SNAKE CHARMER: Steve Ludwin with a green Pope's tree viper, whose venom he injects, and a tangerine Honduran milk snake.
It's a winter weekday afternoon in the North London neighborhood of Highbury, and Steve Ludwin, a former rock frontman who used to play the same festivals as Nirvana and Pearl Jam, is sitting on his couch in a T-shirt and jeans, flicking the barrel of a syringe, needle pointed up, releasing air bubbles from the amber liquid. To set the mood, he has cued up AC/DC's "Inject the Venom," and lead singer Brian Johnson is urging him on. Inject the venom, inject it all, stick it in, stick it . . .
"The first time I heard the chorus, I thought, 'This song is written for me,'" Ludwin says, then turns to his left forearm, sticks it with the needle, and presses the plunger, his fingers trembling. He grimaces, and a second later his face goes from English-summer pale to ghostly white. "I'm an idiot," he says through gritted teeth. "I think I hit a vein."
If the syringe had been filled with heroin, injecting it into the bloodstream would have been the goal. But Ludwin has shot a cocktail of deadly venom from two green pit vipers and a North American copperhead, which he had meant to inject subcutaneously. For the next 45 minutes, a searing pain spreads from his arm to his fingertips. Performed properly, his regular venom injections often leave him with a "burning sensation, like being stung by a hundred hornets" for a few minutes. They cause swelling and bruising; the day after shooting he feels "kind of ropey, almost hungover." But for Ludwin, the rewards outweigh the seemingly substantial risk. All told, Ludwin has access to 22 slithery pets—most of them highly venomous—and they're coiled in glass tanks downstairs from his Victorian row-house apartment.
Ludwin, 47, has fueled himself with snake venom for more than half his life. He originally sought to build up an immunity to it (and nothing more), but in 2001, he started gargling with venom while his punk-rock band Little Hell was on tour with Placebo: "It seemed to burn out the sore throat everyone else was getting." It made him see his habit in a whole new way. Now Ludwin's on a mission—part scientific inquiry, part journey of self-discovery, part shamanic quest. "I want to know why I was born with the drive to do this thing, because it started when I was very young," he says. Born in Northern California on Travis Air Force Base (his dad was a pilot), Ludwin grew up in suburban Long Island and Connecticut. He remembers, at age 4, seeing a milk snake sliding through the grass and thinking, "That's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen." At 17, he heard an "inner voice" that told him "to experiment with venom, as it would be 'good for the future.'" When he moved to London at age 20 to pursue his one dream of being a rock singer, another came true: He found work at a reptile supplier to zoos and universities, where, he says, "I suddenly had access to any reptile I wanted."
What he wanted was snakes—and their venom never gave him pause. Ludwin's drug of choice is a marvel of evolution. When a venomous snake bites its prey, it delivers a complex mix of proteins and enzymes that can attack muscle tissue, interfere with blood clotting, or cause paralysis or death. But Ludwin may have injected his way to a revolutionary discovery. In what he suggests is a literal case of that which does not kill us makes us stronger, Ludwin believes that his biweekly shots (into his torso, arms, and legs) may have made him a medicinal miracle—protecting him against infection and disease, boosting his energy and strength, and slowing down the aging process. "It's a Jane Fonda workout for my immune system," he says. "This is going to be my ninth winter without having a sore throat or a cold. I don't want to use the word supernatural, but it feels weird, like I stumbled over something."
Has Ludwin concocted his own brand of snake oil, or has he discovered the elixir of life? Perhaps a bit of both. There are a number of drugs derived from snake venom that treat heart disease, Alzheimer's, arthritis, and diabetes. Syn-Ake, a synthetic chemical that replicates part of a Malaysian temple viper's venom, is marketed as an antiwrinkle agent. (It's known in the U.K. as "Botox in a bottle.") Stephen P. Mackessy, a professor of biology at the University of Northern Colorado and a snake-venom expert, says there have been "success stories involving compounds of venom." But he stresses the difference between the "minor components" contained in trial-tested drugs and Ludwin's water-diluted pure serum: "Let's just hope we don't find Ludwin dead on the floor one day."
Five years ago, Ludwin did come close to death after shooting a syringe full of undiluted venom from a Northern Pacific rattlesnake, an eyelash viper, and a white-lipped tree viper. He had intended to inject his usual drop, but the plunger got stuck and the chamber drained into his system. Ludwin's hand swelled "to the size of a baseball mitt" and his arm turned black. After a night of excruciating pain, Ludwin checked himself into a hospital, where doctors told him he was not only going to lose his arm, he was going to die. But after three days, Ludwin regained slight movement in his fingers—thanks, he believes, to his years of venom intake. Against his astonished doctors' advice, he checked himself out in true rock-and-roll style: "I ripped the tubes out of my arm and blood squirted all over the room." The question is: Were the orderlies cleaning up just another messy pool of blood, or was it priceless scientific gold?
