Quick Note: The Illegal Snail-Drinking Ritual

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  March 12, 2010 — 18 Comments

I like to think I’m a rather tolerant guy when it comes to religious freedom. I have no trouble with religions that practice humane animal sacrifice, I could care less what consenting adults want to get up to in the privacy of their own homes, and I tend to range from permissive to supportive on the issue of entheogens. All that said, this sicked me out more than a little.

“Authorities are investigating a Hialeah man who allegedly smuggled illegal Giant African Snails into Florida and convinced his followers to drink their juices as part of a religious healing ritual. State and federal authorities in January raided the home of Charles L. Stewart after learning he had a large box full of the snails — which grow to be up to 10 inches long — according to a search warrant filed recently in Miami-Dade Circuit Court … One witness told investigators that during the ritual, Stewart grabs a snail from the cage, then would “hold it over the devotee, then cuts the [snail] and pours the raw fluid directly from the still live [snail] into the mouth of the devotee.” Several followers became violently ill, losing weight and developing strange lumps in their bellies…”

Giant African Snails. Photo from the IL Dept. of Public Health.

I’ll give you all a moment to collect yourselves. OK. So, why (oh dear gods why) am I writing about this? Because the man claims that this snail-drinking ritual is part of his Yoruban faith.

Stewart, 48, who court documents describe as “El Africano” or “Oloye Ifatoku,” said he practices the traditional African religion of Ifa Orisha [aka Yoruba religion], which is often confused with the Cuban Santería, a blend of Yoruba and Catholic practices. “I did not invent this. It’s something that is part of our religion,” he told The Miami Herald. “It’s not something meant to hurt anybody.” He declined to comment further.

Meanwhile, Santería spokesman and advocate Ernesto Pichardo is quick to distance his religion from this practice, saying he has never come across such a ritual, and that it isn’t a part of Santería. As for Yoruba, there is plenty of textual/cultural evidence for the possible inclusion of snails in Yoruba ritual, but I couldn’t find anything specific about the drinking of “snail water” for the purposes of healing. I suppose it’s possible, and if the snails were legal, he might have a great religious freedom case for the court system. The problem though is that they are illegal, Stewart and an accomplice knowingly smuggled them in, and these snails are a hugely invasive species that could wreak havoc with our ecosystem.

“…these snails can do extensive damage to the environment if released outdoors. They are known to eat at least 500 different types of plants.”

Oh, and they breed like nobodies business. In addition, the snails, especially if they are smuggled in directly from Africa, can make you seriously ill if you decide to partake in a “healing ritual” involving one.

“Giant African snails can carry a parasite that can cause illness in humans,” Dr. Whitaker said. “I strongly encourage anyone aware of the existence of these snails to call their local health department.” … The parasite can be transmitted to humans when snail mucous comes into contact with human mucous membranes, such as those of the eyes, nose and mouth when touched by an unwashed hand or by ingesting improperly cooked snail meat.

That most likely explains why followers became “violently ill”. Let’s hope they didn’t catch meningitis, one of the possible side-effects of being exposed to the parasite these snails can carry.

In the end, this isn’t really a religion story. Sure, religion plays a role in the motivations, but that isn’t why this man is in trouble. He’s in trouble for  knowingly smuggling in contraband, endangering Florida’s ecosystem, and making his followers violently ill in the process. Claiming religious exemption only works if the needs and demands of your faith are reasonable and don’t endanger those around you. Once Charles L. Stewart has answered for his crimes, he’ll have to stick with native snails for his rituals, maybe explore the culinary wonders of escargot, instead of serving up giant snail “water” to his followers.

Jason Pitzl-Waters