Poison pass: the man who became immune to snake venom

Rock singer Steve Ludwin has been injecting himself with snake venom for 30 years. In a strange twist, his bizarre habit could now save thousands of lives. His former partner Britt Collins tells his outlandish story

Steve Ludwin with a snake round his head






What a charmer: Steve Ludwin with a friendly Honduran milk snake.
Photograph: Pal Hansen for the Observer

Sometime in 2006, when my ex-boyfriend failed to show up for dinner, I assumed something was wrong or perhaps he’d forgotten. About a week later, calling to apologise, he told me he’d had an overdose, accidentally injecting a lethal cocktail of venom from three snakes. A lot has been written about Steve Ludwin, widely known as the man who injects snake venom, and lately his life has turned into a non-stop frenzy of international journalists and film crews revelling in the seeming sheer insanity of it.

Steve was once my great love; an animal lover, vegan and musician who wrote songs for Placebo and Ash, and played the Reading festival with Nirvana. In between tours and recordings he dabbled with snake venom. In his latest incarnation as a self-taught snake expert, moulding himself into the role of a lifetime, he appears as a kind of living specimen and star in a short film at the Natural History Museum’s new exhibition, Venom: Killer and Cure.

“How cool is that? You normally have to be dead or a fossil to be in a museum,” says Steve, now 51, as we sit in his in Kennington, with its roof terrace offering glimmers of the London Eye and Parliament. He lives there with his Australian banker girlfriend Suzy, Russian blue cat Pushkin, a rare iguana and several snakes.

He’s been shooting, swallowing and scratching venom into his skin from some of the world’s deadliest snakes for 30 years. “Snakes are fucking everywhere. The symbol for medicine is two snakes. They’re ingrained in our brain and DNA,” he tells me, proudly insisting that he hasn’t been ill for decades and has developed “a superhuman immune system”. And it’s tempting to believe him. He does look undeniably fit.

The first time he did it was in October 1988 and he showed me his swollen wrist. I refused to indulge him and thought he was stoned. Today, Steve laughs at the memory. “Not really… well maybe,” he says. “But you know I’ve always loved snakes. I had no idea what it would do to me, but I knew it’d been done before and was curious to see if it was possible to become immune to snake venom.”

‘You know I’ve always loved snakes’: Steve Ludwin holding an iguana with Britt Collins, shot at Steve’s home in London



‘You know I’ve always loved snakes’: Steve Ludwin holding an iguana with Britt Collins, shot at Steve’s home in London Photograph: Pal Hansen for the Observer

Now, ironically, Steve is on the cusp of something monumental, the development of a human-derived anti-venom that could potentially save many thousands of human and animal lives.

“When I was 17,” he says, “I knew I was going to inject snake venom in the future. I felt like Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, when he had that feeling ‘this means something’. It took many years and accidents of messing around with it to finally make sense.” He looks down at his arms, showing the maze of track marks. “I look like a junkie. You can see all the incisions.”

After university, Steve and I lived in Islington with our cream-tabby cat Tad and a couple of friends. Our house was a zoo, with our potbellied pig Lou who loved the Velvet Underground, a ginger-and-white rat Moo-Moo whom I saved from the fangs of a copperhead, a pair of rescued iguanas, a vicious baby caiman crocodile and a terrifying assortment of snakes and scorpions. But for us, to live among wild animals was all we ever wanted. While pursing his music career, Steve had his dream day job, handling reptiles at the Vivarium in Walthamstow. The pet shop had a back room with venomous snakes. And it wasn’t long before he began bringing home rattlesnakes, copperheads and vipers with enough venom to kill our entire street.

I started an indie-music glossy called Lime Lizard and everyone and their mates showed up at our Victorian terrace, turning it into a den for drugs, debauched rockers and deadly snakes. Inevitably there were accidents: a fugitive snake that reappeared through the floorboards eight months later; diamondback rattlers left carelessly beneath a baseball cap on our bed that our flatmate nearly sat on. I got bitten by a tarantula that left me swollen, bruised and hallucinating for days, and almost crushed by a boa constrictor after Steve draped it around me for a photo.

