Death of snake handler highlights the dangers of dangerous animals

This Saturday pastor Jamie Coots, well known for his habit of handling snakes as a way to show his relationship with god, was killed by a snakebite. Now, I do my best not to insult other people’s religious beliefs, and the point I want to make here goes way beyond religion. Frankly, it is amazing (I won’t dare say miracle) that Coots wasn’t killed before. There is a reason why owning

A snake handler at the Pentecostal Church in Kentucky in 1946. This practice has gone on in the Appalachian region since it was first introduced in the early 1900s.

A snake handler at the Pentecostal Church in Kentucky in 1946. This practice has gone on in the Appalachian region since it was first introduced in the early 1900s.

and handling the snakes he used is illegal, and I feel like this should be rather obvious, and those who agree with me may feel free to skip this particular post.

I would attribute Coots’ success not to divine intervention, but rather to an in-depth knowledge of snake behavior. As a third generation snake handler I’m betting his family taught Coots the tricks of the trade, though I don’t doubt that Coots truly believed his faith kept him safe. But the problem is that no matter how well you understand animal behavior when it comes to wild animals, nothing is certain.

Take Steve Irwin, my childhood hero. I’m not sure there was another person on earth who understood animals better than he did. He handled every dangerous animal you could imagine, but just one small mistake with a stingray cost him his life. And then there’s Siegfried and Roy, who performed magic shows with white tigers and lions for over 30 years before the horrifying moment when Roy was almost killed by a white tiger during a show. No matter how well you know an animal, if doesn’t have the genetic ability (called domestication) to learn to interact with humans there is always a chance it could accidentally, or intentionally hurt someone.

This is why, when my friend forwarded me the video of the man who hugs lions my mind immediately raced from “Wow that’s crazy!” to “Oh god this cannot end well.” Because while I do believe it is amazing and kind of wonderful that this man was able to develop this sort of relationship with these wild animals, there is every chance he will end up as another Grizzly Man.

When I first heard about Jamie Coots my first thought was that while sad, perhaps his death could show other religious snake handlers that religious faith is not enough to protect you from these unpredictable and lethal animals. But then I found an article saying the exact opposite, that preachers expect his death to inspire more people to handle venomous snakes as a display of faith. I won’t get into how backwards I find this logic. And honestly, if you want to do something foolish that could very well end in your death, ordinarily I would say that’s your decision. But when an animal causes human injury or death, it is usually the animal that is blamed regardless of the circumstances, and it is usually the animal that is punished. I don’t mean to get preachy (sorry, couldn’t help myself) and I know some people might get sick of these talks always coming back to being about animal welfare, but someone needs to speak for those who can’t speak for themselves. And because the message still hasn’t sunk in. Animals do not speak our language, and they aren’t malicious or spiteful. All they can do is react to the situations they are in the only way they know how.


About Hannah Rosen

I am a PhD candidate at Hopkins Marine Station of Stanford University. I am currently conducting research on color change in squid skin, but my real passion is making science accessible to those outside of the field so that everyone can love it as much as I do! Science is not just for the professionals. It is fun and something that everyone can and should enjoy. Deep down we are all science nerds, you just may not know it yet!

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