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Tennessee investigates illegal trade in poisonous snakes

By Tim Ghianni

NASHVILLE, Tennessee (Reuters) - Tennessee authorities are investigating a possible multi-state network of illegal buying, selling, transport and possession of snakes after a man died from the bite of a poisonous copperhead.

"There is a part of our society, a subculture, that is drawn to snakes," Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency spokesman Dan Hicks said on Tuesday. "There's a part that gives them the heebie-jeebies, but they get excited as well."

Hicks said the investigation will probably be widespread and may reach to other states.

Wade Westbrook of East Ridge, Tenn., died on January 29, after being bitten while examining a copperhead to determine its sex. Authorities originally reported that the snake belonged to a friend, but it actually was one of Westbrook's snakes.

Hicks said law enforcement personnel believe the death occurred at a time snake collectors were preparing for a gathering where collectors swap and sell snakes.

Samuel Charles "Chuck" Hurd, 38, of Gate City, Va., a friend of the victim, was arrested February 2, after he came to Chattanooga to attend Westbrook's funeral. He had a dozen snakes in his possession when he was arrested.

Hurd will return to court March 30 to face charges related to possession of dangerous wildlife. Tennessee outlaws a private citizen having a pit viper or poisonous snake.

Hicks would not say how the investigation into Westbrook's death led to Hurd, but he said that when Hurd was located, he had a dozen "highly venomous snakes" as well as numerous dead vipers, in his possession. Some snakes may have died while being shipped from another country, Hicks said.

Hurd said in an interview he had been at a reptile expo in Atlanta, giving a lecture on snakes, on the night Westbrook died. He stopped in Chattanooga to attend his friend's funeral.

During the service, he left his dozen snakes in a 3-by-2-foot, plastic black footlocker at the house of another friend. That friend also was storing the snakes taken from Westbrook's house and was planning to ship them to Florida, where they aren't illegal, Hurd said.

But the authorities seized all the snakes. When Hurd went to retrieve his snakes -- diamondback rattlesnakes, canebrake rattlesnakes, timber rattlesnakes, cottonmouths and copperheads -- he was arrested.

Hurd also owns Chuck Hurd Serpentology, with a presence on the Internet, and said he sold only "six or seven" snakes in the last year.

He said he takes pains to make sure buyers are qualified. "For me to feel comfortable, people have to have common sense. I don't want to put snakes into somebody's hands that is going to make us all look bad," Hurd said. "If you called me up and said you wanted a black mamba, I would highly discourage you to do that, because you don't have the experience to handle a snake like that."

(Editing by Mary Wisniewski and Greg McCune)