Steve and I met in February 1986 at Eckerd College, a small liberal-arts school on a sun-struck sliver of Florida coast. I was there as a transfer student from UC Berkeley for my one and only semester. I lived in the same co-ed dorm as Steve. One evening, walking back from dinner, I heard New Order’s Temptation blaring from his room and started dancing outside his window. We took one look at each other and that was it. He looked like the all-American boy – tall, lithe, chiselled, with a floppy fringe and faint dusting of freckles – except he was anything but. Steve was born on an air force base in Los Angeles. His father, Ray, was a pilot for Pan Am, who met his beautiful Canadian mother, Jacqueline, when she was a stewardess. Growing up with two sisters in New Milford, a sleepy Connecticut town, he lived next door to Eartha Kitt, the original Catwoman in the 60s Batman TV show. I knew Steve was a stoner, but he was funny and engaging, had a cool New-Romantics haircut and great taste in music. I remember being struck by his handsome face, his quirkiness and intensity: he believed in aliens, the deep state and punk as a philosophy. That night we went to a smoky indie club, dancing to the Violent Femmes and Psychedelic Furs until 4am and skipping morning classes. That was the start of our love affair and deep and enduring friendship. Neither of us realised it then, but it was a really romantic time.

On our second date, sitting on his bed, I felt something brush against my ankle and thought: “Perfect, he has a cat.” Glancing down, an 8ft boa, thick as a motorbike tire, slithered from under the bed. I screamed and shot out of his room.

When Steve calmed me down, taking my hand like a small child and showing me the satiny-softness of the boa, I lost my fear of an animal that had previously terrified me, and eventually fell in love with lizards, too, even naming my magazine after them. At the end of term, Steve was keen to show me Costa Rica, where he’d lived as a student. Soon enough, we found ourselves alone among iguanas, parrots and howler-monkeys on the deserted beaches of Manuel Antonio, traipsing bare-legged through remote rainforests filled with ultra-territorial predators like jaguars and pumas, and the baddest killers on earth: toxic frogs, spiders and snakes like the deadly bushmaster, which I nearly tread on, and crossing into Nicaragua to see the sea turtles in Tortuguero during the Sandinista-Contra conflict that was terrifying to everyone but us. Before we even got on the dodgy fisherman’s boat from Limón, we could hear gunfire and mortars exploding in the distance. Steve, unfazed, said, “Fuck it, we have to die sometime,” and I went along for the adventure. Steve bought a T-shirt off the back of a Sandinista rebel for $50. Like many college kids steeped in left-wing politics in Regan’s America, we were rebelling against the pervasive conservatism and generation that ran our lives, searching for something authentic.

‘On our second date I felt something brush against my ankle and thought, perfect, he has a cat. An 8ft boa slithered from under the bed’: when Britt met Steve, back in the 80s



‘On our second date I felt something brush against my ankle and thought, perfect, he has a cat. An 8ft boa slithered from under the bed’:
when Britt met Steve, back in the 80s

Our arrival in London happened to coincide with the late-80s underground scene exploding with bands like the Stone Roses, which for our generation felt like the 60s. Steve and I stayed together for seven mostly happy years and I remember it vividly – the gigs, stage-diving to Mudhoney and the Pixies and dancing at the Syndrome, an after-hours club on Oxford Street, hanging out with bands like Ride and Blur.

When Steve was “unsure what to do with the rest of his life” at 20, I encouraged him to pick up a guitar and write music. Months later, he auditioned for My Bloody Valentine. Inspired by the Beatles, REM and Black Flag, he started several semi-successful indie groups before landing a million-pound deal with Island Records with his band Carrie.

When an unscrupulous music-industry figure stole my magazine Lime Lizard, I was so crushed I couldn’t get out of bed for a month. Steve, in his laid-back way, said: “You have three choices: either you rot in bed like Brian Wilson; we can pay Bradley [one of his rough East End gangster mates] to break his legs; or you forget about it and create something else. Why don’t you write a book about your favourite band Nirvana, you know they’ll be huge?” I knocked out a proposal and asked my best friend Victoria Clarke, who was a little lost at the time, to write it with me. We instantly found an agent and a big publishing deal in 1991, before Nevermind was released.

As Steve and I were finding our way into adulthood – between the daily grind, drugs and groupies (he had crazed Japanese fans showing up on our doorstep at all hours, leaving love notes and giant teddy bears that terrified our cat) – our relationship ran its course. But we remained friends long after breaking up.

Steve was always insanely restless and curious and, in some ways, wilfully destructive. So I was hardly surprised when he had his venom overdose. He initially refused to go to hospital, fearing his snakes would be taken away. Instead, he sat down to watch David Attenborough’s series Life in Cold Blood about reptiles, over a Chinese takeaway, while his hand blew up into the size of baseball mitt. “I started thinking: ‘Wow, this is crazy. I could easily die here,’” he says, remembering feeling a pain with the intensity of “being stung by a thousand bees”.

Lethal shot: Steve milking venom from a pope’s pit viper.



