Dedicated Christians who put their lives in God’s hands. Deadly poisonous vipers with 200 million years of evolution behind them. Gee, put these two together and how could anything possibly go wrong?
Well, it did. Jamie Coots, age 42, died Feb. 15 of a snakebite that occurred during church services, or whatever it is snake-handling Christians call these get-togethers. He was also a TV star of his own show: “Snake Salvation”.
The snake, I believe, was a 2-1/2 foot-long timber rattler. That’s on the small side for a timber rattler. The average size is three to five feet, so this must have been an adolescent or young adult. These snakes range all over the Eastern part of the country, from Minnesota and New York State, all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico. They generally eat small mammals – voles, mice, rats, gophers.
The outstanding characteristic of a timber rattler is its “relatively mild disposition”. Rattlers evolved to eat small things and scare big things away. That’s why they have rattles – to warn off creatures that might like to dine on a piece of tender snakemeat, or just clumsily step on the rattle’s owner and damage him or her. Vipers did not develop venom to hunt down and kill big creatures: they developed it to incapacitate small creatures. The timber rattler would much rather scare you than attack you, and then, when you are at a safe distance, get the hell away from you and into the shrubbery.
Very few creatures in nature attack people. Horses attack people, and dogs attack people, but these are not natural creatures: they have been totally refined and changed by human manipulation. There have been cases of lions, tigers, European wolves, pumas, etc. attacking people, but that’s because humans were considered prey. Humans will also blunder into jellyfish swarms or wasp nests,and perhaps be attacked defensively. But it’s nothing personal. No natural species hunts humans just for entertainment. In fact, there is only one animal species that actively hunts and kills humans for purposes besides food – and that would be other humans.
But back to the snakes. As a person who kept a variety of snakes for several years, I feel like I got to know my charges fairly well. Snakes are not killing machines, nor are they malevolent. They are natural creatures that have been well-adapted to the lifestyle of hunting and capturing prey: there are no herbivore snakes.
Snakes are deaf. In fact, they are not just deaf: they have absolutely no equipment that could be construed as “ears”. Instead, they rely on different means to sense their environments: heat, taste, smell, and vibration. So, trying to recognize the mind of a snake is impossible, if you insist on the standards that apply to a typical domestic animal. You speak to a dog, he wags his tail. Speak to a snake, and he acts like he didn’t hear you – because he didn’t.
Einstein pointed out that ‘… if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.’ Or, in this case, us believing that other species are intellectually vacant. However, over last few decades, humans have discovered some surprising things about other species that tend to challenge our sense of specialness. Chickadees can speak other bird languages. Elephants recognize themselves in mirrors. Dolphins have personal sound name-tags.
And snakes are not stupid. Snakes recognize their keepers. They know how to indicate to the keeper that they are hungry, which is a form of communication. A snake can analyze a threat and act in accordance with that evaluation.
I used to take my snakes into the public schools to show kids. I had one big fat rat snake that really did not like kids grabbing at her. Did she bite? Did she flail? Did she threaten? None of the above. She would tolerate about three minutes of handling, and then make a colossal effort to issue a huge, stenchy poop onto the tabletop, whereupon the mortified keeper would scoop her up and stick her back into her box, which was exactly where she wanted to go. One could chalk this up to coincidence, but not after the fifteenth or twentieth time. She never pooped on people, and never went more than three minutes of kid-handling. I call that some pretty sophisticated analytic thinking, for a creature with a brain the size of a black-eyed pea.
I had another grizzled veteran, a corn snake, who I acquired full-grown, kept for about 15 years, and then passed along to another snake aficionado for his kids. This snake was gentle and kind-hearted, and the only person he ever bit – or even threatened to bite – was someone I had really developed an intense dislike for. Nice work, Corny! But Corny was an escape artist, and routinely would find a way out of his enclosure to hide in the house somewhere. Then, when he got hungry, he would find his way to the potato drawer in the kitchen and lay in there waiting to be discovered. Over and over and over this happened. He knew the drill – be discovered, returned to his cage, get fed, and a day or so later, vanish again, only to reappear among the potatoes a couple months later. This was not a coincidence – he learned what to do from his first accidental experience, and thereafter applied his learning with consistency.
Along these lines, people have noted that vipers generally, and rattlers in particular, have a tendency to “dry-bite”. That means a snake might bite someone, but choose to withhold its venom. Or, possibly, partially-dry-bite a person, and inject just a small portion of venom and not the full load. Constant experience in snake-handling services would doubtless familiarize a rattlesnake with what’s probably going to happen, and after a few run-throughs, they might feel relatively uncompelled to issue a bite, particularly a “wet” bite. I suppose if you were religious, you’d say something like “God protected me from that hideous reptile, because it bit me and I lived!” Well, give the snake some credit because it was the SNAKE that chose to let you live, not God.
Mr. Coots was not dealing with just some rubber animal that God was gonna guide, kind of like a scaly hand-puppet. He was dealing with a creature that had a different mentality, but not an absent mentality. Plus, it was a young snake, which are typically less experienced and less predictable, and tend to unleash their full venom loads because they are small and want to be absolutely sure of neutralizing the threat. In this case, the threat neutralized was Jamie Coots.
This little incident capsulizes the thing I detest most about Christianity. If you are going to sell the concept that people are supposed to “fill the earth and subdue it, rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground,” then you cannot grant any kind of independent validity to the natural world. Christians think they are the boss of everything, because God told them so, in that musty old book that about a thousand people wrote in at all different times, each throwing out the parts they didn’t like, and adding in new parts that they approved. What is it about the Bible that starts killing your brain cells the instant you open it? Sorry, Christians, you just aren’t that special. You can TELL yourself you are, but you aren’t, and any lightning storm, swollen river, tainted water, or poisonous snake would be happy to instruct you as to the actual measure of your own specialness..
Meanwhile, Nature continues to motor along at its stately rate, ignoring the concepts of god or gods or books or bibles or karma or sin or deservingness or undeservingness. Nature is its own entity, just as a snake is its own microcosmic entity of Nature. Mr. Coots learned that the hard way.
But don’t blame the snake.