Saving Australian lives since the 1950s

The Australian Reptile Park’s Venom Milking Program

Since the 1950s, the Australian Reptile Park has been the sole suppliers of terrestrial snake venom for the purpose of making antivenom. It is estimated that 300 lives are saved by antivenom in Australia each year and since the program’s inception, over 20,000 Australian lives have been saved by the program. The Australian Reptile Park is currently home to 250 venomous snakes that are a part of the venom program that are milked on a fortnightly basis.

The Venom Milking Process

Focused judgement and great dexterity are needed to obtain snake venom from the venomous species of snakes found in Australia. Keepers at the Australian Reptile Park use two different techniques depending on the species of snake.

For taipans, mulga (king brown snakes) and tiger snakes, keepers position the snake’s fangs to penetrate a latex membrane stretched over a glass beaker. The snake then bites onto the beaker and the venom dropped into the beaker and collected.

For Eastern brown snakes and death adders, a technique called “pipetting” is used. The procedure requires keepers to push a polypropylene pipette onto the snake’s fang with the venom dropping into the pipette.

After drying, the venom crystals are carefully scraped from the beakers and pipettes for weighing and packaging. Trained staff, who work with the venom in its various stages of processing, work extremely carefully with the venom to ensure it is not contaminated.

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How Is Snake Antivenom Made?

Once the venomous snakes have been milked at the Australian Reptile Park and the venom freeze-dried, it is then sent to Seqiris in Melbourne to be made into antivenom.

The process at Seqiris starts with the snake venom being injected into Percheron horses. Over 250 horses take part in the antivenom program, all living the life of luxury. They undergo minimal stress during the inoculation and extraction processes. Inoculation is harmless for the horses and extraction is as simple as donating blood for humans.

The horses are given increasing doses of venom over a period of six-months, until they have built up sufficient antibodies to the venom. Blood is then drawn from the horse with the antibodies extracted from the blood, purified and reduced to a usable form – this becomes antivenom.

This antivenom is used to treat humans suffering from snake envenomation. Antivenom is injected into the human bloodstream, with the antibodies attacking the venom, neutralising its effects. The dose of antivenom given to a patient varies according to the species responsible for the bite and, when it can be ascertained, the amount of venom injected. The age and weight of the victim makes no difference to the dose of antivenom required in the treatment.

Information About Snake Venom

Snake venom is a highly developed form of saliva, injected by the snake into its victim through hollow, modified fangs. The base of a functioning fang, and often the first reserve fang behind it as well, is penetrated by a duct that leads from a large gland behind the eye. These glands, one on either side of the head, are modified salivary glands surrounded by muscle which, when contracted, forces the venom along the venom ducts and down through the fangs, squirting out under pressure as if from a pair of hypodermic needles. Venom may be injected may be injected in one or multiple but however, venom is not always injected as the snake has total control over amount of venom injected.

The venom of each species is unique, consisting of a combination of complex proteins, which act on the prey or bite victim in various ways. In most dangerous Australian species, the most significant action of the venom lies in its effect upon the victim’s nervous system, hindering the operation of muscles and causing paralysis that can lead to death from heart failure. Other components present in the venoms of certain species act to destroy blood cells, to cause blood clots or excessive bleeding, or to destroy tissue.

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