The premiere last week of Discovery Channel’s new Venom Hunters (airing Wednesdays at 10pmET) left us with all sorts of questions. We reached out to one of the show’s hunters/experts Brian Barczyk (he owns over 30,000 snakes), to get his insights on the dangers of his profession, his partner Chewy, his “bucket list” snake, how much snake venom is worth (but don’t do it) and so much more. Can you tell we’re just slightly fascinated with the show?!?
Let’s talk a bit about your protégé in training, Chewy, on Venom Hunters. Honestly, I watched the first episode and I thought he’d probably be the last guy I’d pick to be my wingman (sorry Chewy) – especially when it came to bagging those snakes.
Brian Barczyk: I tell you, I definitely thought about that period when we were in Australia in the Red Desert that I’d made a mistake. I thought to myself, “What in the world was I thinking, having this guy with me?” The truth is that he learns tremendously well as the series goes on. I couldn’t be more proud of the amazing advancements he did as we taught him how to handle these snakes and to be my wingman.
The one thing I know about Chewy, and I’ve known him for many, many years — he’s loyal to a fault and I knew that it would be a great time to have him there. Did I think he was going to be quite as freaked as he was? No. I didn’t expect that. But as you’ll see going on, he gets himself together and he redeems himself pretty well at the end.
The whole milking process (for the venom) is so fascinating. Is it really that casual? I don’t mean to downplay it, but it just came across as — “here’s a jar I had on hand so let’s do this.” Are there specific vials or sterile types of tools you need to be using, or doesn’t it matter that much?
It depends on what you’re collecting them for. In a lot of cases, if you’re just collecting venom for protein, for say – antivenin, it doesn’t probably have to be nearly as sterile. As long as the proteins don’t degrade between the times that you milk the snake and actually process it. Now if you’re doing for specific research you have to be much more scientific than what you saw in the show. We milk in a lab, it may not have been the most professional lab in the world [referring to episode one], but certainly it was a lab. I know some of the other teams you will see throughout the series [Team Tim] are doing the lab work. I don’t think there is as much in the field milking as maybe you think there will be.
You chose Australia to start your hunt, do we see you go other places or are the episodes all pretty much based on your travels there?
This season — hopefully there will be more in the future — was based in Australia. All across Australia. We had 19 plane rides and a lot of time on the road. We canvased the entire area from West Coast to the Red Center, all the way to the East Coast and down to New South Wales. So if there was a snake to be found that we needed we hit the area that they were the best to find. Certainly, and god willing, we will be traveling to many other places. Trust me there are amazing snakes all over the planet.
How do you know where the snakes are that you actually need? Do you have a team of people helping you?
I’m very blessed to have friends all over the world that hunt snakes because we’re all crazy. I certainly reach out to the people I know and said: “I want to find this species, what is my best chance and the right locations that I could go and have the best chance of success.” Because it’s a big country, if you’re just looking for snakes out in the middle of no where, chances are you may not find what you’re looking for. You may find something you don’t want to find.
Do you have the dream catch, the snake that everybody prides as the top trophy, what are those ones for you?
Yes, for me there’s no doubt King Cobras top the list. … I want to see one in the wild one day. That’s the bucket list.
Why that snake?
Well it’s the king of snakes. It’s the largest diamond snake in the world. Its extremely intelligent, unbelievably toxic. That’s the pinnacle … That’s the super-bowl … That’s the masters … That’s the world series for a reptile guy.
What do you think, why haven’t you got one so far?
I just haven’t looked. The thing that’s amazing about King Cobras is that the newest research is there is actually a pain medicine that’s coming out that’s derivative from King Cobra venom. It is up to 10 times more potent then morphine with no side effects and no addiction. To me there are so many layers of why I want to do King Cobras. Certainly that medical breakthrough is something that is really going to help people’s lives.
Sounds like its time to buy stock in the King Cobras!
I tell you what we will go together, you come with me, we’ll go get them.
[Oh no. I’m totally out on that.]
