Miami-Dade County

This was the place for snakes. Remembering the Miami Serpentarium

The Serpentarium was the place for snakes.

Part museum. Part research center. Part theme park.

The attraction on South Dixie Highway was led by snake man Bill Haast from 1946 until it closed in September 1984

Here is a look back at the last days of the Serpentarium in Pinecrest. The site is now home to City Hall and McDonald’s.

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Bill Haast, former head of Miami Serpentarium. Miami Herald File

THE COBRA CRUMBLES

Published Oct. 28, 1984

The crane lifted the 35-foot stucco cobra Saturday. The cheerleaders and marching band of South Miami High, home of the Cobras, screamed and pounded their feet.

Drivers passing the former site of the Miami Serpentarium on South Dixie Highway honked their horns and waved.

The cobra dangled in mid-air for a few seconds. Then its head snapped off.

“Oh my God,” said Kelly Ferris, 15, a sophomore.

A lone trumpeter played taps.

Hogla Gonzalez, a 17-year-old senior, began to cry. “The best thing that ever happened to us just broke,” she said, tears coursing down her cheeks.

Hundreds of people, from Homestead to Miami Springs, came to watch the famous snake leave its 26-year lair. The cobra was donated by Bill Haast, who recently closed the Serpentarium after operating it for 37 years. The huge serpent was to be moved to a corner of the high school football field.

“I think it’s a shame they’re taking it down,” said Fran Garmen of Kendall, shortly before the snake broke at 12:20 p.m. “People all over the world came here just to see the big snake. They should leave it here as a landmark.”

“We were driving by and thought we should stop,” said Marilyn Perlyn of Perrine. “It’s a historic event.”

For nearly five hours Saturday morning, volunteers from a tree-cutting company tried to dislodge the 24-ton hooded cobra from its concrete base.

“Snakes are completely out of my line of work,” said Bobby Brinson, dripping sweat after his hour’s turn at the jackhammer. “This is not like a tree at all.

As the men worked, vendors sold $6 white T-shirts with an orange cobra proclaiming “I Saw It Move.”

Motorists slowed down or pulled over to watch. Since 1958, the orange, copper and brown cobra had stuck out its red forked tongue at all who passed it at 12655 S. Dixie Highway.

At about 12:10 p.m., the cobra was ready to move. Instamatic cameras were poised.

Cheerleaders chanted, “Let’s go Cobras!”

Crane operator Emanuel Graham nodded to Willie Leland, who sat in another crane on the opposite side of the snake. Graham’s job was to lay down the snake on a flatbed truck. Leland was to keep it steady.

The cobra went up a dozen feet. Then the head snapped, falling to the dirt. The body seesawed in the air in a cloud of plaster dust.

“I don’t believe it,” said Garmen, burying her head in the shoulder of her daughter, Linda Davis.

Moments later, Garmen and others rushed to get one of the hundreds of pieces of the cobra’s neck for a souvenir.

No one could explain exactly what happened. Graham pointed to the rusty wire mesh that held the stucco on the snake’s steel frame. The snake, he said, was too old.

School administrators promised to try to restore the great reptile. Representatives of Southpark Centre Ltd., who plan to build a shopping center on the site, pledged $500. Fred Collins, who runs 22 McDonald’s restaurants in Miami, said he’d help raise money.

At 12:50, a truck carrying the cheerleaders and band began the trip to school, 6856 SW 53rd St. Hundreds of students and parents were already there, waiting to welcome their mascot. The festivities, minus the festivity, went on.

Strapped to another flatbed truck, was the snake. Then came the cranes, the payloaders and the pickup trucks. A police car, lights going, was at the end of what seemed like a funeral procession.

THE SNAKE MAN

Published Sept. 9, 1984

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The Serpentarium Miami Herald File


“Mr. Haast has been bitten 141 times by poisonous snakes,” Barbara Harrell says. “Of those 141 snakes, today only two are alive.”

Ho, ho, ho, in the Miami Serpentarium. Nervous chuckles amid the fangs and forked tongues.

The merriment lasts until Bill Haast, 73, herpetologist, medical researcher, dreamer, humanitarian, saver of lives, man- of-the-year for common folk, drops a poisonous krait and provokes a gasp of terror through the 41 people watching the show.

One of the last shows. Haast, creator of the landmark Serpentarium on S. Dixie Highway, is leaving. After 37 years of several shows a day, seven days a week, of taking on the medical and regulatory and legal establishments and losing, after a lifetime of traveling the world chasing yet-to-be-fulfilled dreams, today he will bring out the King Cobras for the last time.

Then, later this week, he and Barbara Harrell, 38, his assistant for 18 years, will pack up most of his 500 snakes and move to the Innovation Center at the University of Utah Research Park.

