How Snake Handlers Work

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.