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.