May 18, 2010

Goodbye Butantan...


There area some things you take for granted. Things that you think will exist forever and you will always have time to see. The above building, existing adjacent to the main campus of the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil, iscalled "Instituto do Butantan", or Butantan Institute. Many buildings in this institute are old. In particular, the one who used to contain the whole biological collection was projected in the 1960's, which means that for most people of my age it always existed, but the institute itself was founded on 1901. Here is a Wikipedia article in English about it. Until this Saturday, it was one of the largest collection of venomous animals conserved in vitro in the world, with approximately 450 000 specimens of spiders and scorpions and 85 000 snakes.

As I have seen many ignorant, to say the least, comments about this in the internet, let me just clarify that people from the institute did not go around the country hunting snakes to put them in jars. Although this may have happened some times, as I cannot tell anything about science on 1901, I know that we in Brazil were used to send any kind of snake we would find dead, or that needed to be killed because it was attacking or has attacked someone, to the institute and I believe that many of the species were acquired in that way. And before anyone says it is some kind of horror show, I bet that all children that have ever put their eyes on that collection were amazed, not scared.

That said, the institute was also the largest producer of antivenom and vaccines in Latin America. To be honest, nobody dies of poisoning by a venomous animal in Brazil thanks to it. Specially those who live in Brazil know how it is not uncommon to find snakes, spiders or scorpions in the gardens. And not too far from the big centres. And some of them are really poisonous.

Everything I am saying is in the past for it took only one hour and a half for a fire to destroy more than one century of research. The fire started at 7 o'clock in the morning on this Saturday and was merciless to the building that was used to store the collection of dead animals (neither the one in the above photo, nor the one in the photo to your left, but the one in the photos below). The building was not prepared for a fire and most specimens were conserved in ethanol, which contributed to the rapid spread of the fire. The specimens that were alive fortunately could be saved before the fire reached them.

Science everywhere in the world survives thanks to the efforts of those who love it. Politicians usually do not give a damn unless it is useful to fulfill their needs for money and power. The public in general may even like it, but consider most of it nothing more than a kind of entertainment and scientists as some kind of people who want to have a fun life using public funds. In Brazil it is even more difficult and the Butantan was one of those places that become a legend thanks to the efforts of the researchers and certainly not of the politicians. It seems that last year the researchers asked for a grant of 1 million reais (the Brazilian currency), which is about US$ 500 000 and £ 380 000, to install fire protection equipment in the building. I do not need to say it was not granted.

When I was a kid, almost every child in Sao Paulo had gone to visit the Butantan at some point to see the amazing collections. What kid doesn't want to see snakes, spiders and scorpions? They had also live animals there, and it seems that at least these were saved, and everyone has a fantastic story of seeing huge snakes being fed with small mouses. I have never been there, and now I regret. Although the institute was more than just one building, that one in particular could be considered the most important. You can reconstruct everything, but the knowledge is lost forever.

The amount of money needed to avoid the lost of one thing that was something Brazil should be proud of was less than what is needed to pay for an advertisement in a TV channel. Less than what the president that the rest of the world love (Lula) would spend in one of his "receptions". Actually, in modern terms, it was almost nothing. Since that Times article about Brazil, everyone here always ask me why am I not coming back as Brazil is meant to be one of the powers of the future. The answer is simple. The only thing that is becoming better in Brazil are the economic indices, and unfortunately I do not have US$ 1 000 000 to invest and take advantage of it.


I must admit that while I am writing this, I am really trying to contain the tears that are forming in my eyes. Butantan was part of Sao Paulo, and Brazil of course, history. One of those few things that we could say that was working there and that we were proud of. It is really a pity. A great loss. I doubt I can continue to write more about that without indeed crying, I leave everyone with some more photos and news:




Goodbye...

3 comments:

Christine said...

Yes, it was terrible, I couldn't believe it when I saw the news on TV.

Roberto C. Alamino said...

Isn't that? I am still shocked and sad. I am not sure how most people are reacting in Brazil, but although nobody got hurt, it is a reason to mourn for another 100 years.

And they were trying to get funding to refurbish those buildings for so long...

Capt.Herp said...

An absolute catastrophe -- I learned about it at a herpetology meeting here in the US. I'm stunned, not only at the history that was lost, but at the sheer volume of preserved material. I doubt this can ever be duplicated, and I'm sorry for Brazil, and for the planet at large, for this loss.