This is Part I of a four-part series on the Discovery Channel show Venom Hunters and the apparent bad behavior of the network, production company, and cast members involved. Stay tuned for more.
“I think the excuse that it’s just TV is bullshit. It’s just TV that hurts the animals, hurts people, and dumbs down science,” Jim Harrison said with quiet anger. It was clear he’s no fan of one of Discovery Channel’s newest reality shows, Venom Hunters. Jim Harrison, the director of the Kentucky Reptile Zoo, has collected venoms for scientific research and antivenom development for decades. He’s one of the most experienced and well-known professionals in the venom business, and he, like many who work with venomous animals for a living, has spoken out on social media against the show.
Jim and I were sitting at a table during one of the breaks on the last full day of Venom Week, joined by several other distinguished members of the venomous reptile community. Carl Barden, director of the Reptile Discovery Center in Florida, sat to my left, his lips slightly pursed as Jim explained his objections. “People are going to go and over-collect, and they have no husbandry skills, so snakes are going to die. And then there are going to be bites, because they don’t know what they’re doing,” Jim said.
“You think it’s going to go that far?” Carl asked, crossing his arms and leaning back in his chair.
“I do,” Jim replied sternly. “They’re already doing it. We’re already getting calls and emails, people trying to sell us venom, trying to sell us snakes.”
Several nodded and voiced their agreement with Jim. Carl frowned. “I really didn’t think much about it.”
Tearing Open Old Wounds
Discovery’s fall from grace was hard to watch. Though the channel began slipping long ago, I was one of many for whom Shark Week 2013’s kick off special, the mockumentary Megalodon: The Monster Shark That Lives, was both heart- and trust-breaking. “You’ve gone from “the world’s #1 nonfiction media company” to peddling lies and faking stories for ratings,” I wrote in my open letter to the company. “I sincerely hope that you take a little time and reflect on what you’ve become.”
At first, they didn’t seem to. The next year and a half was rough. Discovery replied to critiques by doubling down. When Shark Week 2014 rolled around, it included both a reprisal of Megalodon and began with yet another fake documentary (and even those didn’t get the title of the most disingenuous, fear-mongering, faked show to air that year in my book!). And in case the controversy around Shark Week wasn’t bad enough, Discovery aired Eaten Alive that December—a special where a man was supposedly going to get himself swallowed and regurgitated by an anaconda—earning the ire of reptile lovers worldwide. “I’m sure millions of people watched last night and in the end the only message they took out of it was that snakes are man eaters and that Discovery had lied to them about the man being eaten,” wrote snake breeder, YouTube presenter, and herper Brian Barczyk at the time (his YouTube channel has more than 410,000 subscribers). “It’s more than obvious that the TV networks have no interest in these programs anymore and want to flood our airwaves with garbage sensational shows and feed us the line that they are based in conservation.”
Eaten Alive was the last straw, not only for many long-time viewers, but also for some within the company. New president Rich Ross promised that he was going to get rid of the faked footage and gaudy stunts. “I don’t believe you’ll see a person being eaten by a snake during my time here,” he said. And in 2015, his words held; Shark Week returned to its fin-loving roots, earning cautious praise from even its harshest critics. No Mermaids or other obviously faked footage emerged. It’s been a little over a year now under Ross’s rule, and Discovery seems to be honestly trying to right the ship. I was genuinely starting to believe that they wanted to put Megalodon and Eaten Alive far, far behind them. They almost did.
That commitment to real reality programming with scientific and environmental integrity is part of what makes me so disappointed with Venom Hunters. I can’t help but feel like Discovery keeps taking one step forward only to stumble two steps back.
According to Discovery, Venom Hunters follows four brave teams of expert snake catchers on a mission to save lives. “Every year, venomous snakes kill over 100,000 people and hospitalize thousands more. Despite this staggering number, the deadly venom is also used to save lives in the production of anti-venom. There’s a problem though: anti-venom supplies are dwindling every year, making the stakes even higher for brave professionals who harvest this equally deadly and precious substance.”
“From the Florida swamplands and the plains of Oklahoma, to the Australian outback and Arizona desert, the fearless venom experts will put their lives on the line to track, catch and harvest the venom from these deadly reptiles. The demand for venom is at an all-time high as it is now being used to not only create anti-venom, but also as a key part of cutting-edge medical research that aims to treat diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and even cancer.”
Though the summary doesn’t exactly say that they’re all professional venom producers, it implies that, as Channel Guide Magazine wrote, “the series follows an extremely rare and colorful group of hunters who make a living hunting venomous snakes, extracting the venom for various labs around the world, where it is used for medical research from cancer to blindness to making anti-venom to save lives.” (emphasis mine)
But lacking from Discovery’s summary and biographies of the cast is the reality that the stars’ claims to the profession are somewhat thin. Dan Massey (who is teamed up with his wife, Melanie), for example, does have legit scientific experience studying venoms and the pair “are fully equipped with materials to milk scorpions,” but they aren’t among the handful or so large U.S. venom producers used by antivenom manufacturers. The show’s bio for Tim Fitzer claims that “multiple venom labs have approached Tim about buying his venom,” but also notes that he didn’t have the right equipment and wasn’t in the business before the show. Perhaps the only one known to the professional venom community as a collector (of snakes, not venom) is Ed Chapman.
The last team leader, Brian Barczyk—who was so critical of Eaten Alive—spoke of his experiences, and made it clear that the producers didn’t really care about using professional venom experts. “I told them: I do not have a venom lab. I do not sell venom. This is not my job,” he stated in a recent podcast. While Brian has lots of snake experience from breeding and selling snakes, he said he only began collecting venoms “because of the show.” “I’ve never claimed to be a venomous expert. I’ve never claimed that, ever; the show doesn’t claim that, nor will I.” He also noted that every other team applied to be on the show, while he was the only one that the show’s production company, Authentic Entertainment, successfully approached.
