Venom Hunters Receives Venomous Backlash: Reality Bites Part I

By Christie Wilcox | June 21, 2016 8:00 am

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.

Venom Hunters begins with a problematic premise, and goes downhill from there.

Venom Hunters begins with a problematic premise, and goes downhill from there.

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.”

Unreality Television

“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.

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:

Clearly, Discovery and Barczyk have different definitions of "day job".

Clearly, Discovery and Barczyk have different definitions of “day job”.

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.

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  • Brian Lee

    I want to say “THANK YOU” to the real scientists for setting the record straight. Thank You Mr. Jeffrey Fobb for not using your “fame” to further this misinformation. As a fellow “educator” in the reptile kingdom I applaud you. Keep teaching the truth, and I vow to do the same. Together the we will create future “truth” teachers through what we do and have a passion for.
    Sincerely,
    Brian

  • Johnny Reb

    I have a question that popped into my head as I read the story here. It might be one that is known or might have never been asked.Here it is.–
    Is the venom collected from different snakes (the same kind, the same sex, from the same parents, born/hatched at the same time) that are otherwise identical, the same?
    I mean on a dna type level, not just chemically
    Yeah, stupid question , but…….

    • Kyle Miller

      There may be minute differences, but not enough to matter.

    • Emmalynn

      The DNA level is chemical, though. So, yes, there is a difference, and that is the venom from a lab or well known source is reproducible. Going out and catching a wild snake doesn’t do anything to help, and will only result in injured snakes or people.

    • wzrd1

      OK, what this really comes down to is a simple question and idea.
      Snake venom, like nearly every venom exists for two purposes, prey immobilization/killing and defense.
      So, from a practical perspective, if the venom works, the snake will survive and possibly, thrive. If it doesn’t work, the snake will be predated upon more easily and worse for the snake, it’ll starve, as it cannot immobilize its prey.
      So, from a practical perspective, does it really matter if there is a nitrogen atom at one part of an enzyme, protein or peptide that is an operative part of a venom component, in favor of oxygen, if the venom is effective? If the venom is effective, not at all, but a difference in the DNA that codes for that venom components could be present via random mutation.

      Overall, that modest difference doesn’t matter when it comes to the efficacy of antivenin, as the antibodies present in antivenin usually aren’t that “precise”, just close enough to work for the range of species present for the particular antivenin being administered (such as CroFab, which covers four primary species of pit viper common in the US, but wouldn’t cover other species, such as coral snakes).

  • Diego Ortiz

    Thank you so much for getting the truth about this show out. I was approached by Authentic Entertainment during the casting phase, too. I am not a biologist, herpetologist, toxinologist, or anything remotely close to being a professional like Jim Harrison or Kristen Wiley. I am simply a hobbyist that enjoys finding the animals in the wild and photographing them. But the casting representative wasn’t having it – they wanted me to play something I am not, which I plainly refused several times over. After almost an hour, she finally gave up on me. I’d actually forgotten all about that experience until I saw the social media backlash leading up the airing of the first episode.

  • crotalus

    I went from a frequent viewer of Discovery and History channels, to a NEVER viewer who diverts his grandchildren from the programs. In the same vein, I usually end up feeling like a sucker after I buy National Geographic and Scientific American. Agenda $$ dictate, and ‘issues’ suffocate truth short of enlightenment. I love science/history/shared insight as paths to wisdom, and GIGO trumps that and fuels amusing, deafening prattle. [Then, we deserve what we elect. Once.]

  • John May

    That 100,000 deaths per year number sounds, um, high.

    • wzrd1

      Nah, globally, it’s about right.
      The problem is, US pit viper antivenin is pretty much worthless anywhere else in the world, as pit vipers in other parts of the world have significant differences in their venom than US pit vipers.
      So, they include in India and Africa, with the large number of deaths, then by implication make it look like the US has been depopulated by snakes. After all, 100k in the US per year, it’d be not quite a decade before everyone in the US died, as of the 320 million of us, a substantial number are children and elderly incapable of caring for themselves.