Lethal shot: Steve milking venom from a pope’s pit viper. Photograph: Pal Hansen for the Observer

“But I was happy and didn’t care,” he adds. “I’d had such a great life. When they say your life flashes by, I saw all the good bits and felt them, all the rock’n’roll moments, every great gig I went to or played. This is what intrigues me about snake venom, that scientists say there are compounds in certain venoms that help its victims accept and relax into death. I felt that first-hand.”

The next morning the swelling had worsened. “My arm was all red and doughy with a sack of liquid hanging from it and I could see the blood vessels appear. It was like something out of Evil Dead. It’s evolution telling you to stay away. Why do you think monkeys, dogs and everyone is instinctively scared of snakes?”

When he finally went to hospital, the NHS doctors had never treated a snakebite victim, let alone someone with the venom of three different snakes coursing through their bloodstream. “They didn’t know what to do,” Steve says, when he had to tell the stunned A&E nurses he deliberately injected himself. The doctors put him on the phone to a renowned snake expert, who Steve recalls telling: “‘I used a Northern Pacific rattlesnake, an eyelash viper and a green tree viper from Asia.’ And he just said: ‘Well, you’re screwed. There isn’t an anti-venom because you used three different species.’ Then he said: ‘You’re probably going to die or, at best, lose your arm.’”

The doctors suggested “cutting his arm wide open in a fasciotomy” to release the pressure. “I said: ‘Fuck that, I’d rather die.’ The snakes that I used had a hemotoxin, which destroys red blood cells, and that’s why people’s legs and limbs fall off in Central America.”

They gave him the anti-venom CroFab to target the rattlesnake venom that most likely caused all the problems. After three days in intensive care with no improvement Steve, pulling out his IV, discharged himself. Contrary to all their dire predictions, his hand, aside from the bruising, was back to normal a week later. “The doctors were shocked when I went back. They’d never seen a recovery like it. I thought: ‘Cool, this shit’s working.’”

‘You could ask me why I’m continuing to inject. But my drive now is to come up with other ideas’: Steve Ludwin.



‘You could ask me why I’m continuing to inject. But my drive now is to come up with other ideas’: Steve Ludwin. Photograph: Pal Hansen for the Observer

Convinced his miraculous recovery was down to his self-immunisation, Steve became more fervent. He cheerfully admits mixing black mamba, cobra and puff-adder venom like the ingredients of an exotic cocktail and then, dizzied on pain and adrenaline, skateboarding through London traffic. “It made me feel invincible,” he says. “I was living like a madman. It got to the point where I was injecting almost daily, my legs, all over my body because you don’t want to do a lot of damage in one area as it could destroy nerves.”

He had literally turned himself into a science experiment, but there was a point to his madness. “For the past four years, I’ve been flying to Copenhagen to give blood and last year I had a bone-marrow operation. They drilled into my lower spine to take out bone marrow. It took me two months to recover.” Researchers at the University of Copenhagen have recently created an artificial library of antibodies, the Ludwin Library, generated by Steve’s immune system in response to the toxic injections, to develop the first human-derived anti-venom.

“What most people don’t realise is that anti-venom has been taken from horses’ blood for more than 100 years and sometimes snakebite victims die anyway, because their bodies reject it. When I walked into one of those blood farms and saw about 60 horses with holes in their necks being injected with venom, and with massive bags draining out blood, I was very emotional, knowing what they were going through.”

The World Health Organization considers venomous snakebites among the most neglected tropical diseases, killing more 125,000 people a year. “Anti-venom is very expensive. Pharmaceutical companies see it as a developing-world problem and have slowed the production, so snake fatalities are rising. These Danish scientists will solve that problem quickly by using technology and having found an idiot like me who spent decades injecting himself.”

His audacity and inventiveness is part of Steve’s appeal. “You could ask me why I’m continuing to inject. But my drive now is to come up with other ideas. People don’t self-experiment enough. Scientists are now saying using toxins, if you get it right, can have beneficial side effects to your body that slow ageing. It’s like a Jane Fonda workout video for my immune system.”

“I’m the happiest I’ve ever been,” he reflects, cranking up Adam Ant’s Puss ’n Boots and grabbing Pushkin, who’s high on catnip. He wanders out on to the terrace, lifting the cat over his head to show him London. “If those scientists win the Nobel Prize for medicine and I get recognition, that would be sweet.”

Venom: Killer and Cure is at the National History Museum until 13 May. See Steve behind the scenes at nhm.ac.uk/discover/the-making-of-venom.

Strays: A Homeless Man, a Lost Cat and Their Journey Across America by Britt Collins is being republished by Simon & Schuster

Brexit bill may have broken international environment law, says UN

The British government may have breached a major “environmental democracy” law by failing to consult the public when drawing up Brexit legislation.

