Hubris and the Serpent: The Truth About Rattlesnake Bite Victims
rattlesnake bite truth

Hubris and the Serpent: The Truth About Rattlesnake Bite Victims

In a grizzled true story detailed in his book Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon, Michael P. Ghiglieri recounts a close-encounter involving a rattlesnake coiled up on a woman’s chest as she slept while camped along the Colorado River during a rafting trip in 1987.

Ghiglieri, a guide working the trip, was alerted to the situation by the woman’s friend who noticed the cold-blooded serpent using the woman’s torso as a temporary bed. Thinking on his feet, the guide used an 18-inch long folding shovel to remove the rattler from the woman’s chest without a snakebite, or even a disturbance of the woman’s sleep.

Ghiglieri’s only regret was the rash decision he made while the now-aggressive snake was balanced on the shovel a mere foot-and-a-half away from his own flesh: he flung the innocent rattler into the 55 degree Colorado River nearby, undoubtedly killing the snake as it would be unable to regulate its body temperature in the frigid stream.

For the humans involved at least, that story had a happy ending. And while Ghiglieri’s tale would not seem out of place in an Indiana Jones flick, the more typical rattlesnake encounters that happen out in the world are no less dangerous, or potentially terrifying.

The Snakebitten Sex

Rattlesnakes live in essentially every corner of the United States, and bites happen on a daily basis. In the US, approximately 8,000 people are bitten by venomous snakes every year, or about 22 venomous snakebites per day nationwide. Of these snakebite victims, less than 1% succumb to death (thanks to the wonders of modern medicine) with only 8 to 15 Americans dying due to a venomous snakebite each year. Once upon a time, the probability of death was much higher, mainly due to antivenin‘s lack of widespread availability before the 1950s.

Who exactly are these people getting bitten by rattlesnakes? In one word: Males. Of Americans that fall victim to venomous snakebites, about 80% are men.

Women get bit too, but why so many more men? The overriding factor: the stereotypes of machismo. While men and women have an equal share of the 40% of rattlesnake bites that are purely accidental – the victim did not intend to handle the snake and was generally unaware of its presence – men are far more likely to be the victim when the victim is bitten while intentionally picking up the snake.

Some part of this comes down to the fact that when a rattler comes into the home or yard of a typical American family, the task of removing the snake most likely falls upon the shoulders of the husband. The story of the rattler sleeping on the woman’s chest only to be removed by a male river guide even falls into this category.

When something has to be done about a snake, the one doing something about it is usually a man. For these encounters that happen in the workplace or at home, it is understandable that the snake had to be removed, but it is much safer to call in a professional snake wrangler to remove the rattler.

However, there are a substantial number of incidents where a rattlesnake minding its own business has its personal space invaded by a human with the intent to pick up the snake.

Intentional snake bites, or bites that happen as the victim is actively trying to touch the snake in some way, are most often inflicted on the hand or arm, which account for about 50% of snakebites. While a 2007 study could only determine the presence or lack of intent in about 34% of snakebite cases (due to lack of documentation by hospitals), a 1997 study at a single hospital determined that 67% of surveyed victims were bitten while intentionally handling a snake.

The same study also determined that in 40% of their cases the victim had been under the influence of alcohol, with alcohol being a factor in a whopping 93% of bites when the victim had an intent-to-handle. Especially mind-boggling is that while almost all of the intent-to-handle cases involved alcohol consumption, 35% of those victims were professional snake handlers in a work-related environment.

Meaning, nearly one-third of these professional snake wranglers were drinking while on the job.

We don’t know the exact circumstances of any of the bites included in that study, but we do know this: 25% of the victims aggravated the snake in some way before attempting to handle it. Despite the small sample size having undoubtedly skewed the numbers of that particular study, the results are still damning: reckless behavior and rattlesnake bites go hand in hand, with men engaging in the vast majority of the recklessness.

rattlesnake bites

Pastor Jamie Coots

Perhaps the most extreme example of rattlesnake handling is the story of Pastor Jamie Coots. Made famous by Nat Geo’s reality TV show Snake Salvation, Coots wowed his sermon goers by handling rattlesnakes and other venomous serpents during his services in Middlesboro, Kentucky.