There, they hope to devote all their time to collecting the snake venom from which anti-venins are made, and continuing research into PROven, a serum made from venom Haast is convinced can help cure neurological disorders in humans.

“It’s the end of an era,” Haast said, matter of factly. “I don’t like the idea of leaving South Florida. If the University of Miami or someone had said ‘I’ll work with you on this project,’ I’d probably stay.”

But they haven’t. And he won’t.

On Sept. 29 beginning at 10 a.m. and lasting until it’s all gone, auctioneers will sell the Serpentarium, from 200-pound, 20-foot pythons, to 400-pound turtles, from 14-foot crocodiles, to rhinoceros iguanas, from tile murals on the walls, to, possibly, Haast’s original 1956 Lincoln Continental. Everything. Down to the stained and aging carpet.

“It will be the most unusual auction we’ve ever done,” said auctioneer Jim Turner. “I’m anxious to see who buys a 200-pound python. And 20 years’ worth of coins.”

Those coins, he said, are underwater in the crocodile pit, which hasn’t been dug out for two decades. The prospect makes Turner’s eyes glitter.

“If only a dollar a day were thrown in there, there could be 7,000 coins,” he said.

The massive cobra statue outside that has loomed malevolently over Dixie Highway for nearly 40 years has been donated to South Miami High School. It’s the only thing on the 5.2-acre grounds that won’t be sold to make room for a shopping center.

In his air-conditioned office, Haast leaps from interview to telephone and back. The pressure seems fierce, his energy unfailing. During the afternoon he must consult with auctioneers, answer calls from zoos and collectors interested in his reptiles, pack, talk to journalists, give a show in which he milks deadly snakes for venom while Harrell, cool and pretty, provides the commentary, and go to the dentist.

Oddly, all the brushes with death, much less the fact he is 73 years old, haven’t told on him physically. His patrician face is pale and unlined, his brows tinged with gray. He is trim beneath white lab clothes.

The clothes make him look like a pharmacist, not the high school drop-out who came to Florida and was so poor he had to shoot meadowlarks for food, not the boy who made ends meet by running illegal booze from an Everglades still, and certainly not The Snake Man.

“The Dallas Zoo wants to buy the two-headed snake,” he says into the telephone. There are few two-headed snakes. “It’s not for sale. The python? We want $2,000 for the big one. The tortoise? Tell him $2,000 and see what he says.” He hangs up.

He has, it seems, been in a hurry his entire life. And, since he was 12 years old on a river bank in New Jersey, fascinated with poisonous snakes.

“As a kid I would put a mouse in a cage with a snake. The snake would bite the mouse. The mouse would die. I found it intriguing.”

When he gestures with his hands, which he does often, you can see that the fingers are gnarled and the flesh on them tight and shiny, as if glazed.

“From the bites,” he says, regarding his crooked right index finger. “The poison destroys the tissue.”

Curiously, though, the bites made Haast famous. The bites that almost killed him 17 times, that began for the first time in upstate New York in 1926 when a rattlesnake interrupted his trip to Boy Scout camp, gave rise to the dream that one day he would take his place alongside the giants of medical research, next to Jenner and Fleming and Salk.

In fact, with some luck he thinks he well might have upstaged Jonas Salk.

The symptoms of polio, it occurred to him in the late ‘40s, were almost identical to the nerve and muscle disruption caused by a cobra bite. He gathered 400 cobras and began a serum program with a local doctor. The serum worked, he said.

But Haast was on bad political ground. He said when the highly visible March of Dimes program heard he had a serum he was pressured to abandon the research.

“We all broke up, polio victims suffered for another four or five years and then the Salk vaccine was developed.”

His battle to have PROven legalized by the Food and Drug Administration began in the 1970s. PROven, he says, can be effective in some cases of amyotropic lateral sclerosis, arthritis, muscular dystrophy and multiple sclerosis.

With late Miami Dr. Ben Sheppard administering treatments, the Haast PROven serum was used on hundreds of patients.

“It works. The FDA knows it works. The FDA has found it is not dangerous at all. They just won’t tell the public that,” he said.

The problem is the immense expense for testing drugs required by the FDA before a drug is allowed into general use. Haast can’t afford it, and since there are too few people afflicted with the neurological disorders PROven can help, there is no financial incentive for huge pharmaceutical companies to test it.

After years of court battles, Haast took PROven off the market.

But if snakebites don’t put him in the medical texts for PROven, Haast’s own blood may. He already has saved more lives than many doctors.

Since 1948 he has been immunizing himself with a diluted vaccine made of 28 snake venoms. He has survived bites from snakes, such as the Thailand krait, that no one else on earth has survived.