MILK JAR: Harvesting the venom of a Baja rattlesnake.
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When Ludwin was 9, his father took him to Bill Haast's famous Miami Serpentarium, where he watched the self-proclaimed Snakeman perform a bare-handed cobra-milking ritual. When he learned that Haast had built up an immunity to venom through injections, Ludwin remembers thinking, "I want to do that." For all his theatrics, Haast was focused on a higher purpose: supplying venom to science. In the late 1970s, Haast produced a drug that was used to treat multiple sclerosis and arthritis, and it showed such encouraging results that 60 Minutes broadcast a glowing report in 1979. But that only attracted the attention of the Food and Drug Administration, which shut down the Serpentarium's manufacturing operation. Haast, whose antibody-loaded blood has saved the lives of 21 snakebite victims, presented himself as the best evidence of venom's medicinal potential. "I could become a poster boy for the benefits of venom," Haast, then 95, told the Miami Herald. "If I live to be 100, I'll really make the point." He died in 2011, six months shy of his 101st birthday.
Although Ludwin reverently calls Haast "the first Westerner to inject snake venom," self-immunization has age-old roots. It's sometimes referred to as mithridatism, named after Mithridates VI of Pontus, a fierce enemy of the Roman Empire who ingested daily cocktails of toxins and antidotes to ward off assassination attempts. But Ludwin is more interested in the shamans of Myanmar and South America, who are believed to have been using venom for millennia. Ludwin's adventures have also been shaped by a book called The Serpent Grail, which posits the existence of a prehistoric serpent-worshipping cult that has influenced every human civilization. The book's main claim is that the Holy Grail was a bowl from which was drunk a mixture of snake venom and either snake blood or the blood of a human or an animal that had been repeatedly bitten by a snake. "When I read that," Ludwin says, "I immediately made a mixture with my own blood and drank it . . . Perhaps I could sell it! Knock Coca-Cola right off the drink charts."
Ludwin experienced brief brushes with fame with his alt-rock band Carrie, which released two singles on Island Records that charted in the U.K. In 2002, he auditioned to be the lead singer of Velvet Revolver. When that didn't work out, he moved into songwriting. Three years ago, he also began putting on reptile shows for children, mostly at schools and occasionally for high-wattage clients. He once drove out to a big property in Richmond, a wealthy suburb of London, and performed for Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, and clan. "It was funny because, during my shows, I'd often say that Brad Pitt owned 38 chameleons," he says. (Ludwin had gotten that intel from Slash, a fellow snake aficionado.) Pitt took the opportunity to correct Ludwin: He used to own 42.
Ludwin now sees himself as Haast saw himself—as a servant of science in showman's clothing. He dreams of one day making a documentary exploring the connections between snakes, science, and ancient rituals. It won't be his first. In 2010, a U.K. production company told his story in The Man Who Injects Venom. In the lead-up to the shoot, Ludwin increased the rate of his injections from every two months to every two weeks, then once a week, "and sometimes every day. It got to the point where I could take a lethal amount and play a game of tennis an hour later." It made him feel "like an athlete in training." Although few people saw the documentary, Ludwin viewed it as a seminal experience, allowing him to interact with medical professionals. During the shoot, he met Dirk Budka, the mysteriously credentialed director of London's Immune Clinic. The two men conducted weekly experiments. According to a British magazine, Ludwin's "blood was . . . tested against a number of infectious bacteria including MRSA and E.coli, with staggering results. . . . Budka . . . was stunned when the blood, in most cases, destroyed 70–100 per cent of the bacteria. 'He's amazing,' said Budka. 'His immune system may be strong enough to develop a medicine for the future.'"
The pair had plans to share their findings with Big Pharma, their eyes set on a multi-million-dollar payday. But Ludwin says they had a falling-out. According to the Immune Clinic's website, Budka—who couldn't be reached for comment—is no longer practicing medicine. On the advice of his lawyers, Ludwin declined to discuss specifics. "All I wanted was for someone to use me as a guinea pig to study the side effects and medical benefits," he says. "I hope the right company will knock on my door someday and go, 'This needs to be researched. Let's do it.'" In the meantime, most of the e-mail solicitations he gets are from "18-year-old girls going, 'Hey, I saw your program. I want to do what you do.' It's quite scary. I wouldn't instruct people to inject venom. I'm not saying it's safe."
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 Bhme. "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."
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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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