How Snake Handlers Work

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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