Lies, Damned Lies, and Venom Hunter Contracts: Reality Bites Part II

By Christie Wilcox | June 22, 2016 8:00 am

This is Part II 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. In Part I, I revealed how the show failed to get actual venom producers as stars due to their commitment to an inaccurate premise. Now I examine what seems to be flagrant falsification, something Discovery promised they weren’t going to do anymore.

Perhaps in part to reinforce the idea that the cast members were professionals who collect venom as their “day job,” in every episode of Venom Hunters, the audience is told that the hunters are out to “fill an order” or a “contract” for the venom from a certain number of snakes (or the snakes themselves, for one team). For example, we are first introduced to Ed Chapman and Justin Bottrell in Dead Lakes, Florida, where Ed tells the camera: “I got a call from one of the labs that they need three cottonmouths. I don’t like collecting cottonmouths; they’re feisty, they’re aggressive, and if you’re in the water and they go down, you don’t know where they’re at. But the lab needs these snakes for antivenom. Ultimately, if the end result can be saving a life, we’re gonna give it our best shot.”

Screen shots of the show's claims for how the venom collected could save thousands of lives—except that none of it went to producing antivenom.

Screen shots of the show’s claims for how the venom collected could save thousands of lives—except that it’s likely none of it went to producing antivenom.

In each episode, once the snakes are caught, we get a quick reminder of the numbers: how much venom the snake(s) produced, how many doses of antivenom that amount makes, and how many lives will be supposedly saved. But to those who work in the venom industry, the idea that the teams were fulfilling orders for the venoms from three individuals of local, abundant species, especially if the venom was “for antivenom,” is simply ludicrous.

First off, it’s disingenuous at best for the show to imply that any of the venom collected by the venom hunters is being used to prevent those 100,000 snakebite deaths per year (which the show took every opportunity to mention). Antivenoms are made by tapping into to a key component of the adaptive mammalian immune system: antibodies. The quick and dirty overview of antivenom production: first, venom is injected into an animal. That animal’s immune system then targets the venom toxins, producing antibodies which bind them up and halt their deadly activities. Scientists then extract blood from the animal, and separate out those antibodies from the rest so that when a person is bit by that same species, doctors will have antibodies on hand to bind up some of the venom in the victim’s blood, helping shut down the toxins before they cause lethal damage. There are some variations on how this all is done, but the key point is that an antivenom will only bind venom toxins that are identical or very similar to those in the venom used in its production. Different species’ venoms contain different mixtures of toxic components, so if you’re bit, you need antivenom which was either produced using venom from what bit you, or has been tested and shown to cross react with that species’ venom (which usually only occurs between species that are somewhat closely related evolutionarily). If you’re bitten by a black mamba, and you get rattlesnake antivenom, it won’t help you fight the toxins.

Which brings us back to the global death toll. Snakebite is a serious and often neglected tropical disease, but it’s not a problem in the U.S. or Australia where Venom Hunters was shot. Less than a dozen people per year die from snakebite in the two countries combined. So ramping up antivenom production for cottonmouths or copperheads won’t do squat to cut down that 100K figure. And venoms from native U.S. and Australian snakes aren’t used to produce antivenoms for snakes found in places like Africa or India, where the vast majority of the deaths occur. To even imply, then, that the venom collected from a few handfuls of U.S. rattlesnakes is somehow aiding with the global burden of snakebite is abhorrent and indefensible, and it insults the hardworking doctors and scientists around the globe who have dedicated themselves to solving this very real and devastating public health crisis.

But more to the point, there isn’t an antivenom manufacturer on the planet that places orders for venom from a handful or less wild-caught snakes to make their product—and that includes the only producer of FDA-approved antivenom for all the North American species targeted on the show.

Just before this image flashes, the announcer claims that "deadly bites are at an all-time high, while supplies of antivenom are at an all-time low."

A screen cap from the opening sequence of Venom Hunters, where it’s claimed that there’s a worldwide shortage of antivenom. But theres’s no shortage of CroFab®, which is the only antivenom approved for the nine North American snakes targeted by the Venom Hunters.

Over the show’s six episodes, nine species of North American pit vipers were collected by the various teams: western diamondback rattlesnakes, eastern diamondback rattlesnakes, cottonmouths, copperheads, timber rattlesnakes, black rattlesnakes, blacktail rattlesnakes, pygmy rattlesnakes and southern California rattlesnakes. In several cases, the hunters claimed to be collecting for research, but frequently, they explicitly said they were collecting “to produce antivenom.” Yet that is impossible, as the only FDA approved antivenom for North American pit viper species is CroFab®, made by BTG plc (which is even shown in the opening sequence for each episode), and they have explicitly stated that they do not use venom from wild-caught snakes. “BTG plc produces all of the venom for the manufacture of CroFab® from long-term captive snake colonies,” explained a BTG representative in an official statement regarding the show. “We would not use venom collected as depicted by the Venom Hunters programme in our production process.”