A Pentecostal pastor, Coots followed a literal interpretation of two Bible excerpts – Mark 16:17-18 and Luke 10:19. This interpretation espoused that true believers blessed and anointed by God are thus protected from harm when bitten by venomous snakes. Coots practiced a radical tradition of handling venomous snakes during sermons to convince sermon goers that they should follow him as he operated under God’s protection.

This tradition has its origins at the dawn of the 20th century, when a few isolated Appalachian churches began following the literal Bible translations mentioned above, and began handling snakes during services. As the practice drew more fans, there was a dramatic rise in venomous snake bites – and the deaths resulting from them.

Lawmakers took notice and the practice became illegal in almost every Southern state. With the law cracking down, snake handling during sermons was abandoned by most, although some die-hard believers have kept the practice alive, especially in places like the state of Kentucky, where a snake handling violation is no worse than a speeding ticket, carrying a maximum fine of $100.

That’s how Jamie Coots, a Kentucky native, was able to gain national fame as a rattlesnake-wielding pastor turned reality star. A violation from law enforcement is merely a slap on the wrist, and Coots knew that police raids on snake handlers almost never happened.

With a charismatic and animated personality perfectly suited for his act, Coots seemed to be the real deal, surviving eight different venomous snakebites over the course of his career, even losing part of a finger during an incident in 1998. However, Coots’ luck ran out in 2014 when once again a rattlesnake bit him on the hand. Per his standard protocol, Coots refused treatment and died at home a few hours later.

His followers insist that Coots’ death was God’s will, claiming that it should not be used as evidence against the belief in God’s protection from snake bites, and hailed Coots as martyr. How else would the man have survived so many other venomous bites?

The answer: animal abuse.

As shown on Snake Salvation, Coots and his cohorts kept as many as thirty snakes in one space, a practiced shunned by any humane snake-keeper. When contacted by the Kentucky Reptile Zoo about his practices, Coots admitted that most of his snakes refused to eat and only lived three to four months before dying – most snakes can be expected to live five to ten years in captivity – proof that his snakes were unhealthy and lethargic due to malnutrition.

Snake experts state that venomous snakes of poor health are far less likely to bite when handled, and when they do bite, inject venom that is dramatically reduced in potency, or perhaps not even inject their venom at all.

The lethargic nature of his snakes can be seen in footage of Coots’ sermons when he grabs multiple snakes and haphazardly wields them all with one hand, a technique that no snake handler in their right mind would use on a fully awake and healthy serpent.

Coots did not survive so many bites because of God’s protection, but because he kept his snakes in an unhealthy manner that served his purposes. The man was not a martyr but a fraud, abusing snakes and using them as props to fool his followers into buying into his charade.

Whether or not he truly believed in his own claims, his ego was so out of control that he repeatedly declined antivenin treatment following bites, under the grave assumption that he could live through the effects brought on by the weakened venom produced by his sickly snakes.

The most maddening part of his story is not the animal abuse, his ability to gain blind followers, or his failure to believe in his own mortality. It’s the fact that an innocent woman died after suffering a rattlesnake bite during a Coots sermon in 1995, and the local court refused to hold Coots accountable for recklessness endangerment.

Like Coots leading up to his own death, 28-year-old Melinda Brown refused treatment following the bite and put herself in the “hands of God.” She died shortly thereafter in Coots’ home. Despite his gross negligence leading up to the death of Brown, Coots was not prosecuted for the crime. The judge overseeing the case did not believe that Coots should be prosecuted over his chosen religious practices.

Brown’s death apparently did nothing to challenge Coots’ faith in his practices as he continued to handle venomous snakes during sermons for another two decades. The tragedy did little to inspire improvement of safety precautions during his sermons either. The precautions he did have in place were based on debilitating the snakes via starvation and literally praying for a lucky break if one did happen to bite.

All things considered, it’s not hard to view Coots as a something of a cult leader, given his propensity to risk the lives of others under false pretenses, in the end serving no other purpose other than to stroke his ego.

And considering his mistreatment of captive snakes, he must have suffered from an especially arrogant form of hubris to assume that a higher power would take his side when one of his snakes decided to bite him. Coots’ death shows that if God was picking favorites at that time, He chose the snake over Coots. Perhaps if Coots was more worldly in his religious studies, he might have put more credence in the adage: Karma is a bitch.

rattlesnake bites

George Went Hensley and His Contemporaries

Coots is by far the most well-known religious snake handler of all time, but have been other preachers cut from the same cloth that also met the same fate.

