NEEDLE POINT: Ludwin injects his snake-venom cocktails every week or so.

Science may never prove or disprove Ludwin's hunches. "I don't think any serious researcher would want to work with Ludwin," says the German herpetologist Wolfgang Böhme. "Experiments with humans are seen as objectionable these days." For more than a century, humans have injected snake venom into livestock, producing antibodies that we harvest into antivenin. "But that's not to say there aren't long-term health issues for the host animals," says Professor Mackessy. "People like to have the underdog attitude. 'I'm going to fuck the system. I'm doing something radical.' That's not accepted by Western medicine. Without a controlled environment, placebo effect is possible. It's well established."

"I'm totally aware of what a placebo effect is," Ludwin says, "but I question it with cobra venom. It makes me feel like I'm 24 again. I feel this six-hour burst of energy whenever I take it and go out boxing or skateboarding or running. It needs to be properly researched." A few years ago, Ludwin read about an American racehorse trainer who'd gotten caught injecting his Thoroughbreds with cobra venom. There have been a handful of cases in which trainers have allegedly used cobra venom as a painkiller to numb the nerves of injured horses, enabling them to perform as if injury-free. The consequences can be severe, even fatal, for the horse. "I have noticed that I kind of pushed through pain, and I guess that's dangerous," Ludwin says. "But I posed the question to a herpetologist: 'If it works for a horse, it might work on a human being, right?' He scratched his beard and said, 'Well, you might have something there.'"

The herpetologist Ludwin is referring to is the colorful Ray "Cobraman" Hunter, a Florida-based commercial venom producer and self-immunizer who once did research under Haast. Hunter dismisses Ludwin's antiaging effects, saying, "I think it has more to do with genetics, lifestyle, and diet," and he doesn't understand why Ludwin felt the need to self-immunize in the first place. "I guess Steve wants to bring some vitalization to his life."

• • •

On a quiet Wednesday afternoon a few months after our initial meeting, Ludwin walks into his living room with a huge plastic box containing his favorite new toy—a two-foot monocled cobra—and plunks it down on the floor to "milk" it. "This snake really scares me," he says. He locks his cat in the bedroom, then uses a snake hook to take the cobra out. It turns in his direction, lifts its head, and hisses. Ludwin teases it with the hook, jumping back when it slithers toward him. After tiring it out for a couple of minutes, Ludwin pins the cobra down on the carpet with the hook and grabs its head with three fingers: thumb and middle finger on the sides, forefinger resting on the head. He presses the cobra's mouth down over a shot glass covered in clear plastic. Its fangs pierce the plastic and three drops of dark-yellow liquid slide into the glass. After he puts the cobra back in its box, Ludwin's hands are shaking.

Ludwin takes it slow. Instead of loading a syringe, he puts a drop on his left thigh and pricks the skin beneath it. It's the same allergy-test-style method that he used when he first started self-immunizing—and the mode favored by snake shamans. "I only ate bananas and fish today," Ludwin says as he sits back to wait for the lethal venom to work its magic. "It's what the shamans do."

• • •


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