How Snake Handlers Work

Pastor Mack Wolford, a member of the Pentecostal 'Signs Following' tradition, handles a rattlesnake during a service at the Church of the Lord Jesus in Jolo, West Virginia, on Sept. 2, 2011. Wolford would die the following year from a rattlesnake bite.
Pastor Mack Wolford, a member of the Pentecostal 'Signs Following' tradition, handles a rattlesnake during a service at the Church of the Lord Jesus in Jolo, West Virginia, on Sept. 2, 2011. Wolford would die the following year from a rattlesnake bite.
Lauren Pond For The Washington Post via Getty Images

Pastor Jamie Coots had been bitten nine times before [source: Burnett]. For two decades he'd handled venomous snakes at his Kentucky church, one of perhaps 100 congregations practicing "holiness serpent handling" in the United States in the 21st century [sources: Burnett, Lewis, Wilking and Effron]. Coots, who starred in National Geographic's 2013 reality show "Snake Salvation," was fairly well-known, an exception among the typically media-shy serpent handlers [sources: Burnett, Estep].

So Coots' death in 2014 from a rattlesnake bite received media coverage, feeding the general public's enduring fascination with religious snake handling. And the practice is fascinating. It's downright brazen. But they're not the only ones who handle deadly snakes.

Scientists milk snakes for the venom that will produce lifesaving anti-venom treatments, or they research topics like the actual pressure exerted when a constrictor kills its prey [source: Moon and Mehta]. Snake veterinarians slide feeding tubes down the throats of fully conscious snakes [source: Pet Place]. Snake removers show up when someone finds a 14-foot (4-meter) python in the backyard shed.

Not all snakes are deadly. Most are pretty harmless, especially to something as large as a person [source: Wexo]. But those that can do harm can do it awfully. Venomous snakes use their fangs to inject venom, a kind of poison that causes some combination of extreme pain, burning, vomiting, convulsions, tissue death, paralysis, swelling of the throat, nerve damage, internal bleeding and multisystem organ failure, among other ill effects [sources: Barish and Arnold, MedlinePlus]. A constrictor propels itself forward to strike and then roll over its prey, immobilizing it as the snake latches on to a body part with rear-angled teeth. The constrictor then coils around the prey and tightens until the prey dies from suffocation, cardiac arrest or spinal fracture, whichever comes first [source: Team].

Voluntarily handling snakes that can kill or maim a full-grown human likely takes a certain type of person, whether they're doing it for a living or for God. Confident. Accepting of risk. Not terrified of snakes. But the professionals and the preachers take vastly different approaches to the practice. Professionals tend to put a high premium on the survival of all involved.

Where Caution Reigns: Professional Snake Handling

Legendary snake handler Bill Haast has some one-on-one time with a cobra in 1972.
Legendary snake handler Bill Haast has some one-on-one time with a cobra in 1972.
Alan Band/Fox Photos/Getty Images

Safe, humane snake handling is a learned skill. It's not just about knowing how to hold a snake so it can't bite. It's about knowing snakes.

Herpetologists, the scientists who specifically study amphibians and reptiles, typically have advanced degrees in fields related to biology along with additional, reptile-specific training [source: SSAR]. Experts in snake removal, also called "rescue and relocation," are trained in the identification, behaviors and safe handling of all kinds of snakes in all kinds of environments [source: Animal Ark].

Among snake "displayers" — those who perform at roadside attractions or conduct other demonstrations, often with audience participation — expertise varies. Not all states regulate the industry. Many snake displayers, however, have been working with snakes for decades, and some are herpetologists [sources: MacGuill, Schudel, Klinkenberg].

Professionals aim to get the job done without anyone, including the snake, getting hurt. This means using tools whenever possible [source: Hunter]. Extension tools are standard. Snake hooks or tongs can keep a venomous snake out of strike range while moving or displaying it. Veterinarians often secure a snake's head in a soft, clear tube or the entire snake under a mesh panel for exams or treatment [sources: Hunter, Snake Getters]. Zookeepers use feeding tongs to deliver prey [source: The Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden].

Milking, however, invariably requires free-handling: holding a snake with the hands, not tools. The milker grabs the back of a snake's head, near where the jaw bones meet, with the thumb and index finger. This both immobilizes the head (ideally) and puts the fingers on the venom glands. She then presses inward on the jaw, forcing the snake's mouth open, and pushes its fangs through a latex membrane stretched over a jar. To start venom flow, she massages the glands [sources: Reptile World Florida, ZME Science].

