Thanks to the tireless efforts from a dedicated venom extraction team at the Australian Reptile Park, Australia has avoided many potential fatalities for snake and funnel-web spider bite victims over the last 70 years.
Since the 1950s, the Australian Reptile Park has been the sole suppliers of terrestrial snake venom for the purpose of making antivenom. This process is not for the faint of heart and requires staff to risk their lives daily to handle some of Australia’s most toxic snakes. The Park currently houses over 250 venomous snakes that are milked on a fortnightly rotation and treated with the utmost care.
Since the first antivenom was developed for taipan bites in 1951, the Australian Reptile Park has continued its close relationship with Seqirus (formally known as BioCSL/Commonwealth Serum Laboratories) to develop vital antivenoms for some of the most toxic snakes on the planet.
The Australian Reptile Park’s venom program extracts venom from five groups of Australia’s deadliest snakes including taipans, brown snakes, tiger snakes, death adders and black snakes. Every year, there are 3,000 reported snake bites in Australia, with over 300 receiving antivenom and having their lives saved by the program.
The snake venom milking process begins by encouraging the snake to bite on plastic pulled over a beaker to the same tension of human skin to inject their venom. A deliberate, steadfast hand, as well as intrinsic knowledge of each individual snake’s behaviour, is needed for a smooth extraction. Next, every drop of this precious venom is transferred into a centrifuge and freeze dried. Once in this form, the venom is ready to send to Seqirus in Melbourne, where it is turned into lifesaving antivenom.
The process at Seqirus starts with the snake venom being injected into Percheron horses. Over 250 horses take part in the antivenom program, all living the life of luxury. They undergo minimal stress during the inoculation and extraction processes. Inoculation is harmless for the horses and extraction is as simple as donating blood for humans.
The horses are given increasing doses of venom over a period of six-months, until they have built up sufficient antibodies to the venom. Blood is then drawn from the horse with the antibodies extracted from the blood, purified, and reduced to a usable form – this becomes antivenom.
This antivenom is used to treat humans suffering from snake envenomation. Antivenom is injected into the human bloodstream, with the antibodies attacking the venom, neutralising its effects. The dose of antivenom given to a patient varies according to the species responsible for the bite and, when it can be ascertained, the amount of venom injected. The age and weight of the victim makes no difference to the dose of antivenom required in the treatment.
Since the introduction of the venom program in the 50s, it’s estimated that a staggering 25,000 lives have been saved due to this antivenom being administered in cases of snake envenomation in Australians.
Zac Bower, Venom Supervisor says, “It’s no doubt we all feel so special about being a part of this life saving program. It’s an incredible feeling seeing guests come in or message us online and let us know we saved theirs or their child’s life. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
Zac continued, “It’s hard work and keeps your heart racing, but it makes it all worthwhile knowing what milking snakes and funnel-web spiders does for Australians. Even if they come here and see the work and learn about the first aid procedures, it’s all little things that can ultimately save yours or your next-door neighbour’s life!”
Visit the Australian Reptile Park in Somersby, just 10 minutes from Gosford. Our helpful keepers will be happy to tell you more about the fascinating funnel-web spider and our lifesaving venom program.
Australian Reptile Park, Pacific Highway, Somersby Ph: 02 4340 1022