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Serpent Experts Try To Demystify Pentecostal Snake Handling

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Serpent Experts Try To Demystify Pentecostal Snake Handling

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Serpent Experts Try To Demystify Pentecostal Snake Handling

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. Two weeks ago, we broadcast a story on Pentecostals in Appalachia who handle snakes in church - poisonous snakes. They do it to prove their faith in God. We heard from Pastor Andrew Hamblin.

ANDREW HAMBLIN: The feeling to take up serpents is unexplainable. It's peace that surpasseth all understanding to know that you're sitting - you're standing there, rather, with death in your hand; and the anointing of God is protected you, to let you do that.

CORNISH: Well, after our story aired, we heard from several snake experts. They strongly suggest that a snake's reluctance to bite may have more to do with the creature's poor health than with supernatural intervention. NPR's John Burnett has this follow-up.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: 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 they've examined snakes used in church.

KRISTEN WILEY: The animals that I have seen that have come from religious snake handlers, were in bad condition.

BURNETT: Kristen Wiley is curator of the Kentucky Reptile Zoo, a facility in the town of Slade that produces venom and promotes the conservation of snakes.

WILEY: 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 that there were eight or 10 copperheads in a container that was not very large.

BURNETT: 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. Here's what she has to say about snake-handling preachers who don't take care of their reptiles.

WILEY: They're kind of setting themselves up for a safer encounter during their services, when they use a snake that is in bad condition to begin with.

BURNETT: 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. He was featured in the NPR story as well as a National Geographic reality series called "Snake Salvation."

(SOUNDBITE OF HISSING SNAKES)

BURNETT: 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 do his snakes usually live?

JAMIE COOTS: Average is probably three to four months.

BURNETT: The Kentucky Reptile Zoo reports that well-cared-for snakes live 10 to 20 years, or longer, in captivity. Jamie Coots rejects the criticism.

COOTS: People who don't believe in it are going to say anything to try to discredit us, you know; to say that it's not God actually doing it.

BURNETT: Jamie 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. He says any suggestion that the serpents they take up in church are not deadly, is ridiculous.

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.

WHITFIELD GIBBONS: I think most snakes - a rattlesnake or a copperhead - if you are gentle with them after they've been in captivity and pick them up gently and - they won't bite you. So it wouldn't matter what religious belief was.

BURNETT: He does not recommend that anyone try this. John Burnett, NPR News.

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