FRANKFORT, Kentucky – The pastor of a Kentucky church that handles snakes in religious rites was among 10 people arrested by wildlife officers in a crackdown on the venomous snake trade.
More than 100 snakes, many of them deadly, were confiscated in the undercover operation after Thursday's arrests, said Col. Bob Milligan, director of law enforcement for Kentucky Fish and Wildlife.
Most were taken from the Middlesboro home of Gregory James Coots, including 42 copperheads, 11 timber rattlesnakes, three cottonmouth water moccasins, a western diamondback rattlesnake, two cobras and a puff adder.
Handling snakes is practiced in a handful of fundamentalist churches across the Appalachia region, based on the interpretation of Bible verses saying true believers can take up serpents without being harmed. The practice is illegal in most states, including Kentucky.
Coots, 36, is pastor of the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name in Middlesboro, where a Tennessee woman died after being bitten by a rattlesnake during a service in 1995. Her husband died three years later when he was bitten by a snake in northeastern Alabama.
Coots was charged Thursday with buying, selling and possessing illegal reptiles. He had no listed telephone number and could not be reached for comment. There was no phone listing for the church.
"It is disturbing to me that individuals would keep such dangerous wildlife in their homes and in neighborhoods where they put their families, visitors and neighbors at such high risk," Milligan said.
The snakes, plus one alligator, were turned over to the nonprofit Kentucky Reptile Zoo in Slade. Most appeared to have been captured from the wild, with some imported from Asia and Africa.
Zoo Director Jim Harrison said some of the animals would likely have become exotic pets had they not been seized.
"There's been a large trade in exotics for years," he said. "Some people are just fascinated with them."
Undercover officers purchased more than 200 illegal reptiles during the investigation, some of which were advertised for sale on Web sites. One such Web site lists copperheads for $50 each and cobras for $450.
"You can purchase anything off the Internet except common sense," Harrison said. "A venomous snake isn't a pet. You don't play with it. If you do, you're an idiot."