      • John May

        Yeah, the real 5 deaths a year in the US from snake bites number isn’t very scary. Googling around it looks like world numbers are speculative but range from 20k to 100k. So at least their numbers are not totally made up.

  • JR

    I find it fascinating that there continues to be this fascination with “venom hunters”…venom this and venom that… when the real story that’s never told is the plight of actual snakebite victims…. it really is the world’s most ignored way to die. This is a clip from an upcoming doc that finally tells the story the world needs to know about. Numbers are true based on a variety of studies by those data gathering, advocating for victims and trying to get the WHO and donors to take notice.

    https://vimeo.com/167436988

    • Shalryn

      Animal Planet used to have a show (2002-2005 at least) that documented how people were bitten — in re-enactments — and, in real documentary clips, the search for the snake to identify the type of venom, the treatment of the bite, and the usually long road to recovery. It was fascinating. It was also nothing like Venom Hunters, which is pure swill to the point that it is insulting to the viewer. How very far such documentaries have fallen!

  • David Burns

    I personally don’t like snakes,but I realize they are necessary. I don’t believe they should be kept as pets by folks who are not knowledgeable of the harm they pose to children. Constrictors and venomous snakes are not pets! They can kill a child (even devour them) ! Keeping these dangerous snakes has become a status symbol among some of our younger folks and the results have been disastrous. As for the Discovery Channel (and the History Channel for that matter) They have become ratings driven, not fact driven. The Venom Hunters show is just one of these ratings driven TV shows,(no facts just entertainment) Shark week is another TV show,(no facts just entertainment). You would think that the Great White Shark is the only fish in the sea!? Of course if you swim with seals you might encounter a Great White Shark. All of the other sharks are ignored because Great White Sharks sell. The real bad boys of the sea are the Bull Sharks, they kill and maim more people than all of the other sharks put together each year. They (Bull Sharks) even swim up rivers and streams into fresh water to give birth to their young, OUCH! I find it hard to sympathize with people who get hurt by dangerous animals that they try to make into something they are not, “PETS”. But when such people let their children get hurt by something that is not a pet I get angry. I have two great grand kids and if your pet Python gets out and harms them you will hear from me. Not the cops, there will be no 13 and a half for you (13 & 1/2 stands for 12 jurors, 1 judge, and a half ass chance) You will deal with me personally OUCH INDEED! I don’t call myself Dave Wounded Bear because I’m Native American. I call myself that because I am old and irritable and just as dangerous. If you must have a 13 foot Python (know that it is a danger to humans and a 3 year old child is match for a snake that size). So know your pet and treat it with respect, keep it a cage, be responsible, play by the rules. Do this and keep as many of these things as you want. Do it not, and you will regret it. Come on’ you don’t want to hurt a kid of mine or one that I care about! I could make things difficult for you. That’s all I have to say.

    • wzrd1

      I’ve long held the view that wild animals aren’t pets, they’re wild animals and in the home, they’re captive wild animals.
      Animals that choose to associate with us are animal companions, not pets. The wild ones stay outside, in their environment, the domestic ones stay inside in a domestic environment, all is well in both environments. It’s when one mixes environments and mistakes wild animals for domestic animals that one runs into trouble.
      As for wild snakes (which are the only kind of snake on this planet), I’ve managed to get along with timber rattlers, cotton mouths and copperheads well enough, I leave them alone and give them their space, they reciprocate. It’s worked out well over the past five and a half decades, I have no reason to suspect that it’ll not continue. I also watch where I put my feet, when in their environment or around areas that they prefer to conceal themselves. After all, no need for an interspecies miscommunication that ends up with me bit and them in the stew pot unnecessarily.

      • David Burns

        I agree with you 100% But some of our young folk don’t get it. Here in North Carolina some young Dude got bite by his King Cobra and all most died. He kept his pet snake like a cat, it had the run of his house! This is the sort of thing that makes steam shoot out of my ears. I’m glad this young man lived and I hope he is now spreading the news, that keeping a snake comes with responsibilty

    • Matthew Slyfield

      “As for the Discovery Channel (and the History Channel for that matter) They have become ratings driven, not fact driven.”

