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Why snake handlers don’t get bitten as much as might be expected

The practice of snake handling as a test of faith is popular in certain rural Pentecostal churches in the US. There is even a TV series called Snake Salvation about this practice on the National Geographic channel. It is highly dangerous to handle poisonous snakes and this has resulted in some of the people being fatally bitten.

But an interesting question is why even more people are not bitten. The faithful will say that it is because of the faith of the handlers but in this NPR report, Whitfield Gibbons, an authority on snakes of the Southeastern U.S. at the University of Georgia, tells John Burnett that “I think most snakes, a rattlesnake or a copperhead, if you are gentle with them after they’ve been in captivity and pick them up gently, they won’t bite you. So, it wouldn’t matter what religious belief was.”

But depending on the good nature of such deadly animals hardly seems sufficient to explain the lack of bites and there must surely be something more going on. Kristen Willey, a herpetologist at the Kentucky Reptile Zoo who has been following this practice for years, explains what may be the key factor.

KRISTEN WILEY: The animals that I’ve seen that have come from religious snake handlers were in bad condition… They did not have water. The cages had been left not cleaned for a pretty long period of time. And the other thing we noticed is that there were eight or 10 copperheads in a container that was not very large.

BURNETT: What’s more, she says there was no fecal material in the container, which indicated the snakes were not being fed. Riley says a snake that may be dehydrated, underweight and sick from close confinement is less likely to strike than a healthy snake. Moreover, the venom it produces is weaker. Here’s what she has to say about snake-handling preachers who don’t take care of their reptiles.

WILEY: They’re kind of setting themselves up for a safer encounter during their services when they use a snake that is in bad condition to begin with.

When Burnett asked Jamie Coots, a well-known snake-handling preacher, in Middlesboro, Kentucky about this he denied the accusation and said that he looked after his snakes well but admitted that his snakes lived on average just three to four months, while herpetologists says that well-cared for snakes should live for 10 to 20 years.

So another reason to detest this practice is that it is cruel to snakes who are, after all, also god’s creatures.

Comments

  1. Chiroptera says

    Whoa! It sounds as if the kind and compassionate Pentacostals are being selected out of the gene pool!

  2. Great American Satan says

    I know you’re being facetious, but I like to afford snakes the dignity that they will never have the screwed up forebrain wiring to imagine they are the creatures of a mythical creator. They are their own snaky masters. Hsssss.

  3. says

    It’s also funny that, according to Bart Ehrman and other textual critics, the snake handling bit was a late addition to the bible. Oops. Cruelty to the snakes, really.

  4. says

    They did not have water. The cages had been left not cleaned for a pretty long period of time. And the other thing we noticed is that there were eight or 10 copperheads in a container that was not very large. …there was no fecal material in the container, which indicated the snakes were not being fed.

    Why shouldn’t those “snake handlers” be charged with animal cruelty?

    Disgusting.

  5. smrnda says

    Bad to know about the animal cruelty. Doesn’t surprise me – snakes are just props to these people. Other people are just props sometimes too.

  6. left0ver1under says

    The inevitable claim would be “religious persecution”.

    And charges aren’t like to be laid or as severe because most people don’t like the victim, in this case snakes. We do the same with people – those who murder abortion providers or gay people often get light sentences from prosecutors who are as bigoted as they are (e.g. John Ashcroft protecting James Kopp from serious sentencing and no death penalty).

  7. jamessweet says

    admitted that his snakes lived on average just three to four months,

    Woah. That’s shocking. We have a snake that’s like 15+ years old (granted it’s a totally different species, but still). And to be honest, it’s not like I take great care of it. It’s not like abused or neglected or anything, but I’m sometimes slow cleaning the cage, I am sometimes pretty late feeding him, etc. My point is that it’s not hard to take care of a snake… yeesh…

  8. trucreep says

    Snakes don’t really have to eat THAT much do they?? I had a buddy that had a pet snake, they creep me out but they’re beautiful animals. Haha something about the way it slithered around your hands and its tongue flicking about…very creepy!

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