A UN-backed committee has confirmed it is considering a complaint from Friends of the Earth that the government’s EU withdrawal bill breached the Aarhus convention, which requires public consultation on any new environmental law.

Most of the UK’s environmental laws derive from or interact with EU law, and Friends of the Earth (FoE) has raised concerns that the bill gives ministers “unique and wide-ranging powers” to amend or delete EU-derived environmental law without public consultation, if ministers consider it appropriate.

According to Defra, “over 1,100 core pieces of directly applicable EU legislation and national implementing legislation” fall within the department’s remit.

The “polluter pays” principle and the precautionary principle could both be affected, as could the public’s ability to challenge changes to environmental laws.

William Rundle, lawyer for Friends of the Earth, said: “The government said Brexit was about taking back control, yet it has ignored the views of the UK people in taking it forwards. There has been no consultation on what the withdrawal bill could mean for the environment and environmental legal protections, or what is the best way forwards.

“The Aarhus convention requires effective consultation when new laws are being prepared that can significantly affect the environment, such as the EU withdrawal bill. This would have allowed environmental issues to be debated and understood, but also built democratic accountability and public confidence.

“The current approach by government in conducting Brexit fails to do this; they didn’t even try. Nobody thought Brexit would be easy, but the government cannot ignore its legal obligations, or the views of the people.”

According to the Aarhus convention’s three pillars, information relating to environmental legislation must be provided by public authorities “in a timely and transparent manner”, and the public must be allowed to participate in the development of new laws at an early stage of their preparation. The third pillar is public access to justice, should a party violate or fail to adhere to environmental law or the convention’s principles.

The government may have breached the convention in two ways, FoE says: by failing to set out a consistent legal framework to allow public participation in the preparation of new environmental legislation (article 3), and by not giving the public an opportunity to comment on the bill before it was presented to parliament to be made into law (article 8). FoE says the government failed to consult with the public, and by calling a snap election, any possible engagement with the bill’s white paper was prevented.

In a letter to Friends of the Earth, the Aarhus convention compliance committee says: “the committee has, on a preliminary basis, determined the communicant’s allegation concerning the preparation of the draft ‘great repeal bill’ and the alleged lack of a clear, transparent and consistent framework to implement article 8 … to be admissible”.

Michael Mason, associate professor at the London School of Economics, says the government remains legally bound by the Aarhus convention after withdrawal from the EU, and by abolishing laws relating to Aarhus provisions the UK would be in breach of the treaty.

He says: “The UK would not be able to cherry-pick provisions in the convention: the UK is either fully in or would have to pull out from the treaty. To stay in, the UK government will have to retain all EU-derived law implementing Aarhus obligations.

“A withdrawal from the Aarhus convention would be disastrous for UK environmental policy.”

A House of Lords report calls the EU withdrawal bill a “bill of the first order in terms of law-making powers being granted to ministers”. It says “this bill is expected to generate another 800 to 1,000 statutory instruments in the near future.”

The bill does not require that current environmental standards are maintained after Brexit, nor does it contain a general requirement that the public should be consulted on potentially significant changes to environmental legislation. It does not require ministers to replace the existing European commission complaints procedure on breaches of EU-derived environmental law, which is currently available to UK citizens free of charge. The UK government could still include a requirement for public consultation, however.

In February 2017, campaigners won a case against the Ministry of Justice over proposed changes to cost protection orders that could have made legal challenges to government over environmental issues too financially risky to pursue. A UN committee at the time criticised the government for failing to meet its legal obligations on access to justice under the Aarhus convention.

A government spokesperson said: “The purpose of the withdrawal bill is to provide a functioning statute book on the day we leave the EU – it is an essential bill in the national interest. While we can’t comment on proceedings, we believe we have complied with all of the relevant obligations in developing this crucial legislation and remain committed to maintaining the highest environmental standards. We will be submitting our full response in due course.”

The government now has until 5 June to provide its written response to the complaint. The committee will then decide whether the UK government is in breach of its obligations.

Why the lynx effect would be a boon for Scotland | Kevin McKenna

During a difficult year, the lynx provided a welcome fragment of good cheer. It seems the big cat could be making a return to the wilds of Scotland after an absence of several hundred years. There are many things to like about the reintroduction of a Champions League predator to the Scottish countryside, not least of which is that it would greatly inconvenience and outrage farming and agricultural types. Indeed, Scotland’s farmers were so perturbed by reports of the lynx’s return that several of them undertook a study trip to Norway for the purpose of building a case against the lynx.

