We talk a lot around these parts about the versatility (or lack thereof) of a law degree. Does a J.D. help you grab non-law related jobs? Maybe, maybe not.

But for certain brave — or maybe just kooky — individuals, there are jobs for which a J.D. is really neither here nor there. Think truck driver, sommelier, or a guy who lives in the woods and extracts venom from poisonous rattlesnakes for a living. You might have to sacrifice the corner office, but you make up for it with the thrill of dangerous living. The pay ain’t so bad either…

Let’s meet Ken Darnell, a 67-year-old former patent attorney, who now extracts valuable rattlesnake venom for a living. As a tipster put it: he is “pure badass.”

Darnell lives in the woods outside Gordon, Alabama, where he “milks” Eastern diamondbacks, the largest rattlesnakes in the world. In the August issue of Men’s Journal, reporter Charles Bethea extensively profiles (PDF) Darnell:

Darnell unlatched a plastic bin and removed the lid, momentarily wielding it as a shield. He lifted out a beautiful olive-colored, eight-pound snake, using a jury-rigged golf putter with a C-shaped steel addition on the end. Standing back, he placed the snake on a foam pad. After a tense moment — the rattlesnake was free, the porch small — he pinned it behind the head with the hook, grabbed the head with his left hand, and positioned the body under his right arm. The snake’s fangs fit over the side of a film-covered funnel, which it bit, releasing venom with a hiss. The funnel ran into a centrifuge tube on ice. Darnell’s meaty thumb and middle finger depressed the two glands near the snake’s jaw joint to get out all the milk. It was the venom that Darnell was after. It’s worth a fortune, if you’re willing to extract it.

“I love that sound,” Darnell said of the hissing.

What a boring life Darnell must lead. Why the hell would you give up IP law — where you get to answer questions like which one of these phones is not like too much like the other? — to mess around with dangerous snakes all day instead?

No, but seriously, Darnell is crazy awesome. It’s worth looking through the whole article to learn more about this fascinating man (and read more of his wonderfully curmudgeonly soundbites), as well as the process of dealing with rattlesnakes in that part of the country:

Darnell says he’s milked some 300,000 rattlesnakes since he got into the business 35 years ago, probably more than anyone else alive or dead — death being where this work will usher you. He has milked up to 1,000 snakes in a single day. That day on the porch, he did 120.

“It’s like anything else,” he says of his work with venomous snakes, “except the means of production can kill you.”

The venom is apparently a “critical ingredient” in medications that help prevent strokes and treat conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure, among others. It’s also extremely lucrative: the venom is worth $225 per gram.

Unfortunately, many people in the profession wind up dead, or at least missing fingers. Bill Haast, one of Darnell’s main competitors, passed away last year at 100 years old, but he wasn’t even able to pick up snakes at the end of his life because his hands were so disfigured from being bitten 173 times. Over the course of his career, Darnell has only been bitten once.

Like a boss.

It just goes to show, when you need to pay off your student debt, there’s more than one way to skin a cat snake.

The Venom King [Men's Journal]


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