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Snake farming a five-step risk

Yang Hongchang has been handling snakes for 40 years. But when he takes up serpents, there is no dancing or hollering, and no guzzling from quart jars of strychnine in church. Yang began handling snakes 40 years ago — on a quaint little snake farm in the sleepy Chinese village of Zisiqiao.

Farmers love to be hands-on with their crops and Yang is no different. He speaks with glee about his latest crop — 3 million snakes of all sorts and stripes. The snakes lie around in vats, bins and pools. Yang says he can spot all the poisonous ones with ease, but with balls of snakes lying about in slithering masses, his words don’t inspire much confidence.

There are literally cobras and pit vipers of every kind on the farm, not even factoring in the pythons. “Don’t worry, I can spot the nasty ones,” rings terribly hollow when you’re surrounded by 3 million snakes. Those are probably the same words that General Custer  assured his men with the night before Little Bighorn.

Yang’s a showman and can break into a madman’s grin. It’s not a straitjacket smile, but is unsettling all the same. But after years of snake farming, it’s hard to begrudge Yang a crazed grin. He started his snake business to feed into the Chinese food and traditional medicine markets. Three million snakes per year later, Yang finds himself in the middle of a booming Chinese economy. “More and more Chinese are becoming middle class. People care more about travel and health. So I think we have a bright future in this business,” says Yang.

(See related: Cottonmouths, armadillos and leprosy — pick your poison)

But it’s not just China munching down on snakes; Yang has gone global, finding astonishing success by feeding demand from Asia, Europe and even the U.S. Dried snake, snake capsules, snake powder, and snake wine are million-dollar sellers.

Trouble with the immune system? There’s a snake pill for that. Need a little boudoir help? There’s a snake remedy designed especially for the libido. Who needs Viagra when “cobra powder” will work the magic?

Yang appears to be the consummate opportunist; a serpent-toting capitalist squeezing money out the cracks of Chinese communism. Recently, he allowed a Bloomberg news crew to film his operation, and the ensuing ruckus made the odd world of snake farming all the more bizarre.

In the Bloomberg footage, Yang gives the camera crew a tour of the farm, culminating in a made-for-TV moment. One of the farm workers pulls a five-step snake out of a holding container. (“Five-step” being a literal name for the snake breed: If you get bit, it’s about five steps before death.) Yang then attempts to extract venom from the snake — and succeeds, but too well. The five-stepper bites him on the finger and the show begins. Granted, I may be jaded and cynical, but the proceeding circus seems to be lacking any sense of urgency — almost as though Yang has been bitten by a mosquito. He calmly washes out the bite before seeking treatment at a hospital an hour away.

At the hospital, the story ends well as Yang is treated with anti-venom and looks like he’ll be home in time for dinner.

Yes, Yang may have built up some sort of immunity. Forty years of bites may have done the trick. I lean toward Yang the ringmaster, but only he and the five-stepper will ever know. “Of course I won’t stop playing with snakes. These things happen. But we have to be very careful — very, very careful,” Yang says.

Spoken like a snake farmer and snake charmer — very careful, indeed.

(To watch Yang and his five-step encounter, see: Snake Farming High-Stakes Business in China)

TAGS: Management
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