George Van Horn isn’t sure why he loves them so much. But ever since he was a little boy and started catching garter and water snakes in the swampy Everglades surrounding Miami, he knew there wasn’t anything else he would rather do. At the young age of 6, after meeting his hero, Bill Haast at the Miami Serpentarium, he grew certain he could make a career out of it.
“As soon as I saw that, in my mind I said that’s what I was going to do,” he says.
Decades later, visitors can find Van Horn in St. Cloud, along a stretch of U.S. 192 a little more than 30 miles southeast of both Orlando and Disney World in Central Florida. They might zoom by without noticing his nondescript low-slung building on the side of the highway across from a horse ranch -– if not for the 12-foot tall concrete cobra rearing its head and peering out at motorists ahead of a sign that reads Reptile World Serpentarium.
Inside, past a rustic-looking gift shop offering weathered books on reptiles and iguanas, cottonmouth fangs for $2, snake toys and T-shirts and mounted snakeskin, they can turn right and walk into a dimly lit reptile section.
Behind the glass, coiled like ropes or draped around branches, dozens of the center’s hundreds of serpents are on display: red tail boa constrictors; black mambas; a southern copperhead covered in diamond patterns of brown, tan and orange; the poisonous eastern coral snake with its black, yellow and red stripes; and enormous reticulated pythons with bodies as thick as a grown man’s thigh.
Outside in the courtyard is a pond filled with turtles, a cage of iguanas and a family of American alligators, including a 14-foot father alligator and a 10-foot mama alligator protective of her recent hatchlings. But the biggest attractions are the twice-daily venom shows on the other side of the building.
This is where Van Horn prepares to extract venom from the serpents’ fangs to send to university laboratories and pharmaceutical companies. It’s something he’s been doing since he fulfilled that boyhood dream that took him from a brief stint working with Haast as a teenager, through a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences and snake collecting trips in Central America and Asia, to here, where he opened the serpentarium on a 10-acre corner of an old dairy farm in the early 1970s.
“Snakes don’t attack people,” he tells a gathering of about 12 parents, grandparents and children sitting in a U-shaped area waiting for the show to start. “They want nothing to do with people. They don’t want to be around you.”
Almost all the people who wind up in the emergency room in Florida with coral snake bites –- or “self-inflicted wounds,” he jokes -– are men. “Ladies do not go pick up coral snakes,” he adds, prompting laughter and knowing looks in the crowd.
Van Horn -– like his hero Haast before him -– has accumulated the scars to prove his point about the defensive instinct of snakes when they are provoked or disturbed. Half of his left index finger is gone, the bone rotted and fallen off after a western diamondback rattlesnake’s fang sank into him years earlier. The skin on his left arm is rough and patchy from the surgeries he underwent after a king cobra bit him four times during a show as children watched.
At the moment, following a brief history of the snakes they’re about to see, Van Horn slips into the laboratory to start the extraction of venom that universities and pharmaceutical companies use to develop antivenin for the treatment of snake bikes or to study human blood chemistry and neurotoxins.
Van Horn has sent many of his own vials to local emergency rooms following panicked calls for help with a snake bite victim.
The children are pressed against the glass to watch, the adults right behind them. David Beauchamp, 63, holds his camera poised at chest level, about as excited as his grandchildren, whom he brings in turns on annual vacations from Michigan ever since he found the serpentarium several years before.
“I was driving by one day and saw it,” he said. He persuaded his wife to let him stop and stay while she went antique shopping in St. Cloud. “It was a bunch of school kids and me in the middle of them.”
Other visitors this day include international tourists to Orlando who typed “reptile” into their GPS and found the place, or local residents who have long wanted to check out what’s inside.
“Whoooooooaaaaaaaaa ho ho!!!!” the children yell in unison as Van Horn and his assistant pull a cottonmouth from an enclosure with snake poles and position it so Van Horn can move in with lightning speed and grab it from behind at the jaw bone. Van Horn settles the snake’s large, flaring fangs on the membrane lip of a collection vial, and the venom slides slowly down the glass side.
He repeats the efforts with an eastern coral snake, an eastern diamondback rattlesnake who hisses its tongue out in protest, and then a monocled cobra, its enormous hooded head and eyes aiming right through the glass toward the children.
“Ohhhhh!!! Oh, my Gosh!” they scream so loudly in delight that one mom has to advise, “Guys, calm down.”
When it’s all over, the children get to hold some of the non-venomous snakes, posing for pictures with them wrapped over their arms or shoulders.
Van Horn tries to teach them to respect, not fear, snakes, whose encounters with humans increase as their habitat is lost to development, a phenomenon he laments as did his late hero Haast, who passed away in 2011 at the age of 100.
“It’s us,” Van Horn says. “We’re the problem, not the snakes.”
If you go…
Reptile World Serpentarium is at 5705 E. Irlo Bronson Memorial Hwy (U.S. 192), St. Cloud. It is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays, closed on Mondays. Admission is $8.75 for adults, $6.75 for students and $5.75 for children ages 3-5. For more information, call (407) 892-6905 or visit www.reptileworldserpentarium.com.