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‘Snake Salvation’ pastor who died from snake bite gets tribute on Nat Geo

Pastor Jamie Coots prays during a service at the Full Gospel Tabernacle In Jesus Name church in Middlesboro, Ky. Coots died Sunday, Feb. 16, 2014, after being bitten by a rattlesnake. (AP/Chattanooga Times Free Press, Dan Henry)

When the star of a network’s reality show dies from a dangerous act he did while featured on that series, it puts the channel in a tough situation — how do you pay necessary tribute without making it look like a ratings grab?

National Geographic Channel is grappling with that issue in the wake of the death of its controversial “Snake Salvation” star, Pastor Jamie Coots. The network announced it will air a special tribute Thursday, called “Snake Salvation: They Shall Take Up Serpents” at 9 .m.

Last fall, Nat Geo promoted “Snake Salvation” as a series that followed devotees of the religious ritual based on a Bible passage: People hold deadly snakes, believing that a poisonous snakebite won’t hurt anyone “anointed by God’s power.” “For pastors Jamie Coots and Andrew Hamblin, the work is always hard, but always worth it, as to them, handling snakes is nothing short of a commandment from God,” the Nat Geo description read. “You can call them crazy, but they are determined to keep their tradition alive no matter the cost.”

Tragedy struck Coots this past weekend when he died of a rattlesnake bite during a church service — following his wishes, his family reportedly refused medical help, Nat Geo said.

Reactions rang out from across the globe about the practice of “serpent handling,” and the network had to figure out how to handle Coots’ death. Marketed as a “special episode,” the show will look back at Coots’ life and devotion to the practice. The press release even featured a quote from the late Coots: “To me it’s as much a commandment from God when he said ‘they shall take up serpents,’ as it was when he said ‘thou shall not commit adultery,'” he said.

“Pastor Coots was a lovely, kind man who was good to our crew during the shooting,” said Nat Geo CEO David Lyle.“And while it may be hard for some to understand the choices he made due to his deeply held convictions, one cannot help but admire his dedication and bravery.  We wanted to air this episode tomorrow night as a way to give perspective to the world-wide discussion his death has caused.”

Other networks have been put in similar predicaments. When “Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin was killed by a stingray in 2006, Animal Planet aired a marathon of shows starring Irwin, in addition to his memorial service, called “Steve Irwin Changed the World Memorial Service.” That telecast attracted 3 million viewers — one of the channel’s biggest audiences ever.