AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. On Saturday, a well known snake-handling preacher from Kentucky died after he was bitten by a venomous serpent during a church service. He had been featured in a National Geographic reality TV show last fall called "Snake Salvation." You may recall his story in an NPR feature about the religious tradition of handling snakes. NPR's John Burnett has this obituary.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Last October on the program, we introduced you to Pastor Jamie Coots, a 42-year-old Pentecostal preacher and third-generation snake handler from Middlesboro, Kentucky.
JAMIE COOTS: We sing, we preach, we testify, take up offerings, pray for the sick, you know, everything like everybody else does. Just, every once in a while, snakes are handled.
BURNETT: News arrived over the weekend that on Saturday night Coots was handling three rattlesnakes at his small church, the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name, when one of them bit him on his right hand. He lost consciousness and was taken home, where his family refused anti-venom treatment by an emergency medical crew. Jamie Coots was pronounced dead about two hours after the snake bite.
In an interview with NPR in September, Coots said he had been bitten nine times in 22 years, and each time he recovered, he believed, through the power of his faith.
COOTS: I enjoyed the feeling that moved on me to take up the serpent. Handling the snake, you know, it's undescribable(ph). I mean, you have a peace to know that you're holding something in your hand that could kill you. And yet, you have no fear of it.
BURNETT: Death from religious snake handling is not unheard of. In 1995, a woman was bit in Coots' church and died. Though handling serpents is a misdemeanor offense in most states where it's practiced, authorities rarely enforce it out of respect for religious liberty. There are an estimated 125 snake-handling congregations scattered across Alabama, Georgia, the Carolinas and Appalachia, where the tradition is strongest.
Coots continued to take up serpents, even though he was arrested in 2008 by Kentucky wildlife authorities for trafficking in illegal snakes. He later obtained permits for the reptiles. He kept about 30 rattlers and copperheads in glass cages in a shed behind his house in Middlesboro.
Coots was known throughout the normally publicity-shy snake-handling community as someone who wanted to educate the outside world about their practices, and who was fearless in his faith.
COOTS: I just like handling really, really big snakes.
BURNETT: And he said in this interview last year that he had his favorites.
COOTS: Well, the black timber rattler I just love. Some of the black timber rattlers, their head just look, like, velvety. I mean, just it's such a shiny black.
BURNETT: His son, Cody Coots, who is also a snake handler in church, told a local newspaper that the snake that gave his father the fatal bite was a two-and-a-half-foot long timber rattler. John Burnett, NPR News.