Miami – As a child, Cuban-born Al Cruz used to bring home animals he found on the street, although they were neither cats nor dogs, but rather rattlesnakes and other serpents that his father, alarmed by his son's practice, ended up killing.
Decades later, Capt. Al Cruz, a firefighter and paramedic, retains his interest in snakes and that fascination motivated him to create in Miami what eventually became one of the largest anti-venom banks in the world.
"Hispanics don't like to have snakes around. When you talk to them about snakes they normally ask, where is my machete so I can kill them," the founder and director of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue's snakebite unit, Venom 1.
His case is different. When he was 6 years old he handled snakes and instead of reading stories about superheroes he preferred books about reptiles.
"Snakes fascinated me from that age onwards. I (brought home) rattlesnakes and my dad killed them because he didn't want them in the house. Up to now, I've (always) had some kind of reptile in my house," Cruz said.
These days, he's using that strong connection and the knowledge he later acquired about snakes to save lives.
The snakebite unit supplies anti-venom to treat the bites of 435 kinds of snakes, as well as spiders and scorpions.
"We can travel with the antidote, send it or we can advise by telephone people asking for help from countries as far away as The Philippines. We tell them what the closest site is to find the anti-venom because we work with the international antidote centers," Cruz explained.
He said that since he founded the center, they have treated more than 1,000 bites and "so far, not a single one of our patients has died."
Between the time the Miami serpentarium closed in the late 1980s and the opening of Venom 1 in 1998, 17 government agencies - including the U.S. Air Force - were needed to try and save a single life, the Cuban-American said.
Up until the point, that is, when Cruz heard on the radio that a black mamba, one of the world's most poisonous snakes, had bitten a man in Homestead, south of Miami.
The victim was unconscious and Cruz telephoned a scientist he knew, who told him where to get the anti-venom, and he managed to save the man.
That incident motivated Cruz to solve the problem.
During the first three years that Venom 1 was in operation, Cruz worked alone directing the center and recalled that he "didn't have a life" because he sometimes had to leave his wife when they had gone to a restaurant or leave his own birthday party to take care of emergencies. He also wasn't able to take a vacation.
One of the cases that impacted him most, he told Efe, occurred in the days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks when a Miami man was bitten by an Inland Taipan, an extremely poisonous snake native to Australia.
"One bite from that snake can kill 12 people or 50,000 mice," Cruz said.
He was with the patient for almost 36 hours and during which time he convinced the doctors that the man would live if he could get six doses of the antidote. The only problem was that they only had five doses.
Cruz contacted the Federal Aviation Administration and urged them to make an exception to the nationwide no-fly zone in place at the time to allow a flight to be made from San Diego with the sixth dose.
The FAA agreed and the vital medicine was brought to Miami.