Official Statement from a BTG plc Representative Regarding the Use of Wild-Caught Snakes

CroFab® is the only commercially available antivenin indicated for the management of patients envenomated by the North American crotalid family of snakes, which includes rattlesnakes, copperheads and cottonmouths/water moccasins. CroFab® has treated over 40,000 patients in the past 10 years.

As an FDA-approved pharmaceutical, the entire supply chain – including the collection, testing, and certification of venom – is very carefully controlled to assure the quality, efficacy and safety profile of the finished product, and to satisfy robust regulatory oversight.

BTG plc produces all of the venom for the manufacture of CroFab® from long-term captive snake colonies. Our product combines monospecific antivenoms created from four species of crotalid snakes found in North America. Two of these snake species are kept in a secure facility we operate in Utah, while another two species are kept by a trusted supplier.

Our policies absolutely prohibit collection of venom in the wild or from specimens that are caught and released. We would not use venom collected as depicted by the Venom Hunters programme in our production process.

We do occasionally collect specimens from selected geographic locations to refresh our long term captive colonies.  Such collections are always conducted under State-specific  authorization for scientific collection of specific numbers of a species of snake.  Collections are conducted by a very small number of authorized field agents who are well known to BTG and individually named on our collection permits.  These specimens are quarantined for 6 months or longer and evaluated by a veterinarian before being certified for inclusion in our production process.

BTG does not buy venom or snakes collected by any of the individuals featured on the Venom Hunters programme. Also, we do not use or buy venom acquired by means of snake roundups, gassing or any other method of collection that could be harmful to snakes.

There are no shortages of CroFab® and any hospital can place an order and will rapidly receive product. We would be happy to speak with any medical professional who believes there is a shortage to explain how they can order the product immediately.

I contacted Authentic Entertainment directly and asked them what happened to the venoms collected on the show. They provided me with this official comment:

Regarding the acquisition and distribution of harvested venom and captured reptiles, we’d like to acknowledge that this is a complicated, intricate system involving myriad organizations and bureaucracies, the totality of which would not be easily incorporated into a television series. As we learned in our own research, the venom hunters we profiled in our series do not distribute harvested venom or captured reptiles directly to the large antivenom-producing firms, but rather to (for lack of a better term) “middle men” who evaluate the venom and reptiles and select the specimens to be distributed to those firms at a later time. The organizations with whom we communicated requested they remain anonymous and that we not include their transactions in the series. Out of respect for their clientele and the sensitivity of the relationships they’ve cultivated over many years, it only made sense to us to not explore this step of the antivenin process in the context of the series.

I asked Jim Harrison about these so-called middle men. He said that no such organizations exist; “We never buy venom from other producers, even the legit ones. We will just send the customer to George or Carl if we do not have it.” Jack Facente, the Director of Agritoxins, echoed Jim’s sentiments. “100% of every gram of venom I have ever sold or donated all the way back to Bill Haast in the 60’s came from me and me alone. I have never purchased venom from anyone else ever.” He did note that he will on occasion purchase snakes (“Ed has donated a lot of snakes to my projects”), but never venom. I asked Authentic if they could explain how two of the longest-running venom producers in the U.S. have never heard of these “middle men,” but they did not respond.

Since Authentic did not name the clients or provide documentation of the venom contracts, it’s possible that there were real requests made by labs conducting research, but it’s unlikely. Scientists that study venoms generally fall into one of two categories: those interested in the evolutionary and ecological aspects of venom, and medical researchers. The former don’t generally contract out to get their venom samples—they need to be certain of when, where, and how the venom was collected (and they may have limited funding), so they collect it themselves. The latter might order venom from a venom producer, but in that case, they would not want venom collected by the Venom Hunters.

Medical researchers are particular about who they work with, as Dr. Leslie Boyer, a medical toxinologist and the founding director of the University of Arizona’s VIPER Institute, explains in a blog post intended for would-be venom hunters inspired by the show:

In the past decade, I’ve obtained venom from 8 sources, only one of which had been established for less than ten years. In that time, people at three of those places were bitten – and thank goodness, they had protocols and antivenom on hand. Five of these sources donated the venom to my lab free of charge, in exchange only for collegiality or because of shared interest in a public service. And zero transactions involved Animal Planet or Discovery Channel productions.

