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Edisto Island Serpentarium fighting back from Hurricane Matthew, snakes and gators galore

March 25, 2017 GMT

EDISTO ISLAND — As Hurricane Matthew churned toward Edisto Island in October, rearing back for a major punch, the Clamp brothers were busy boxing up several hundred snakes.

Ted and Heyward Clamp have operated the Edisto Island Serpentarium, a reptile zoo and tourist attraction about an hour southwest of Charleston, since 1999. They weren’t worried about the serpents riding out the storm. They were making sure none of them got loose if the hurricane tore up the building, which it did.

“We made sure they couldn’t do that,” 71-year-old Ted Clamp said. “We double-boxed them.”

They didn’t lose any animals.

They usually have around 500 snakes on the premises, many of them poisonous. Some live outside in enclosures, others remain in cages inside. Most of them were caught around the island. Residents with snake problems know to call the Clamp brothers. They also have some exotic species that used to be pets until their owners got tired of them.

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They also have all sorts of alligators, including a pure white albino, as well as turtles and lizards.

Matthew tore up the roof and peeled back the metal strips between the glass panes of the atrium, letting in water that ruined the floors. Crews have been working to get the place ready for its March 30 reopening.

The storm damage is not the only challenge the brothers are facing. Until last summer, they were averaging about 25,000 visitors a year, mainly from beach traffic. They noted a drop last year for the first time ever, losing about 5,000 visitors. They blamed it on nearby bridge construction that tends to block their sign from view.

S.C. Department of Transportation crews have been replacing the three bridges leading onto the island. The work is expected to take another two years.

The population of Edisto Beach is 404, but between 10,000 and 15,000 people visit each day during the summer, according to town administrator Iris Hill. Visitors come from all over the state, as well as outside the state.

“I think we attract people looking for something not so commercial,” she said.

A beach renourishment project is expected to be finished by May 1, in time for the turtle and tourist season, she said.

Selling the venom from Eastern diamondbacks adds a bit to the bottom line at the serpentarium. Ted Clamp declined to say how much they get paid for venom, adding that most of the profit is on the other end, after it’s made into antivenin.

“We mainly do it as a service,” he said.

About 7,000 people a year are bitten by snakes in America, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and many more than that in other parts of the world. A snake bite can use up several vials of antivenin, and the treatment cost in the United States can run into the tens of thousands of dollars.

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The Clamp brothers have been fascinated with snakes since boyhood. They grew up in rural Orangeburg County, constantly going out in the woods to bring home reptiles, despite the protests and concerns of their parents. Their mother was a schoolteacher, and their dad worked at the Savannah River Site.

Their love affair with snakes started when Heyward Clamp was in the fourth grade and ran across a book in the school library called “Snakes Alive” by Clifford Pope. It’s out of print now and a collector’s item. He has his copy on display at the snake zoo.

“It was written so you wouldn’t be afraid of snakes,” he said. “The more I began to understand them, it turned into a fascination. I couldn’t stop myself.”

About the time Heyward Clamp graduated from high school, he saw an article about Bill Haast, founder of the Miami Serpentarium, which included a photo of him sitting in a cage with two King Cobras.

“I wanted to go work for that man,” Heyward said.

So he did. He enrolled in a few courses at a college in Miami and got a job extracting venom, grabbing snakes by the head and getting them to bite down on a jar.

Haast, who died in 2011 at age 100, was a legend in his field. He estimated that he was bitten 172 times, including the usually lethal bite of a King Cobra. He also estimated he handled more than 2 million snakes, and he always blamed himself when he got bitten. He regularly injected himself with small amounts of snake venom hoping to build up some immunity and speculated that may have contributed to his longevity.

The Clamp brothers moved to Edisto Beach to build houses around 1980. Heyward kept snakes in his backyard until they built the Serpentarium on several acres along S.C. Highway 174.

“Some people never grow up,” his brother quipped.

They still go out camping the first week of April to look for snakes, especially the elusive Eastern diamondback. Antivenin includes venom from several snakes, but the Eastern diamondback is the hardest to find.

“It’s exhilarating when you can find one where he lives and see him in his natural habitat,” Ted Clamp said.

He’s been bitten four times, and Heyward Clamp counts 11 bites. He describes the initial feeling as “an intense burn.” Other effects depend on the type of snake. The venom of the Eastern diamondback, for instance, contains a neurotoxin that paralyzes the legs, to keep the prey from running away.

Most of the time when you see a snake in a zoo, it’s pretty lethargic. The snakes behind the glass at the serpentarium are active and alert. Some rear back their heads and shake their rattles when they see someone.

The staff puts on four shows a day with the snakes and extracts venom every Thursday afternoon. They toss food to the gators twice a day from May through October, although the reptiles don’t eat that often. They don’t dine at all in the winter while they’re hibernating.

The brothers think about what will happen to the place when they can’t run it anymore. Heyward Clamp doesn’t have any children. Ted Clamp has two daughters who have been helping out, but he’s not sure if they want to continue the business.

“We’ll just have to see what happens,” he said.