George Went Hensley – the probable originator of religious snake handling practices in Appalachia – began using snakes during his sermons in rural Tennessee around 1910, inspiring a legion of other pastors to start handling non-venomous and venomous snakes alike.

Hensley’s snake handling career, as well as his life, came to an end when he suffered a fatal venomous snake bite during a sermon in Altha, Florida in 1955. On his deathbed, Hensley claimed the venom was taking his life due to lack of faith by his audience that day.

Like the followers of Coots six decades later, Hensley’s wife claimed that her husband’s death was God’s will, not due to his own negligence. Following Hensley’s death, there would be at least a dozen known deaths related to snakebites happening during church services over the following decades.

In the early 1980s, West Virginia would become the hotspot for pastors being killed by their pets. In August 1982, Reverend John Holbrook refused treatment after being bit by a rattlesnake while giving a sermon in Oceana,  and died as a result.

One year later, in Mile Branch, a pastor by the name of Mack Wolford was bitten on the arm while handling a timber rattlesnake, and initially refused treatment. Eight hours later, as the symptoms of Wolford’s bite had worsened dramatically, he agreed to seek treatment, but died in the ambulance during transport.

Apparently, Wolford’s death was not heeded as warning by his son Mark, who also became a snake-handling pastor. In an unlikely coincidence three decades later, Mark Wolford died under circumstances remarkably similar to that of his father: bitten by a timber rattler during a sermon, refused treatment, and died in an ambulance some eight hours later.

Yet another ironic story is the death of John Wayne Brown Jr., the husband of the woman who died in the home of Jamie Coots in 1995. Brown was a pastor handling snakes in his own sermons, and failed to abandon the practice following the tragic fate of his wife. In 1998, Brown was bitten by a venomous snake during a service and died shortly thereafter.

Like Coots, these men were all hailed by their followers, even after death, as beacons of their collective religious convictions. And yet, in religious centers all over America, most other leaders choose decidedly less reckless means to show their religious devotion.

Is it really the so-called word of God that motivates pastors to trifle with venomous snakes? Perhaps, but there is undoubtedly an underlying stream of male machismo and hubris that inspires these men to play with fire.

Clutching a venom-spitting rattler makes for a dangerous show, and these men could not get enough of the ego-boost they received when wielding a handful of half-dead serpents in front of a sea of rabid followers.

steve irwin rattlesnake

Steve Irwin

Jamie Coots was not the first man to hold a rattlesnake barehanded on national television. Arguably the most famous wildlife handler of all time was Steve Irwin, enthusiastic star of the worldwide hit TV show The Crocodile Hunter.

Unlike Jamie Coots or the Wolford Family, Irwin undoubtedly had a deep love and respect for animals, and dedicated his life’s mission to bringing awareness to protection of endangered species and other conservation philanthropy.

However, his method of catching his audience’s attention was almost always centered on putting his life in harm’s way at the hands of a potentially deadly creature. Over the years, Irwin went toe to toe with nearly every dangerous animal imaginable, including rattlesnakes. Scanning through the little bit of Irwin’s rattlesnake encounters on YouTube is enough to make a person’s skin crawl.

Although Irwin was a skilled handler, one would be hard pressed to call his techniques safe. The most direct indictment of this is the fact that he repeatedly forgoes use of snake tongs or a snake hook in favor of his bare hands. Probably not a smart idea, now matter how much skill and instinct Irwin possessed among these animals.

We can’t forget that Irwin was an entertainer, and danger provides some of the most titillating entertainment, but a rattlesnake is dangerous no matter how it is handled, leaving us to wonder why Irwin chose to ignore the most basic safety precautions.

Speculation on this can lead in a couple directions. Was it for maximum entertainment value, perhaps urged by his show’s producers? Or was it driven by machismo? I’m guessing it was a little of both, but let’s focus on his own motivations.

Beyond the philanthropic purposes of his efforts, Irwin obviously enjoyed the thrill of his encounters with dangerous animals. I don’t intend to disparage the man, but inevitably some part of him enjoyed being seen as a badass who handles rattlesnakes with his bare hands, and his ego seemed to overpower common sense as a result.

A person of his stature within the nature community also has a responsibility beyond his own safety: setting an example for others to follow. Yes, he set an example having of love and admiration for animals – he was never cruel in his actions.

