“For nearly 30 years, reptile enthusiast and punk musician Steve Ludwin has been injecting snake venom—a practice that almost killed him.”
Steve was only 10 years old when his strange obsession with reptilians first took hold. He was on a visit with his dad to Bill Haast’s Serpentarium in Florida. “Bill Haast* came out and draped an indigo snake around my neck. I was aware that he had been injecting himself with snake venom and I just thought it was the wildest thing I had ever heard.”
A decade or so later and Ludwin was heading up the American band “Carrie”, part of the early ’90s grunge scene (he claims to have dated Courtney Love before her relationship with Kurt Cobain). Between tours he began gargling snake venom, a preventative against throat infections – the singer’s curse. And it worked.
Nowadays Steve shares his London flat with 18 snakes, a number of rare lizards, a cat – oh yes, and his presumably very understanding girlfriend. While a journalist watches, Ludwin extracts the venom from a green Pope’s tree viper by making it bite down on a film-covered glass. He then takes a syringe and injects the fluid into his arm.
The first time Ludwin injected himself with snake venom, he described it as feeling like, “battery acid”. His heart started to race uncontrollably and his arm swelled up and turned a strange shade of green.
“It’s extreme pain”
This is very much a case of ‘Do not try this at home dear readers’. “It’s a very very dangerous thing to do, I don’t encourage people to do it”, he told AFP. Steve has found himself in hospital more than once, including a 3-day stay in ICU “following an overdose” – a cocktail of 3 different snake venoms. The doctors told him he would probably die. After 3 days and still swollen he discharged himself, and a week later was fully recovered. This is one seriously tough guy!
For Steve, a wide variety is definitely the spice of life. He has given himself doses of venom from the most dangerous snakes to be found around the world, including cobras and the black mamba.
So far, it’s not sounding fun. So why has Ludwin put himself through this for the best part of his adult life? It’s definitely not for the trip: “The sensation of injecting snake venom is not pleasant at all…it’s not like a Jim Morrison trip. You don’t trip—it’s extreme pain.”
Bizarre as this activity seems, there’s a long history of people like Steve deliberately exposing themselves to poisons. All with the same intention – building up immunity to the substance. Cruel King Mithridates (120-63 BC) was so paranoid about being assassinated by poisoning, he fed poisons to ducks, and drank the blood of those who survived. So there is actually a name for Ludwin’s strange habit – it’s called mithridatism. Happily in his case, without the intermediary ducks.
Steve is enthusiastic about the benefits of his strange habit. For one thing, he reckons the fact that he hasn’t had a cold in 15 years is proof of how much it has boosted his immune system against infections. (Hmm, which would I prefer, I wonder, a sniffle or a poisonous snake bite?) And, he says, for 6-8 hours after injecting he gets a huge energy boost.
He also claims it slows the ageing process. He’s taken to adding venom to a moisturiser for his own anti-ageing cream. His girlfriend uses it, gets lots of compliments and swears by it. Maybe it’s true, because Ludwin at 51 years certainly looks a lot more like 30. John Lewis must believe it. They sell their own ‘anti-ageing’ snake oil – a mere £70 for 30ml. Or perhaps they simply have no scruples about creaming off surplus cash from the credulous rich?
Snake oil has a long history. But in America’s Wild West for instance, the peddler of ‘snake oil’ (made of camphor and turpentine, and remarkable only for the absence in it of anything remotely snake-related) assured gullible townsfolk of its potency to cure all ills. Then scarpered with the ill-gotten proceeds before he was found out. That’s how snake oil became synonymous with quackery.
But what Steve Ludwin has flowing around his veins and arteries is the real deal. And this is where the animals – other than the snakes** of course – come into it. For the last 3 years, Steve has been helping Danish scientists and a startup company VenomAb with a view to creating a new venom antidote from his self-immunised blood.
The normal method of creating anti-snake venom serum (ASVS) involves injecting dilute venom into an animal, usually a horse, and 8-10 weeks later ‘harvesting’ his/her blood. Of course, for every different species of snake, a separate antidote has to be extracted from animals. And the lengthy and expensive process has to be repeated over and over to maintain a supply.
One would hope Vahini’s story (below) is not typical. Even so, what goes on behind closed doors is so often found to fall disturbingly short of best practice.
“Vahini couldn’t tell them she was pregnant when they injected potent snake venom into her. Barely a month later, the mare gave birth to a young one with a suspected limb disorder. Soon after the delivery, Vahini went blind in the right eye and her left eye was partially damaged.
“At least 60 other horses have died at the state-run King Institute in Chennai in the past seven months due to improper treatment during the manufacture of anti-snake venom serum.
“Most of the animals at the Institute are ailing – horses and mules housed there for experiments and production of serum. It seems that ‘good clinical practices’ and ‘ethical conduct’ are unknown phrases at King Institute. ‘The potency of the venom, the frequency of shots and duration of bleeding are all beyond the permitted limits,’ says an insider.” India Today
Around 5.4 million people across the world get bitten by snakes every year, and roughly 100,000 of them die. Effective treatment relies not only on identifying which snake did the biting, but on the availability, and affordability, of the correct serum. Typical cost in hospital around £2000, but can be as much as £11,700.
The ASVS collected from Ludwin will be unique. No other serum in the world will contain antibodies to such a wide-ranging variety of different snake poisons. Who knows how many animals he will liberate from the cruel ASVS harvesting process.
VenomAb expects the research to be completed a year from now. Their intention, with the support of governments or NGOs, is to distribute the new all-purpose anti-venom in the countries where it is needed, free of charge.
Many human lives will be saved. And so hopefully will many nonhumans’.
In Steve Ludwin’s words:
“If I’m the person that makes it so that those horses get put out to pasture, I will die with the biggest f—— smile on my face.”
If you’re in London in the next 6 months, you can see a short film about Steve at the Natural History Museum’s newly opened exhibition Venom: Killer & Cure
It features some of the 200,000 venomous creatures in the world. And it seems Ludwin has an almost equally foolhardy comrade-in-venom: For exhibition purposes, Justin O Schmidt allowed himself to be bitten or stung by more than 80 different species of ‘Nature’s nastiest’, “to establish a scale of pain.” What can I say?
*Bill Haast incidentally, who ‘milked’ the venom from 100 snakes a day, lived to the ripe old age of 100, having survived 172 bites from some of the world’s deadliest snakes. He flew around the world donating his blood for direct transfusion to bite victims, in this way saving 21 lives.
**Whether Ludwin should be keeping snakes captive and ‘milking’ them for their venom is another matter. But snakes are already kept captive for the production of ASVS. And since he has been doing this for 30 years or more anyway, isn’t it a good thing that he chooses to use himself – not horses and mules forced to have their bodies turned into ASVS factories?
To see photos of Ludwin and his snakes, click on one of the first two sources below
February 5th 2018 Big strides in the push for affordable, effective antivenoms Among other things, this article actually shows how using horses to produce antivenom is not a reliable method. Ludwin’s contribution to medicine is so much more valuable.
8th January 2020 Indian cobra genome sequenced in search for new synthetic antivenom
Snake man’s venom habit holds hope for new antidote by Pauline Froissart