FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - 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 sting after Thursday's arrests, said Col. Bob
Milligan, director of law enforcement for Kentucky Fish and
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 Appalachia, 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 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 couldn't 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,"
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."
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)