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Snake Handling

September 29, 2013

Did you see the story about a New York animal-control officer who kept hundreds of snakes at his home? The man ran an illegal business, Parrinello’s Snakeman’s Exotics. Richard Parrinello has worked as an animal-control officer for the town of Brookhaven since 1988. About 850 snakes, worth half a million dollars, were discovered in a detached garage. The collection included two six-foot Burmese pythons, which are illegal in New York State. Burmese pythons can grow to thirty feet long and are “an accident waiting to happen,” according to an arresting officer.

In 1909, the Reverend George Hensley delivered a sermon using the last seven verses of the Gospel of Mark as his text.  The phrase “they shall take up serpents” made such an impression on the preacher that he chased down a timber rattler, assembled his church members for a meeting, and passed the venomous rattlesnake among them.  Thus snake handling as a religious ritual began that day in the southern Appalachian Mountains.  

Snake Salvation is a new television program airing on the National Geographic channel. The show chronicles the lives of Pentecostal pastors who are struggling to keep alive the practice of handling deadly snakes during worship services. Those who belong to these congregations believe that they are destined for hell if they don’t practice snake handling. The pastors must battle not only the law and a disapproving public, but also their own families to maintain this religious tradition.

Rudy Mancke and I grew up together in the Duncan Park area of Spartanburg County. Many are familiar with Rudy from Nature Scene, a television program aired on South Carolina Educational Television.   Rudy currently teaches at the University of South Carolina.

Soon after I learned to drive, Rudy and I decided we were going to stay out all night, camping and fishing at a farm pond near Walnut Grove.  I was fourteen, the legal age for driving in South Carolina in those days, and Rudy was one year younger.

We fished awhile, catching several good-sized bream, and hooked them on an old chain-stringer at the edge of the water.  As darkness surrounded us, we cooked our supper over a campfire.  On that clear moonless night, the air was filled with the sounds of bullfrogs, tree frogs, crickets, and a pair of owls. Above the evening serenade, we heard the discordant note of the chain-stringer rattling.

I whispered, “Something’s trying to get our fish.”

We couldn’t see through the darkness, but something was definitely messing with our bream.  The chain rattled again.

Scrambling to our feet, Rudy grabbed his flashlight. We ran to the water’s edge to investigate and caught in the beam of light the largest snake I had ever seen.  Rudy identified the culprit, with a bluegill halfway down its throat, as a red-bellied green water snake.

“Look! His lips are red!”

I really did not care what kind of snake was swallowing our bream, and I surely wasn’t interested in his lips. As far as I was concerned, the snake was an unwelcome intruder.

Not so for Rudy!  For Rudy, catching snakes was better than catching fish any time of the day or night.

Years later, Rudy informed me, “That night was a history-making event.”

Ever the teacher, he explained, “Nobody had ever reported a red-bellied green water snake that far north.  If you look in A Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles by Roger Conant, you will see that the range for this snake now goes into Spartanburg County.  Kirk, that is because we identified it in Spartanburg County as teenagers.  Before our discovery that night, everyone thought those particular snakes did not live in areas north of Columbia.”

The night Rudy saw the snake in his flashlight beam, he took charge.

“Grab your pillowcase!”

He clutched the snake behind the neck – I should say behind the head since a snake is almost all neck – and pulled the bream out of its mouth.  The snake did not appreciate Rudy so rudely seizing him and stealing his supper.  The powerful serpent threw three coils around Rudy’s arm while I cautiously opened the pillowcase. Rudy dropped the gigantic snake inside, still writhing in anger.  Dismayed, I stood, left holding the bag – literally!

Turning to look at me, Rudy exclaimed, “We could do this all night!”

I do not know how many fish we caught that Friday night, but I do know we filled our two pillowcases with thirty-eight snakes.

Returning home soon after daylight, we met my dad was on his way to work.

“Dad, look!”

I opened one of the pillowcases. A banded water snake thrust itself to the top, biting me on the thumb.  I quickly closed the sack.

Dad asked, “What do you have there?”

“Thirty-eight snakes!”

“What are you going to do with them?”

“We’re going to keep them.”

“Not here, you’re not!  It’d be alright with me but not with your mama!”

Rudy and I carried the snakes to the basement of his home, a short walk down the road and around the bend from my house. Rudy’s saintly parents had grown accustomed to critters as houseguests.  We housed the snakes in a big terrarium covered with framed hardware cloth.

Through the summer, I noticed the number of reptiles diminishing.

“Rudy, some of the snakes are getting out!”

“They’re not getting out.  Haven’t you noticed how big that water snake has grown?”

The snakes were eating each other!

By early October, one snake remained, the green red-bellied water snake, bigger than ever.  Before the first day of autumn, Rudy and I released it into Duncan Park Lake and let it swim to freedom.

That night at Walnut Grove was my only snake-hunting expedition.  Before long though, Rudy graduated to seeking copperheads and rattlesnakes.  He has been bitten a time or two.

Through the years, I’ve seen numerous snakes but handled only a few, all non-poisonous.  My rule of thumb, my snake-bitten thumb that is, is to let them be.

Rev. George Hensley was supposedly bitten 446 times by the venomous vipers he handled during worship.  He finally died after bite 447, at age seventy-five, steadfastly refusing medical treatment.

Be careful out there, Rudy!

Kirk H. Neely
© September 2013

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