In milking, there should always be at least two handlers present [source: WHO]. Backup is smart in any snake-handling context. Someone might need to dial 911, drive to a hospital that stocks anti-venom or slightly impede the tail of a Burmese python trying to coil around an aquarium handler while everyone waits for the stun gun to arrive [source: Stein].

For constrictors, experts recommend at least one handler for each 5 feet (1.5 meters) of snake and one for each 3 feet (1 meter) of anaconda or reticulated python [source: Flank].

When you handle deadly snakes for a living, caution is job one. When you handle snakes for God, it is not. Aside from the presence of snakes, in fact, professional snake handling and "holiness serpent handling" look almost nothing alike.

A Matter of Faith: Holiness Serpent Handling

1945: Lewis Ford is shown as he draped a rattlesnake about the neck of a member of a Tennessee congregation. Ford would die that same year from a snake bite he received.
1945: Lewis Ford is shown as he draped a rattlesnake about the neck of a member of a Tennessee congregation. Ford would die that same year from a snake bite he received.
© Bettmann/Corbis

By most accounts, holiness serpent handling dates to the early 1900s in Tennessee and a preacher named George Hensley. He was, legend has it, in the midst of a crisis of faith and one day was grappling with a line from the Gospel of Mark — "They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them" (Mark 16:18) — when he turned and saw a venomous snake. He was compelled to pick it up. And when he walked away unscathed, his faith was intact [sources: Phillips, Mariani].

The command, it seemed, was literal, and Hensley spread the word from his pulpit: To fully obey God and therefore be saved, one has to "take up serpents" [source: Loller]. (Followers of the movement also drink strychnine, a "deadly thing" [source: Mariani].)

By the 1930s, serpent handling was fairly widespread in Appalachia. By the 1940s, with practitioner deaths adding up, it was outlawed, but the practice continued [source: Scott].

Serpent handlers — they prefer "serpent" to "snake" — belong to one of several evangelical churches in the Pentecostal tradition, most prominently the Church of God with Signs Following [source: Lewis]. They use no tools to handle snakes [sources: Handwerk]. They seemingly employ no safety measures at all aside from faith.

Videos show practitioners holding rattlesnakes and copperheads, breeds commonly kept by churches, well within strike range, making no attempt to immobilize the head. Coots was known to get face to face with his snakes [source: Mariani]. Techniques include lifting snakes into the air, slinging them over shoulders and handling three or four at a time, all while bouncing up and down in trance-like elation [sources: CNN].

The experience has been described as one of peace and extreme joy and as a more powerful high than any drug can create [sources: Loller, Burnett].

Several thousand people subscribe to serpent handling today, though not all of them handle the snakes [sources: Lewis, Wilking and Effron,]. Taking up serpents is about obeying God's command, not about proving one's faith, so someone who hasn't felt commanded by God to handle a snake is expected to abstain [source: Scott]. (Snake handling is just one part of what's otherwise a pretty typical Pentecostal service [source: Handwerk].)

Many do take up serpents, though, and they know they might get hurt [source: Handwerk]. It's obvious.

Serpent Handling: When Bad Things Happen

This prairie rattlesnake has its venom milked. Milkers may get bitten, too.
This prairie rattlesnake has its venom milked. Milkers may get bitten, too.
© Joe McDonald/Corbis

In more than a century of holiness serpent handling, about 100 people have died from bites [source: Duin]. It's hard to know how that compares to the number of people who've handled serpents. Still, considering their handling techniques and the fact that they almost always refuse medical treatment, that the death rate isn't higher seems a bit, well, miraculous [sources: Swaine, Wilking and Effron].

Anti-venom has a nearly 100 percent cure rate if it's administered in time [source: ZME Science]. Many congregants are bitten, but most survive despite refusing medical care. They commonly lose fingers or the use of a hand [source: Handwerk].

Some serpent handlers in the community do believe injury is punishment for sin or the result of human error — not releasing the serpent in time after the "spirit leaves them" [source: Loller]. But in the far more common view, it's completely out of their hands. They're obeying the word of God; whatever comes from it is up to him. If someone gets bitten, it's God's will. If someone dies, it was simply that person's time [source: Handwerk].