But he also set an example – especially for impressionable younger viewers – that a man handling a snake is only a “real man” if he does so with his bare hands. I can’t help but think that he was continuously walking a thin line between being a world-class wildlife activist and a careless showoff.

I’m not first to criticize Irwin’s practices, and his 2006 death from a stingray attack – resulting from poor safety protocol – is the unsurprising end to a man who, despite his smiling personality and good intentions, had an Achilles heel that sacrificed regard for safety in the name of grandiose showmanship.

Overcoming Hubris

The key to avoiding a bite during any rattlesnake encounter is respect. The few encounters I have had with rattlers have always revolved around respect for the snake, their deadly venom, and their personal space.

On two occasions where I heard a rattle but could not see the snake (one time being in the dark of night), I had so much respect for the rattlesnake that I essentially ran away from the sound of a rattle without even caring to lay eyes on the snake. In those cases, there is not much separation between respect and fear.

As such, I’m sure there are plenty of men (and women) out there that would not hesitate to call me all sorts of derogatory things, most of them synonyms to the word sissy. So be it, but I know that in my line of work and my lifestyle, it is inevitable that I will come across more rattlers before I die, and if I’m careful, they won’t be the cause of my death.

Messing around in a hole looking for a rattler just to say that I laid my eyes on it is not worth coming back up with a bloody bite seething with hemotoxins. I’m also comfortable enough with myself that I don’t need to prove my masculinity to anyone. I don’t need to pick up a diamondback by the tail to feel like a man, and I will always respect a rattlesnake’s personal space – even if I will be seen as less of man as a result.

In contrast, a drunk guy that tries to pick up a rattler in front of his friends to look like a badass has abandoned that respect. He chooses to disrespect the snake and its personal space for the sake of bolstering his own macho vanity.

The pastor that abuses his pets to put on snake-wielding sermon? He has no respect for his snakes or his congregation. He values his over-inflated ego above all else.

Perhaps the most complex case is that of Steve Irwin. Did he respect the snakes he handled? Yes and no. He undoubtedly had a profound respect for all animals. Yet he repeatedly went back on that respect, ignoring safety on a regular basis. For what? To boost the ratings of his TV program? To relentlessly prove his masculinity?

In some way, each of the examples presented here offers a glimpse of the larger problem: much of how men act is driven by the stereotype of what it is to be a “real man.” When a man is insecure about what others think of him, this stereotype will drive a man to do all sorts of crazy things, like picking up a rattlesnake.

I offer this instead. A man can be all sorts of different things, but there is no such thing as a “real man.” The myth that is a “real man” was born out of the insecurities of men and their obsession with proving their masculinity to others. There are, in fact, other characteristics that a man can actually have that are much more admirable than being a stereotypical “real man.”  Some of these characteristics may include: courage, intelligence, and compassion.

rattlesnake bite

Of course, the stereotypical “real man” may often be described as courageous, yet the men that seek to prove their manliness above all else are not acting in the name of courage, but in the name of cowardice. They are operating out of the fear of being seen as less than masculine. As such, a man that chooses to pick up a rattlesnake barehanded for no good reason other than to impress his friends is not a hero, but a coward. I’d be hard pressed to call him intelligent or compassionate either.

But a man that chooses to leave a rattlesnake alone, even in the face of being viewed as less than a “real man,” is most certainly brave, smart, compassionate.

In Conclusion

From these stories, the person that best fits the description of a brave, smart and compassionate man is Michael P. Ghiglieri, the Grand Canyon river guide who had no choice but to scoop a rattlesnake up off a sleeping woman’s chest.

He did not do so to look cool in front of his drinking buddies, or under the ruse of being protected by God, but because a person’s life was in imminent danger and something had to be done about it. Unlike the practices of the great Crocodile Hunter or the idolized Pastor Coots in their relatively controlled environments, Ghiglieri was forced to act quickly with the life of another person on the line, and still had the sense to grab the nearest practical tool to aid in handling the snake.

His combination of bravery and smarts were impressive given the scenario, but perhaps the most astounding part was his compassion. Not just for the woman under the snake, but for the snake itself. Ghiglieri respected the life of the snake, as evidenced by his admitted regret for having flung the snake to its death in the icy river. If only our stereotypes of “real men” included acts of compassion and conscience, perhaps then we would have less men walking around trying to pick up rattlesnakes.

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