After handling so many snakes, is it true you have never been bitten by a venomous snake, but you have been bitten by other snakes?
Yes, listen, I’ve always said this, there is no badge of honor for getting bitten by a venomous snake. Me, I want to be the opposite. I want to be the guy who is 65 years old, like Ed Chapman, that has that wealth of knowledge and says, “I’ve never been bit.” That to me tells me that you’re an expert. That’s not to say that I’m not going to get bit but certainly to me I love the guys that have 40 years of experience and never been bit. That means that they really know what they’re doing. The truth is I get bit because I’m careless. I’m taking care of a lot of snakes. I’m probably cutting corners, not paying as much attention as I should sometimes and getting bit by a non-venomous snake is not a big deal. Trust me, anyone that gets bit by a non-venomous snake thinks “Wow, that was like 10% of what I thought it was going to be. You see it and you go, “Oh my god that looks horrible.” The truth is, it’s no big deal. It doesn’t even phase me.
What does it feel like? It looks horrible.
Number one it looks worse then it is because the snakes have an anticoagulant that’s in their saliva that helps them digest their food. [Editor’s note: pictured above is a venomous snake bite from medicforyou] As a matter of fact, venom is just an advanced saliva. It has more advanced proteins in it which causes toxicity. When you get bit by a non-venomous snake it often bleeds more then you would think because of that anticoagulant that goes in. The good news is it also bleeds out all the bacteria. So I’ve never had an infection from a snake bite my entire life. The other thing is, they have about 200 pointy little needles in their mouth. So when they hit you just think if you took 200 needles and you just stuck it in your arm really quick. That’s what it feels like.
I know snakes can be pretty pricey depending on the snake. Are there really snakes that go for six figures?
Yes, I turned down $150,000 for a snake last year that I wanted that I kept. They go for that kind of money.
What kind of snake goes for that?
It was just the rarity. We do what we call, paint jobs on snakes. We’re breeding for a little bit of this color and a little bit of that color. Whatever type of color mutations, and the rarer that mutation, the rarer and more expensive that snake is and the more sought after it is. That particular snake that I turned down for $150,000 happens to be the only Scaleless Ball Python in the world that I produced. So it’s a snake without scales, its just smooth skin. Since then hopefully we will produce more this year. That one animal was so rare, I was offered $150,000 and I said, no, I’ll just keep it.
What is venom worth? I’m sure it varies based on the snake?
Yes it varies on a number of things. Some snakes quite frankly can be pretty inexpensive to milk. Other snakes can be, It depends on the research, depends on the quantity, depends on how its delivered. The truth is that no one is getting rich with venom. We do it because we love it, we believe in it and we would do it for free. I don’t want to ever encourage anyone to go out there and quit there day job to go collecting venom because they’re probably going to fall short.
Is there an example of what King Brown venom is actually worth?
I would like to stay away from the dollar amount numbers because I don’t really want people to ever think that there’s a value in doing this. This is something that a handful of people should be willing to do. I don’t want to ever give the impression that there’s a whole bunch of money. I have friends that do venom for living that have venom labs that do very well but they also put their life in danger every single day of their life. Most of those people have been bit many many times because of a mistake every single day. To me its more about being involved and sure there’s other gains to it but I never want to promote the financial side.
Which speaks to the disclaimers at the beginning of the show. Do not attempt anything you are about to see.
I know it, scared me. I was like oh my gosh what did I get myself into. I think its very important to have that message. Safety was paramount, from the network to the crew, to the cast. Safety was the number one important thing. None of us wanted to be bitten, none of us wanted to be hurt. Everyone needed to be kept safe, but we realized everyday your putting your life one the line. There were times when we were hours away form medical help with animals that could potentially stop your life with in an hour. Don’t go out there unless you’re really a trained professional.
Listen, if they’re willing to put the time in and have a mentor and work their way through then it can be a great life. God bless them, I would encourage anybody but it’s a path, it took almost 30 years of handling snakes before I was confident enough to do the things I do now.
>> Venom Hunters airs on Discovery Channel Wednesdays at 10pmET