Anyone conducting medical research needs high-quality venom collected under sterile conditions—after all, any introduced bacteria or other contaminations could completely ruin the experiment at hand, costing the scientists time and money. And in many cases, they will want to ensure that they can get more of the same product on the off chance something goes wrong and they have to rerun things, or they realize they want to perform follow-up experiments down the line. Why, then, would they order from unproven newbies to venom production collecting in a one-off catch-and-release manner when there are people who have stockpiles of venom and well-established reputations for high-quality products? Why send Brian Barczyk after a few hundred milligrams of king brown venom when the Australian Reptile Park milks its snakes every fortnight, and one of their king browns just produced more than 1.5 grams of venom in a single milking?

Even stars on the show are skeptical that the venoms collected by their fellow cast members were being used in any meaningful way. “Ed and I are on this show and we still wonder what lab or labs [Barczyk] is flying this so called venom he milked in Australia to in the US?” Justin Bottrell wrote in a Facebook comment. “If anyone could enlighten us I would be interested. Not only that but Australia is very protective over everything and to get that permit is highly unlikely.” (I was able to verify that the snakes caught by Ed and Justin were given to a serpentarium in Florida when I spoke with the owner.)

“Oh and to add note,” he continued in a reply, “When we asked him what labs he was dealing with he couldn’t answer. Lmao what a joke.” (Barczyk responded similarly to me; all he said where that they “were working with labs that facilitated everything.”)

The only sensible conclusion is that the “contracts” were an entirely contrived plot device—in other words, they were faked. The venom audiences saw milked probably didn’t go to saving lives—more likely than not, it went down a drain.

And the so-called contracts weren’t the only potentially fake part of the show, according to venom experts. For example: all the scenes shot in Australia were done so in winter, when the snakes depicted would be impossible to find, according to Aussie venom scientist Bryan Fry. The odds of finding any of the snakes shown in Australia in a short trip in July and August (the dry season in the dead of winter) is next to nothing (Barczyk’s team was in Australia for less than a month of filming, according to emails I obtained from one of the show’s producers). It just doesn’t make biological sense that any of the snakes filmed on the show were out and about for the hunters to spot. Fry is certain that the snakes depicted came from captive facilities and were transported to the show’s locations for the live ‘capture’ shots.

I asked Brian Barczyk point blank whether the scenes were staged, and he dodged the question. “TV is always going to be TV. Sometimes things aren’t exactly what you see. That is how TV is made,” he said. When I pressed the issue on whether captive animals were used, he simply said: “I can tell you this much, it wasn’t some big, fake setup. Absolutely not. We were out on the bush. We were looking for snakes. We caught snakes. It’s not like we were outside the hotel lobby in the back yard catching stuff.”

Or, for another example: In episode 04, the camera follows along as Dan and Melanie Massey deliver venom from an Arizona black rattlesnake to Keith Boesen at the University of Arizona Poison Center. “The lab wants the venom for research,” Dan’s voice-over claims, and Boesen praises the pair by saying “the work they do for us helps further our research and our understanding of rattlesnakes, rattlesnake venom, and how to take care of patients.” But Leslie Boyer (whose venom research institute is at the University of Arizona) thought that was odd.  “The poison center is a phone hotline in the UA College of Pharmacy, not a lab, so I am not sure what that was all about,” she told me.

Arizona_poison_center_shot

Many details like these just don’t add up. So when I reached out to Authentic Entertainment, I made sure to ask them about these inconsistencies which suggest that scenes and storylines were faked. They replied to other inquiries (such as where the venom supposedly went), but did not answer my questions about staging.

I can understand why Authentic may have fudged the truth with their scripts—after all, collecting venom just to collect it would be far less interesting than collecting it to “save lives.” And given that the permits required to work with wild, native venomous snakes in Australia are a burden to obtain and can take months of processing, it wouldn’t be surprising if the production team went with a shortcut instead. But even if the research claims were fake or they used captive snakes in Australia, the teams could have broken local laws. In Australia, for example, Fry says there are strict rules related to catch and release, handling, and milking venom—even from captive snakes—so it’s possible that the venom hunters still didn’t follow the rules. Frankly, my investigation into the U.S. side of the show and Authentic’s cavalier response doesn’t inspire much confidence in the show’s commitment to legality. In Part III, I’ll explain how the stars may have broken state and federal laws to create a hyperbolic and fraudulent program.

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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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