      This is inevitable for any add supported network. It doesn’t matter how idealistically they start out. They don’t make their money from the viewers, they make their money from the advertisers and the advertisers want volume and specific demographics.

  • David Burns

    I just watched the video posted by JR. If this does not move you then you are as cold blooded as the reptiles you keep. How much would it cost an American Pharmaceutical Company to make this anti-venom available to the Third World? (your flag decal won’t get you into heaven anymore) nether will your bank account. Snake bite is a treatable tropical disease. Giving guns to those folks cost much more, helping them with this problem would cost very little. “Of course that’s something Christ might do”, can’t see for the dollar signs in your eyes? I am an old arthritic, dyslexic, bipolar, hippy who survived drugs so what do I know? I just give a shit, “Oh Yeah”, I’m crazy too!

    • wzrd1

      The problem is, one needs the venom in order to make antivenin. How many hooded cobras do we have in the US? How many spitting cobras do we have? Black mamba snakes?
      Many nations have pharmaceutical companies, making their own drugs. So, what is needed is funding for antivenin to be locally produced and distributed.
      Problematic in developing nations though is, antivenin requires refrigeration, in areas without electricity. Spoiled antivenin is useless, proteins and peptides break down quickly. So, perhaps a self-contained refrigeration unit that can be locally supplied with a local energy source might be an idea.

      • David Burns

        Dear wzrd1 you would be surprised at just how many of these exotic snakes are here in the U.S. Seems it all got started by the drug dealing crowd having a imported snake is now a status symbol among our young folk. A young woman who use to cut my hair told me she had an albino python, I said what do you do feed it live chickens?(being sarcastic). Her reply shocked me. She said, “oh no”, feeding them live stuff makes them mean. This is typical of the ignorance of the young folks who own these exotic reptiles. I can kill a person with a ball point pin, but just because I can do such a thing doesn’t mean I would do something like that. I am human I can choose not to do something. Snakes act on instinct they are not creatures of choice, they just react. They have no emotions, you should not put human feeling into creatures that have no emotions. This is a big problem and you put it so well treat these wild creatures like what they are, “wild creatures”. Don’t pet them, they don’t like that, get a puppy, or a kitten they kind of like being petted. Pet a rattle snake and their going to do something drastic, usually involving their teeth OUCH!

  • David Burns

    I think this topic needs to expand and a new topic added “Reality Bites the Dust”. Every day we are all bombarded with misconceptions, half truths and out and out lies. These things are presented as facts and it makes steam shoot out of my ears! If somebody tells me a lie at least put some thought into it, if you lie to me make it a good one please!
    I know it is very depressing but from the news papers to the internet we are all being droned in a “sea of lies”. But take heart my fellow truth seekers, “the truth floats”, Become a beachcomber. Take a walk each day along the sea on lies and look for what truth washes up, it’s there you just have to look for it. I am 58 years old and I don’t have time to waste on bullshit. So Fox News just give me the facts and I’ll make up my own mind thank you very much. There isn’t a day goes by that they (the news media) aren’t trying to make me feel something about some news story that they have presented. We are all being manipulated, they (the news media) wants us to feel a certain way about things, so the just embellish the truth until they get the reaction they want, They are literarlly telling us what to feel! REVOLT! “Revolt I say!” think for yourself, if for no other reason just think for yourself, just to piss them off.

  • Sandy Gibbs

    Most reality shows are crap. I know 2 people who were on house hunters and it’s manufactured. Ditto for ones about sweepstakes, They had one lady save a month’s worth of win notices and put them in her mailbox and pretend they all arrived the same day. Another friend was approached about an antiques show , but they wanted him to make up appraisals to keep the show interesting. Storage Wars….I could go on and on. This is cheap to produce programming. Another example of the “Dumbing Down” of America

  • Brian Hackert

    what about genetic diversity and variability?

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About Christie Wilcox

Dr. Christie Wilcox is a science writer based in the greater Seattle area. Her bylines include National Geographic, Popular Science, and Quanta. Her debut book, Venomous, released August 2016 (Scientific American/FSG Books). To learn more about her life and work, check out her webpage or follow her on Twitter, Google+, or Facebook.

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