Saturday, February 21, 2009

Snake handlers

Roughly 1,000 Indian snake charmers marched on Calcutta earlier this month, demanding the right to perform with live snakes. They were protesting a 1991 law that banned performances that include cobras and other snakes, making what they do illegal. Though their ancient profession is dying, snake charmers rarely do - the sluggish cobras are often kept out of bite range, may have their fangs or venom glands removed, or sometimes have their mouths sewn shut.

Not so the serpent-handlers in some Appalachian churches, whose estimated 2,000 congregants still interpret the Holy Bible literally and take the following passages to mean that they can handle poisonous snakes with impunity:

"And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well."~Mark 16:17-18

He replied, "I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you. However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven."~Luke 10:18-20

"There are over 100 documented deaths from serpent bites," says Ralph Hood, a professor of social psychology and the psychology of religion at the University of Tennessee. "In every tradition, people are bitten and maimed by them. They risk their lives all the time by handling them. If you go to any serpent-handling church, you'll see people with atrophied hands, and missing fingers. All the serpent-handling families have suffered such things."

Twenty minutes into his service in rural Georgia in June 1996, preacher Spencer Evans, 23, felt the Spirit move him, reached into a box, and brought out a rattlesnake - which promptly bit him on the wrist. Such a bite should have proved fatal in no more than a couple of hours, but Evans' life was saved at the hospital over a period of days. Upon his release, the preacher returned to handling serpents. "I done took 'em up. I still believe it's right. The Bible didn't say they wouldn't bite,'' he says emphatically.

There are others who take up snakes as pets - not rattlers that bite, but constrictors that squeeze....Amanda Ruth Black, 25, was attempting to give some medicine to her pet snake in Virginia Beach, Virginia, in October 2008. Her husband came home to find her on the floor in front of the open cage. The 13' reticulated python was found in an agitated state; it had asphyxiated Amanda in the bedroom of their home. Richard Barber, 43, of Aurora, Colorado, owned a large (8-10') Burmese python he called "Monty." Barber had allowed the snake to wrap itself around his neck and upper torso as usual in February 2002 when it became aggressive and began to strangle him. Barber's new roommate Kimberly Brown called 911, summoning police officers who were unsuccessful at prying the snake loose with their batons. A few minutes later, 7 firefighters disengaged the snake, but by then it had been squeezing Barber's neck for 10-15 minutes. They transported the man to the emergency room, but he died of asphyxiation shortly thereafter. Ted Dres, 48, of Cincinnati, Ohio, was discovered by an acquaintance in December 2006. Dres was inside his pet snake's cage with the 13' boa constrictor still wrapped around his neck. Police officers worked with members of an animal protection group to remove the snake from its dead owner. Andy Mahlman, spokesman for the Cincinnati Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, warns, “People who keep these type of animals as pets should know exactly what they’re doing and what they’re capable of... They don’t realize they could be a few seconds away from death." Thankfully, a search of babies killed by the family snake turned up only 5-month-old Gabriella Vry's close call with salmonella after her father handled their Columbian rainbow boa.

There may be more than one reason that we have an inborn ability to recognize and avoid snakes, as scientists have recently discovered.

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