CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. – Chuck Hurd says he has been "hooked on venom" for years, a love for snakes that began as a boy when he collected them on his family farm and evolved into a profitable hobby. It never led him to trouble with the law until an acquaintance died from a copperhead bite.
The 38-year-old collector, dealer and lecturer — whose displays and presentations on venomous snakes have led him to exotic animal shows and even scout meetings — has not been charged in the man's death.
However, Tennessee wildlife authorities found him traveling with a collection of serpents and filed 48 misdemeanor charges that could send him to jail.
Wade Westbrook died after being bitten Jan. 29 at his home in East Ridge, a Chattanooga suburb, while examining a copperhead. Hurd, an enthusiast from Gate City, Va., said he had nothing to do with Westbrook's fatal bite. Authorities said they confiscated 12 live poisonous snakes and a cooler containing dozens of frozen dead snakes belonging to Hurd, charging him with possession and importation of poisonous wildlife and other misdemeanor counts.
It's legal to have such snakes in some neighboring states, but not Tennessee. Hurd said his arrest stemmed from "mass hysteria" in East Ridge after Westbrook died.
"When they arrested me they were confident they were going to prove that Wade got the snake from me," Hurd said. However, he said he did not give the deadly snake to Westbrook, who Hurd said was an acquaintance who shared his hobby but was not a friend.
Hurd is free on bond. Each misdemeanor charge carries a maximum penalty of up to a year in jail.
Westbrook was bitten supposedly while trying to determine the snake's sex. Copperhead bites rarely are fatal — in fact, friends said it wasn't the first time Westbrook had been bitten by one. But doctors said a previous bite may have caused Westbrook to have a severe allergic reaction.
No one has been charged in the man's death, though authorities have said their investigation could stretch into other states.
Hurd said he began his hobby catching snakes as a child, and years later discovered a vast network of people who shared his passion. He said he graduated from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, spent time as a school teacher and car salesman, and for now is unemployed, focused on his income-generating reptile demonstrations.
His website shows photos of Hurd handling a massive python and other reptiles. He has links to several dozen instructional videos on feeding and caring for venomous snakes, his snake removal services and a free online Bible.
The site also encourages calling U.S. senators to oppose a ban on the transport of boas and pythons across state lines. His Facebook page describes his own struggle to recover from a bite by an eastern diamondback rattlesnake.
On Hurd's website is a quote he attributes to himself: "Snakes inherently command the utmost respect, which in turn begets fear from the ignorant. The only good snake is a live snake. Performing, to the best of its ability, the purpose intended by all mighty God through his supreme design of nature."
His attorney, Andy Glenn of Kingsport, said the website is intended to get attention.
"To think that this is shocking, why wouldn't he want to be all over the Web?" Glenn said. "He wants to have a presence."
After Westbrook died, Hurd said he had been returning from a show in Atlanta and stopped to have dinner with friends. That's when he got a call that Tennessee wildlife officers had swooped in to confiscate his cargo of live and dead snakes that he temporarily left at another friend's home.
Walter Cook, wildlife coordinator for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, declined to comment on the case. But he said the law against having poisonous snakes is an important public safety issue.
The snake trade industry has grown rapidly, Cook said.
"There is so much captive breeding. You've got Internet, the ability to have them shipped by air," he said.
Hurd said he has passed through Tennessee many times with poisonous snakes without legal trouble. Others also were keeping snakes at the home where his were confiscated, he said.
"The main thing (wildlife officers) wanted me to tell them other people who had snakes there," Hurd said. "They got aggravated over it."
Ethan Goodowens, 38, of Chattanooga, said he has known Hurd more than 15 years and described them both as amateur herpetologists, with Hurd more interested in venomous animals. He described Hurd as talented, safe, thorough and educated.
Goodowens said poisonous snakes are "unusual animals. There is a lot of stigma about it. Snakes are an odd creature that people don't understand. People tend to fear what they don't understand."
(This version CORRECTS Corrects to Va. hobbyist in headlines.)