But in addition, his blood is a serum for snakebite victims who have no immunity. Twenty-one people are alive today because Bill Haast gave them his blood. In the glass windows that front the Serpentarium labs are a dozen plaques, many of them awards for the ultimate gift.

“For saving the life of zoo director Robert Elgin,” reads one, “July 30, 1969. From the Des Moines zoo staff in deep appreciation . . .”

And there is Haast’s favorite award. It reads: “To an uncommon man in and of himself. From the common folk.”

“Two guys just came into the office one day and had it in a sack,” Haast says of the award. “They handed it to me and walked out. They said nothing, and I never knew who they were.”

There were many pleasant moments during the 40 years in Florida for Haast. And this unforgettably horrible one:

On Sept. 3, 1977, 6-year-old David Mark Wasson, visiting the Serpentarium with his father, fell into the crocodile pit. “Cookie,” a 12-foot-long, 2,000-pound crocodile, killed the boy.

“When I got there the jaws were absolutely tight over his chest. The boy’s body was the width of paper. There was no hope.”

The next morning, after a sleepless night, Haast went to the pit with a pistol and killed the reptile.

“I was criticized for that. But someone had already called and offered $3,000 for ‘the croc who killed the boy.’ People would come to the Serpentarium and say, ‘I want to see the croc who killed the boy.’ I didn’t exploit this like that. I couldn’t live with that,” he said.

“That day I could have just walked away from it all.”

But he stayed until now. And today, Haast will dance again with the creatures who brought him to life’s party. He’ll put them onto the Serpentarium patio, 14-footers, and they will try to kill him one more time.

“We’ll do the King Cobras Sunday,” The Snake Man said, “People should come out. It won’t happen again.”

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Demolition starts on the Serpentarium in 1984. Rick McCawley Miami Herald File

CLEARING OUT

Published April 26, 1984

The Miami Serpentarium, a South Dade landmark and tourist attraction for nearly 40 years, may be razed in late summer to make way for a shopping center.

The reason, said Serpentarium founder and owner Bill Haast, is the falling tourism trade.

“Last year we had about 35,000 tourists and in the past there would have been four times that many,” Haast said Wednesday. “One Easter we had a record 1,000 people in a day. Last Easter Sunday, there were about 160.”

If he does close the attraction, Haast said he will give the resident crocodile and some of the snakes to Metrozoo. The big stone cobra that gazes malevolently down on South Dixie Highway motorists will probably be given to South Miami High School as a mascot for its football team, the Cobras.

Then Haast, 73, hopes to concentrate on his first love, the development of a medicine made from snake venom.

Bernard Janis, president of Janis Enterprises, said his corporation has already applied to the Metro Commission for a zoning variance to allow the building of a specialty shopping center on the 5 1/4-acre Serpentarium site at 12655 S. Dixie Highway.

The firm’s contract to buy the land for $3.25 million is contingent upon the zoning change, Janis said.

“It will probably come before the commission in July,” he said. “The majority of the property is already properly zoned for business. A small section is not.”

That section is zoned for a motel or hotel, and Janis said it will be necessary to get the zoning changed to cover the whole site with “a small, specialty shopping center -- no big stores, no food markets, no theaters.”

Dr. Tom Carroll, president of Med Tech Products, a Miami Lakes pharmaceutical firm making diagnostic materials for doctors and veterinarians, said Haast has sold his company worldwide rights to manufacture PROven, a drug made from snake venom. Haast experimented with the drug for some years and built the Serpentarium in 1946 to support the project.

Later, he supplied the drug to the late Dr. Ben Sheppard, who injected it into hundreds of people who traveled to Miami from all over the world, hoping to be cured of illnesses ranging from arthritis to multiple sclerosis. No scientific research was ever published to support claims that the venom worked.

After Sheppard’s death in 1980, Haast continued working with PROven, but about a year ago the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) obtained a court order to stop him.

Carroll said several European pharmaceutical companies are interested in PROven production.

“Currently, we are working on achieving the necessary FDA requirements in order to market it throughout the U.S.,” he said.

Meanwhile, Haast has provided university researchers all over the country with snake venom for other purposes and is a regular supplier of venom to Wyeth Laboratories in Pennsylvania. That company makes antivenin, used to save the lives of people who have been bitten by snakes.

Lately, Haast said, “the venom sales have been supporting the attraction Serpentarium,” a reversal of his original intention. “It’s kind of foolish for a scientific organization to support an entertainment.”

At South Miami High, 6856 SW 53rd St., assistant principal Bob Snyder was uncertain when the school might get the promised stone mascot.

“We’d like to put the cobra on the front patio. I think it would be a real source of student pride and spirit,” he said. “The students think it’s a terrific idea. We’ll be circulating petitions to make sure the neighbors have no objections.”

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