Wildlife officials in Tennessee have euthanized the remaining 14 snakes confiscated from local Pastor Andrew Hamblin, featured on the National Geographic reality television series "Snake Salvation."
In November, the state's wildlife officials confiscated 53 snakes from Hamblin's Tabernacle Church of God in LaFollette, citing the pastor on 53 counts of violating the state's ban on handling poisonous wildlife. Hamblin represents a small sect of Pentecostal pastors who believe they are instructed by the Bible to handle serpents, and his unique lifestyle has been highlighted by the National Geographic reality show "Snake Salvation."
Wildlife officials initially planned to keep Hamblin's 53 snakes at the Knoxville Zoo, only to learn that the majority of the snakes had been poorly taken care of, and were infected with pathogens and parasites. These pathogens resulted in the early death of 39 snakes, and officials determined the 14 remaining snakes were the carriers of the infectious agent. For the safety of other wildlife at the Knoxville Zoo, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency consulted with the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine and the zoo to determine that the remaining 14 snakes should be euthanized.
The reptiles had become diseased by their overcrowded living situation, and many had become emaciated or suffered from skin and respiratory infections. Some of the contagious pathogens that had infected the snakes proved incurable, Michael Ogle, curator of Herpetology at the zoo, said in a statement.
"There is no successful treatment for these pathogens, which could be fatal for any other snakes, captive or wild, that might be exposed to them. Unfortunately, due to this risk, we cannot safely bring them into a captive conservation program or release them into a wild population. Additionally, the longer we house these snakes, the greater the risk we expose our collection to these pathogens, which could be catastrophic for our animals," Ogle added.
Hamblin had pleaded "not guilty" to his 53 violations of state wildlife code, each of which could have held a possible punishment of one year in prison. The pastor argued at the time of the charges in November that preaching with the snakes was a form of religious freedom.
"That is my God given right in the United States; if God moves on me to take up a serpent, I can take up a serpent," Hamblin said, as reported by The Christian Post. "They came right into the house of God and just ripped them [snakes] away. That would be no different if they just came and ripped your Bible out of First Baptist."
Hamblin's case was eventually passed to a grand jury in Tennessee, which decided not to indict the pastor, but wildlife officials were still able to take the snakes as they were considered illegal. National Geographic did not renew the "Snake Salvation" reality show for another season.