The real venom hunters—the close-knit community of people who spend their days collecting venom for antivenom production and scientific research—are noticeably absent. So I sat down with those people at Venom Week, the official meeting of venom professionals put on by the North American Society of Toxinology, to find out why they weren’t involved. A surprising number of them had the same explanation: they were approached for the show, but ultimately declined.
Carl Barden (the director of Reptile Discovery Center and Medtoxin Venom Laboratories) was contacted early on by the show’s producers. “We always say to those companies ‘We’re happy to do an episode. Come to the lab, watch a venom extraction’ with the hopes of making it an accurate portrayal,” Carl told me. But the producers described a show that didn’t match their daily experiences. “We never expected it to be an adequate representation of what we do, which is why we didn’t do it.”
More no’s came from Al Coritz (of Deadly Beautiful Zoological, LLC), Bryan Fry (Associate Professor with the University of Queensland), Rob Clark (Venitox Laboratories; “I told them ‘That’s not how the venom industry operates,’ and that I wasn’t their guy. I’m glad I didn’t get involved.”), and Nathaniel Frank (MicrurusToxins). The producers also received rejections from Jim Harrison and his KRZ business partner/wife Kristen Wiley—multiple rejections, in fact, as they kept trying to convince the duo over and over again. The show’s casting staff almost got Jeffrey Fobb, a captain with Miami-Dade Fire Rescue’s life-saving Venom Response Program, to be a part of the show, but some shady questions during the interview process made him reconsider. And the list goes on.
Why did the show’s producers have such trouble finding stars? All of the professionals I spoke to said that despite bearing the name Authentic Entertainment, the show’s producers weren’t interested in the realities of the job. Venom Hunters aimed to capture non-stop action with their season-long stars hunting down wild snakes, rather than the daily, controlled extractions from captive animals performed by professional venom producers. Jim and Kristen at the Kentucky Reptile Zoo, for example, run the largest venom laboratory in the USA and have 40 years of experience. They don’t spend their days looking for snakes to catch, milk, and release; they have 2,000 or so of them that they keep and breed. Those animals are milked regularly, and the zoo staff will often perform hundreds of extractions in a row over a matter of hours. When they heard what the production company was going for, they told Authentic that they were off track. “We told them that this show was not how the venom business works and turned them down unless they were willing to do the show right,” said Jim Harrison.
When a producer contacted Ray Morgan, director of the documentary The Venom Interviews, he flat-out told them their “whole premise isn’t real,” spending over an hour explaining the show’s flawed foundation. He described the conversation he had as “oddly interesting,” especially “her utter lack of concern over the veracity of their premise. Couldn’t care less.”
“The truth of what we do is that it’s very repetitive,” Carl explained. “It’s not very fun to watch.” The show he was approached with—and the show that ran—was not what he does. But he doesn’t really hold that against the show’s stars or producers. “I don’t know what people were expecting. It’s just silly TV,” he said. “I didn’t expect it to have anything to do with my business.”
The “boring” truth is that real venom producers run facilities packed with captive snakes that they milk regularly. And that’s not the only thing the show got wrong. Venom Hunters also makes claims that antivenom shortages are from a lack of venom production, making every drop collected “liquid gold” (that’s literally the title of the first episode). But while antivenoms for some hard-hit areas are becoming scarce, the dearth of these life-saving medicines has nothing to do with the supply of venom (and everything to do with company cost/benefit ratios and pharmaceutical regulatory snafus—after all, the cost of producing antivenoms, from venom purchase to animal husbandry, only makes up 0.1% of the total cost of antivenoms). The venoms needed to produce antivenoms are abundant—just ask Jim about the kilograms of unsold stocks he has sitting in his freezers. He can’t charge much for the majority of venoms, as the demand for them is too low. Most species sell for less than $300 per gram—meanwhile, on Venom Hunters, the teams collected mere tenths of grams at a time, if they didn’t mess up the milking (Tim’s team made several mistakes, including a large snake overshooting the jar and spilling venom all over his team member’s hand, for example). That means that in terms of venom sales, the teams would have pulled in maybe $50 for a full day’s work done by two to three people, assuming they could sell the venom they collected.
It’s no wonder, then, that venom production is anything but a lucrative job prospect. “Am I getting rich producing venom? No!” laughed Carl. “I wish I was. I like Ferraris.” And although Jim Harrison sells venom through the Kentucky Reptile Zoo, that money is used to keep his facilities afloat, not line his pockets. As he explained to Business Insider, he doesn’t even take a salary.
It’s been a great weekend with plenty of Western Diamondback Rattlesnake extractions! pic.twitter.com/dwUjeqer1O
— Kentucky Reptile Zoo (@kyreptilezoo) March 20, 2016
Even venom hunter Brian Barczyk told me: “No one is getting rich from selling venom. Quite frankly, for me, personally, that was never the whole purpose of anything. I had other businesses going. Certainly, I wasn’t quitting my day job to sell venom.”
Barczyk’s own testimony is in direct conflict with how Discovery portrayed (and continues to portray) him:
Built upon such a shaky foundation, it’s no wonder that Venom Hunters doesn’t perfectly depict the everyday lives of venom producers. But the show not only is inaccurate, in trying to sell the premise, Discovery descends from hyperbole and misdirection to outright fabrication. In Part II of this series, I’ll reveal the less-than-factual “facts” the show used to convince viewers of a premise they knew wasn’t true.