bill's knowledge and had to pay hell on their return. Neither of them heard Bill mutter good-humouredly, “I remember that.”
Arguably the most snake-bitten man in the world, Bill was 100 when he died 10 days ago.
“Bill was the second major influence in my life, next to my mother,” Rom said that day, blinking furiously. I was startled; never in our years together had I suspected that he could have been such an important figure in Rom's life. “He was always meticulous, taciturn, not given to hyperbole or flamboyance. The most important thing was to get the job done. Always. I absorbed a lot of that. Maybe not to the same degree….,” his voice trailed.