Unsurprisingly, the Norwegian harvesters warned their Scottish brethren that reintroduction of the lynx would be an “absolute catastrophe” for Scotland’s sheep population. The Norwegians claimed that 20,000 sheep were lost last year to the predations of the lynx and unnamed others. Curiously, they couldn’t produce a specific number of deceased sheep that were the sole responsibility of the lynx.

Any study produced after a farmers’ jolly to Scandinavia ought to be treated with extreme caution. These eternal European subsidy junkies have always represented a compelling reason to dislike the European Union. Yet having lived off the fat of farming subsidies for decades, many of them voted to bring us out of Europe. In the case of foot-and-mouth disease, an epidemic that made many farmers rich with swollen payouts, animal hygiene issues were a factor. There was an official investigation into reports that some farmers had deliberately infected their livestock once they discovered the compensation levels.

Reintroduction of the lynx, as well as other big beasties, would be a boon for Scotland. The Lynx UK Trust believes there are many ecological benefits springing from the cat’s return to the Scottish wild. Among these are helping to control deer populations and protecting the capercaillie, one of Scotland’s most cherished big birds, the welfare of which causes many to fret. The trust also points out that overpopulation of deer in Scotland is damaging forest habitats and restricting woodland regeneration.

There are significant ancillary benefits. Scotland’s mountains contribute greatly to the country being consistently voted the world’s most beautiful. Hardly a year passes without Scotland receiving another garland for the beauty and grandeur of its rural landscapes. These jaggy wildernesses are made for top predators, yet apart from a few golden eagles, some osprey and a few wee peregrines, our big spaces have little else but sheep, cows and goats. Even the few decent raptors we’ve got left are at risk of extinction because landowners want to eradicate them to leave plenty of grouse for Prince Harry and his indolent chums to exterminate.

A Eurasian beaver in Tayside, Scotland.



A Eurasian beaver in Tayside, Scotland. Photograph: Nick Upton/Alamy Stock Photo

You can’t get within yards of a decent mountain without a moving sea of blue, yellow and green tramping all over our hills and glens morning, noon and night. Scotland’s national emblem shouldn’t be a thistle – it should be a rucksack. It would be grand to replace some of this seething, sweating river of humanity disfiguring our beautiful places with a few species of serious hunters and biters.

The potential benefits are eye-watering. First, you’d get David Attenborough and his team up here when he gets round to doing a Green Planet or Jaggy Planet series. That would bring in more proper tourism than a few thousand Munro-botherers. And there’s always the joyous possibility of bear or wolves preying on hill walkers and keeping their numbers down to manageable levels.

Yes, yes, yes – I know tourism and “outdoor activities” bring a “much-needed boost” to our economy. Isn’t it curious how that phrase “much-needed boost to the economy” is deployed when the middle classes want to have a party or stretch their legs? Thus Edinburgh’s Hogmanay gives a “much-needed boost” to the economy; hunting and shooting deliver one, too, as do the writhing and perspiring rucksack and cagoule army. Little scrutiny of the phrase “much-needed boost” ever occurs. I doubt whether Edinburgh’s edgier neighbourhoods, such as Pilton and Wester Hailes, share greatly in the “much-needed boost”.

The same siren voices were raised when the beaver was reintroduced to Scotland in Argyll’s Knapdale Forest. Last month, three more beavers were introduced to the forest seven years after the first ones. The success of their reintroduction has exceeded all expectations. Their construction skills make them expert at habitat management to the benefit of Scotland. Their dam-building can stabilise important wetlands during dry months and create still-water pools that become perfect environments for diverse types of insects, such as dragonflies. They can improve biodiversity by ensuring a variety of native tree species flourish.

Unsurprisingly, as with the lynx, the narrow interests of similar opposition groups coalesced in a familiar pattern around the beaver’s reintroduction. Landowners, rich residents, farmers and anglers all opposed the beasts for the flimsiest reasons: houses and business premises could be at risk of flooding. There could be crop damage and an adverse impact on fish stocks. None of this has happened, nor was it ever likely to. As usual, the over-protected interests of privileged groups were being advanced before the interests of the nation. And as usual, their claims went untested.

Some of these landowners are descended from families who participated in an illegal land grab over several hundred years. Having driven people off their lands to make way for sheep, they now try to justify their continued stewardship of these places by saying they are not fit for human communities and that only they possess the skills and experience to manage them properly. So we won’t treat seriously anything they have to say about land conservation and the mix of species that we permit to thrive on them.

Scotland was a home for many of these species well before greedy humans arrived. Our country was designed principally for them. So let’s bring them all back – the lynxes, wolves and bears. This land is their land.