Handler charged, denies tie to snake or victim
Story by Gordon Boyd
Eyewitness News Reporter
HAMILTON COUNTY, TN. (WRCB)-- The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency hasn't finished counting or logging the venomous snakes that Samuel Charles 'Chuck' Hurd had 'on ice' when agents arrested him Thursday.
It has a dozen live snakes in quarantine.
"The snake bite situation led us to this individual," TWRA spokesman Dan Hicks says.
The 'situation' is the death of Wade Westbrook of East Ridge, who, doctors say, suffered anaphylactic shock after a copperhead bit him Saturday night.
"There's absolutely no connection between me and Wade in the past year," Hurd says.
"There's no connection between me and the snake that bit Wade."
Hurd is a former truck driver and professional wrestler. He describes himself as a 'serpentologist' , who makes his living by exhibiting and selling poisonous snakes. Through his web site, chuckhurd.com also offers venom for sale.
"I've been bitten more times than I can count," Hurd says. By venomous snakes, specifically, I've been bitten fifteen times."
Hurd's Facebook page includes a photo of him in the hospital, after a five-feet-long, Eastern Diamondback rattlesnake bit his left hand last January.
He says he knew Westbrook well enough to know he would never give to, or sell a venomous snake to him.
"Wade was reckless, that's a good way to describe him," Hurd says.
"I don't think he ever intentionally wanted to get bit, but it gave him an adrenaline rush that came from holding a snake. Wade was an accident waiting to happen."
Hurd faces 48 criminal counts related to possessing, importing, housing and transporting wildlife.
"It is illegal to have any native species animal, held in captivity, in the state of Tennessee," says Hicks, of the TWRA.
Hurd concedes that he knew that. But he maintains that he merely was passing through, headed to his home in Virginia after an exhibition in Atlanta. He says he stopped in Chattanooga to pay respects at Westbrook's funeral.
"If I'd known I was violating a law, it would have been extremely stupid of me to come to Chattanooga during this time," Hurd says.
"I told them when they arrested me--I don't get it, I've been doing this for years."
"The first thing I say, is why," says Dave Collins, forest curator at the Tennessee Aquarium in downtown Chattanooga.
Venomous snakes fall under Collins' purview. The Aquarium's collection includes a copperhead, a 'canebrake' or timber rattlesnake, and a diamondback rattler.
Collins questions the wisdom of handling such reptiles 'freehand', as Hurd has done, and, apparently, Westbrook did.
"The animal could become excited," he says.
"A captive snake can be injured, so the better thing is 'let's not play cowboy. there's no special brownie points for being brave with a snake."
Collins says Tennessee laws ban the Aquarium from taking venomous reptiles outside their exhibit areas for 'show and tells.' They require special protocols when leaving the building.
The TWRA's Hicks describes its investigation as on-going, saying that it involves authorities in Georgia, Virginia, and with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
But he declines to detail what role each agency may play, or what additional charges Hurd or others may face.
"We don't want to jeopardize anything we might have," Hicks says.
Hurd faces a $2500 fine and one day short of a year in jail for each of the 48 counts. He's due in Hamilton County Sessions Court Monday.
"I'll admit I'm a bit naive to the ways of the judicial system," he says.
"I'm 38 years old. First time I've been in trouble."