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Unique venom lab calls Wisconsin home

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OSHKOSH (WKOW) - Around a thousand of the world's most venomous creatures also call downtown Oshkosh home too.

"I saw a picture of a coral snake and I thought it was the most beautiful animal I'd ever seen," says Oshkosh native, and MToxins Venom Lab owner, Nathaniel Fränk. Like many who go onto studying animals, Fränk says he was often found playing with fake dinosaurs which then turned to him going out and trying to find snakes, salamanders, frogs and other reptiles and amphibians.

And to this day, the coral snake still holds a special place in Fränk's heart; the M in MToxins is a nod to the genus name for coral snakes either Micruroides or Micrurus.

Fränk has been handling snakes professionally for roughly a decade, but only within the last year did he open up MToxins Venom Lab in downtown Oshkosh. His talent and understanding of these potentially deadly creatures passed down from Jack Facente, a 40 year veteran in venom extraction, who was taught by Bill Haast. Haast is considered the founder of venom production and research.

Throughout the lab, located in downtown Oshkosh, there's photos of Haast along with the snakes and other reptiles on display. There's also a glass pane where those visiting can watch Fränk, the only one who does the extractions, extract the venom.

"We purchased a building in downtown Oshkosh and turned half of it into an educational center and the other half is for our production."

After working with the City of Oshkosh carefully, their doors finally opened on June 5th, 2020. Though the COVID-19 pandemic was ongoing, Fränk says that didn't stop folks from across the nation, and from various parts of the world, from visiting.

"We've seen a really positive but with the adults… getting over their fear," says Nathaniel Fränk, owner and founder of MToxins Venom Lab. Fränk telling 27 News that most of the children who visit aren't scared of the reptiles because "fear is taught".

However, there is a fear of snakes, especially venomous ones, across parts of the world because of what a bite from one can do. What Fränk is doing behind the scenes, and doing educational tours, is hoping to fix that.

"All of the venom we sell to be made into antivenom is primarily for third world countries where a snake bite is considered a neglected, tropical disease by the World Health Organization. Everything we do, we do for the love and respect that we have for those people and what they're having to deal with."

Whether it's from the inland taipan, which produces the most toxic venom based on median lethal dose value, the gaboon viper, which has the longest fangs of any venomous snake which are roughly 2" long, or from one of the hundreds of invertebrates, Fränk collects, purifies and houses venom for either antivenom production or venom research.

"So we open its enclosure, we look at its attitude because if they're having a bad day we we're not going to put them through that stress."

The extraction of the venom, which is modified saliva, happens every two or so weeks and doesn't hurt the creature though it does cause some stress. Fränk says that before each extraction they look at the creature and determine if it's okay to extract, if it's older or not in a good mood they move on to another.

For snakes, Fränk puts his hand and grips behind the head of the snake. The snake is then triggered to bite a sterile vile where the venom is held. For invertebrates like scorpions, tarantulas and centipedes, they use a small amount of C02 to knock out the creature then use a small amount of electricity to cause the fang/stinger of the creature to deposit the venom.

Afterwards, the creatures are put back in their cages and given a meal. Fränk will then extract two weeks or so later when the venom supply is full.

"It's pretty much, we jokingly say, it's nonexistent," says Fränk. Though large, especially overseas, those in need of the antivenom might not be able to afford it. This leads to those who are bitten seeking out other forms of medication, cutting off of limbs or selling cattle and livestock to afford the antivenom.

And there are two kinds of antivenom available for those bitten. One that is specific to that type of creature the other is an antivenom solution that helps fight off regional venom from various creatures.

There is work going on within the venom community to make it cheaper for those who need it. While that's ongoing, the venom Fränk supplies, is also used for research whether that be studying the evolution of a particular species or for medicine.

Some of the research Fränk has been a part of includes working with coral snakes out of Queensland, Australia. The lab is one of two in the world extracting venom from scorpions for antivenom purposes and one of two extracting venom from tarantulas and centipedes for research purposes.

MToxins Venom Lab is open Friday through Sunday and during the week by appointments only. You can find out more information about the lab by visiting their website or their Facebook page.

Blaise Keller

Meteorologist – WKOW TV Madison

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