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Milking rattlesnakes continues

Staff writer

“Got milk?”

When advertisers coined that phrase for the wholesome dairy beverage, rattlesnakes were likely the last thing on their minds.

Tabor College students were introduced to a different meaning of the phrase Monday when Barry Raugust, a retired biology teacher and 1972 Tabor graduate, demonstrated the art of milking venom from two western rattlesnakes from the college’s reptile collection in the S.L. Loewen Natural Science Center

Students from professor Andrew Sensenig’s biology class were joined by other interested students to watch as Raugust deftly extracted venom from the venomous snakes, displaying an ease that masked the caution exercised with each move.

“The first five or six times you pick one up, it’s a nice adrenaline rush,” Raugust said. “Or if you get a really big one that’s really, really strong, where you really have to hang onto the head.”

“I don’t want to traumatize the snake here, I’m going to be as gentle as I can,” Raugust said, as he pinned the first snake to the table with a metal tool and grasped it firmly behind the head.

With one snake and then the other, Raugust manipulated their heads so the exposed fangs hung over the edge of a small glass beaker.

“Right back here is where the venom sacs are,” Raugust said as he massaged the snakes’ heads to coax the venom out of them.

“The venom has all kinds of uses. They’re studying the venom to use on Parkinson’s, partial paralysis, and there’s an anti-coagulant in it so it keeps blood from clotting,” Raugust said. “They’re doing a lot of studies with venom because it has some interesting medicinal properties.”

While Ragust provided plenty of factual information throughout the presentation about western rattlesnakes and other poisonous snakes, he used his history as a Tabor student and 17 years as an adjunct professor teaching at the Tabor-Wichita campus to connect with the students.

“I was a student of Clarence Harms, Max Terman, and Solomon Loewen. They were my biology instructors,” Raugust said.

“Dr. Loewen was going to milk one of the snakes, it was a prairie rattlesnake, and he pulled a number which was to catch it with his hand by slapping that snake’s head down on the table.

“The snake turned around and sunk one fang into his thumb,” Raugust said. “There were only two of us who saw it, it was that fast.”

Rather than react strongly, however, Loewen remained calm, concealed the bite, and continued milking the snake.

“He caught it twice more just to prove to himself he could do it without getting bit,” Raugust laughed. “He went home, the next day he had a Band-Aid on it, and that was it.”

Raugust explained not every bite by a rattlesnake is venomous.

“If you scare one and he’s scared of you, he may just want you to go away and he’ll false strike at you,” Raugust said. “He may stick his fangs in you and never inject any venom at all.”

However, Raugust did not make light of the danger presented by rattlesnake bites.

“The western diamondback probably causes more damage in the United States than any other snake. We probably have around 10 or 11 people in the United States that die each year from snakebites,” Raugust said.

“You’ll see arms swell up to two or three times their size, and they’ll make incisions down the length of an arm to allow it to swell so it doesn’t shut off the circulation,” he continued. “Some people have lingering muscle damage or nerve damage.”

When Raugust finished milking the snakes, he commented on the effects the collected venom could cause.

“That’s probably about enough to kill 20 or 30 mice, and if you got that load, it would probably put you in the hospital,” Raugust said.

Ragust also talked about Methuselah, a western rattlesnake from the Tabor College collection that had been the oldest one in captivity.

“Tabor’s record for the oldest Western diamondback has now been surpassed — by a snake that I own,” Ragust said. “It’s been in captivity almost 31 years. I think Methuselah was right at 29 or 30.”

Noting his ties to the college, Raugust told the students “the record is going to stay with Tabor.”

Raugust, who taught middle school and high school biology in the Wichita school district for 37 years, said his interest in snakes developed early in life.

“As a kid I used to catch garter snakes and little smooth-scaled grass snakes and I used to put them in Milk Dud boxes and put them in my pocket,” Ragust said.

“My mom would find them when she’d do the laundry. If they got loose in the basement I had to stay up until I found them,” he said.

His early interest in snakes carried over into his teaching.

“I started keeping snakes just to get people over their ophidiophobia, which is the name for fear of snakes,” Raugust explained.

“When I started teaching, what I wanted was for students to get over their unnatural fear,” he continued. “There’s nothing wrong with having a healthy respect for an animal like this, but not to be so unreasonably scared that if somebody said the word snake you’d run to your vehicle.”

Raugust said he collected and kept samples of all of the poisonous snakes in Kansas, and had been bitten only once.

“A copperhead,” Raugust said, “which, if you’re going to be bitten by something in Kansas, that’s probably the one you want to be bitten by.”

Raugust explained copperheads, while venomous, are slightly less dangerous than other species.

“The little massasauga, the pygmy rattlesnakes, the prairie rattlesnakes, the western diamondbacks, the timber rattlesnakes, all have very strong toxins, or they’re large enough snakes that they inject a pretty good amount,” Ragust said.

Raugust expressed enthusiasm for educational activities for people of all ages to lessen fears increase understanding, and encourage curiosity about snakes.

“Natural curiosity, that’s what scientists are known for,” Raugust said. “And if you aren’t getting dirty and you don’t smell bad after a field trip then you haven’t done it right.”

Last modified Oct. 27, 2011

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