Injury isn't saved for the amateurs. Milkers get bitten all the time. Legendary showman and milker Bill Haast, owner of the famous Miami Serpentarium, survived at least 172 bites over 60-plus years, including one from a blue krait, whose venom makes a cobra's seem like Kool-Aid [source: Conservation Institute]. When a bite cost him his right index finger in 2003, he had to retire (at 92 years old) [sources: Hunter, Schudel].

In 2008 in Pakistan, conservationist Rafiq Rajput was killed by an Indian krait. He was moving the snake between cages when he was bitten, and the local hospital had no anti-venom [source: Hasan]. The same year, a 10-foot (3-meter) Burmese python at a Venezuelan zoo killed and partially swallowed an inexperienced handler who'd recklessly entered the snake's enclosure alone during a night shift [source: Telegraph]. In 2013, expert handler Dieter Zorn died within minutes of receiving multiple bites from an Aspic viper during a demonstration in France aimed at helping people overcome their fear of snakes [source: Sieczkowski].

Still, considering how often people handle deadly snakes and especially how many novices do it, one might wonder why there aren't more deaths. Jamie Coots had been bitten nine times before his death in 2014 [source: Burnett]. There is evidence that George Hensley received 400 bites before one killed him [source: Scott].

Maybe it is a miracle. Or maybe it has something to do with the snakes.

Snake Handling Risks, Revisited

There are herpetologists who believe holiness serpent handling is rigged. When a group from The Kentucky Reptile Zoo inspected the snake room at Coots' church, they found what they believed were mistreated, malnourished animals. Cages were dirty and overcrowded. Evidence suggested the snakes were not being fed or watered enough [source: Burnett].

Hungry snakes inject less venom than well-fed snakes [source: Hayes]. Snakes that are generally unhealthy are less likely to strike, and whatever venom they do inject is less potent [source: Burnett].

In 2013, authorities in Tennessee, where keeping venomous snakes is illegal, raided the church of snake-handling preacher Andrew Hamblin and confiscated 53 snakes, all of which were in poor health. Many died within months of the raid [source: Smietana]. (Hamblin was not indicted for the violation.)

Another possible explanation for the relatively low number of strikes in snake-handling churches is this: Snakes aren't nearly as aggressive as some people think.

Snakes do not prey on humans [source: Welcome Wildlife]. When they attack, it's in self-defense, and when snakes feel threatened they would still much rather get away from humans than bite them [source: Snake Getters]. Venomous snakes are bolder than constrictors, but even they would rather escape [source: Hubbell]. Evolutionarily speaking, there's just no point in striking at large predators, which can kill fragile-boned snakes very easily. Whatever danger they pose would likely come to fruition before a snake's venom could take effect [source: Snake Getters].

Venom is also precious. Snakes need it to catch their prey, so they only use it when necessary [source: Kamler]. About 25 percent of the time, pit vipers like rattlesnakes and copperheads deliver "dry bites" [source: Barish and Arnold].

Perhaps, then, serpent handling is slightly less dangerous than it seems. Or maybe not, and more people would get hurt if they had less faith. Or maybe it's just dumb luck. In the words of the experts at Snake Getters:

You can quite often get away with taking some pretty extreme liberties with a venomous snake. You can get inside its strike range ... and nothing may happen. Maybe you will get away with it a hundred times. The tragedy happens when the odds catch up to you the hundred and first time, and the snake ... does what it was perfectly capable of doing all along.

As for the rattlesnake that killed Pastor Coots, it was back in church the following week, in the hands of the late pastor's son [source: Kuruvilla].

Author's Note: How Snake Handlers Work

Some of the academics and journalists who have studied holiness serpent handling seem somewhat impressed with those who practice it, noting their faith appears to be exceptionally strong and sincere. That may very well be. There is the issue, however, of animal cruelty. If snakes are indeed kept in filthy conditions, seriously ill and apparently starving, concerns of animal abuse are warranted. It's possible that religious freedom protects the practice of snake handling, but it seems unlikely it also protects the practice of animal abuse in that context if the abuse is not necessary to the religious practice. Were the experts confronted with dogs in similar conditions, it would likely overshadow their keepers' impressive degree of faith. (And were the general public confronted with it, it would likely lead to criminal charges. Maybe if snakes had fur ...)

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