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Serpent Experts Try To Demystify Pentecostal Snake Handling

Filed by KOSU News in US News.
October 18, 2013

Two weeks ago, NPR reported on a group of Pentecostals in Appalachia who handle snakes in church to prove their faith in God. The story got us thinking: Why are the handlers bitten so rarely, and why are so few of those snakebites lethal?

After the story aired, NPR was contacted by snake experts who strongly suggest that a snake’s reluctance to bite a religious serpent handler may have more to do with the creature’s poor health than with supernatural intervention.

The herpetologists at the Kentucky Reptile Zoo have been following the activities of Pentecostal snake handlers for years. They have watched hours of video of snake-handling services and examined snakes used in church.

“The animals that I’ve seen that have come from religious snake handlers were in bad condition,” says Kristen Wiley, curator of the Kentucky Reptile Zoo, a facility in the town of Slade that produces venom and promotes the conservation of snakes. “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 there were eight or 10 copperheads in a container that was not very large.”

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.

She says snake-handling preachers who don’t take care of their snakes are “setting themselves up for a safer encounter during their services when they use a snake that is in bad condition to begin with.”

One of the pastors they level criticism at is Jamie Coots, who regularly takes up serpents in his Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name in Middlesboro, Ky. Coots was featured in NPR’s story as well as a National Geographic reality series called Snake Salvation.

When we visited the snake room behind Coots’ house, there were about 30 snakes — mostly timber rattlers and copperheads — crowded into glass cages. He says he waters them regularly but that his supplier of live mice and rats moved away. And many of the snakes won’t eat anyway.

In a follow-up call, I asked him how long his snakes usually live.

“Average is probably three to four months,” Coots says.

The Kentucky Reptile Zoo reports that well-cared-for snakes live 10 to 20 years or longer in captivity.

Coots rejects the criticism.

“People who don’t believe in it are gonna say anything to try and discredit us, you know, to say that it’s not God actually doin’ it,” he says.

Coots was arrested in 2008 by the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife for trafficking in illegal venomous snakes. He was convicted and fined. Today he possesses permits to keep and transport snakes legally.

He says any suggestion that the serpents they take up in church are not deadly is ridiculous. Handlers get bitten all the time, he says, and every few years someone dies. He invites his critics at the Reptile Zoo to come to his church to see if the anointing power of God is a sham.

“If they want to bring some of theirs down here, we’d readily handle them. Or if they want to come down here and free-handle ours and see if they don’t get bit, they’re welcome to do that, too. We get fresh snakes all the time,” Coots says.

An entirely different view of religious snake handling comes from Whitfield Gibbons, an authority on snakes of the Southeastern U.S. at the University of Georgia.

“I think most snakes, a rattlesnake or a copperhead, if you are gentle with them after they’ve been in captivity and [you] pick them up gently, they won’t bite you. So, it wouldn’t matter what [your] religious belief was,” Gibbons says.

He does not recommend that anyone try this. [Copyright 2013 NPR]

2 Responses to “Serpent Experts Try To Demystify Pentecostal Snake Handling”

  1. Diana Warner says:

    You can like soak the danger of those rattle snakes all you want. Hey, those are deadly snakes hungry or not. When I am hungry I am hard to get along with. When a dog gets hungry enough they are a lot more likely to bite. Come on lets get real. These snakes are just as dangerous as one that is fed daily. Lets use common sense. Snakes are dangerous and especially a rattle snake, copper head or water moccasin. Whats wrong with admitting that God is protecting these people? Regardless if I don't read the scripture to say to literally take up serpents. I feel it means if a child of God gets bitten by accident. I see by handling them it is like they are tempting the Lord. Just like the story of Jesus when Satan tells him if you are Gods son to jump off the cliff and let God save you. Jesus tells Satan, it is wrong to temp the Lord.

  2. Diana Warner says:

    Since I am new at this web site , I was not sure if my first post is being heard so, I decided to write a new post. As I read the article on the Pentecostal snake handlers, I feel that common sense need to used. First of all, common sense knows that rattle snakes, copperheads and water moccasins are dangerous. To even get close to one, is risking their life. Although, it is common sense that the snakes that the Pentecostal people are handling seem to be tame and unprovoked not acrimonious, hungry and provoked. It is also common sense that they seem to be enjoying the Lords presence as much as the Pentecostals with their dancing, tongue talking and glorious singing. With that being said, The dichotomy that I see in what they are doing is in the scriptures. (Matthew 4:5-7, KJV)“If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written: “‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’ Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test”. So if one Bible should be obeyed then this one should be taken in account and obeyed as well. The statement by Mr Gibbons in the article says, "if you are careful when you pick one these snakes up they won't bite". That does not make sense to me. Those Pentecostals are jerking them around like rag dolls. Also there is another statement in this article that says, "that someone in the Pentecostal church die from the bite of snakes every few years. Now come on, these snakes are handled weekly. One every few years is nothing. This article also said the snakes seemed sickly and that does not make sense either. I know the point that you are TRYING to make, but where is the common sense. A hungry lion is far more likely to bite and kill than a fed Lion. If you want to know the truth, I am more likely to be grumpy if I am hungry or starving as the article made it sound. My feeling is they are not getting bit because the Spirit of the Lord is in their church a enormous way and those snakes are unable to bite because the Spirit of the Lord is there. Although I do feel they are tempting the Lord. There is one more scripture that I would like to back my statement and that is: The Lord says, "my people perish for the lack of knowledge".

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