How Snake Handlers Work

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.