Selecting a Pet Snake
Some snakes are rare, endangered and protected by law. These snakes may only be kept by zoos and legitimate herpetologists with the appropriate permits. This is also the case with venomous snakes, which should not, under any circumstances, be kept by the average hobbyist.
The most common snakes kept by enthusiasts are the many and varied constrictor species (boas, python, rat, and milk snakes, etc), and the racer, gopher and garter species. The husbandry and dietary requirements for these types of snakes vary considerably. Further, some of the same species (notably the boa constrictors and pythons) reach very large sizes in captivity, and their considerable space requirements must be anticipated.
Usually, an individual eager to own a snake already has a species preference in mind because of some familiarity with it (friend owns snake of the same species, etc) or because of an inexplicable attraction to a species’ physical appearance, size, activity, or habits. Before you acquire a snake, you should carefully consider the following recommendations:
- Research the major husbandry requirements of the snake and determine weather or not you can successfully meet them now and in the future. Husbandry requirements include dietary, environmental (living space, temperature, humidity, lighting, etc) and sanitation considerations.
- Research the temperament of the species. If you intend to enjoy your snake primarily by observing its enclosure and rarely by handling it, this becomes a less important consideration. If you intend to regularly handle the snake, however, you must be able to do so with minimal stress and injury to both the snake and yourself.
- Snake temperaments vary among species and among individuals of the same species. Certain snake species almost always retain gentle, docile nature when they are raised from infancy (boa constrictors). In fact, a healthy young boa constrictor makes the most suitable pet among the tropical snake species available. Other species (the larger pythons) are unpredictable and tend to be quite pugnacious as they mature, whether or not they are handled frequently. Reticulated and Burmese pythons are especially unpredictable when they are anticipating being fed. Snakes of these types, especially those handled infrequently, become conditioned to associating feeding with human contact and cannot distinguish the difference between these two situations.
- The small Ball python has the most predictable and even temperament of all the python species.
- Some species (anacondas) rarely develop temperaments suitable for captivity.
- Wild-caught adults of all species generally make unsuitable pets because they resist taming. One notable exception to this is the California Rosy boa. Even when obtained as an adult, they usually have a very shy, docile nature.
- Select a snake that can feed without difficulty and one that is eating regularly.
- Select a snake that appears healthy in all respects. Avoid choosing an unthrifty-looking snake out of sympathy with the idea that you can “nurse” the snake back to health. Many of these snakes have suffered irreparable internal damage, and cannot be rehabilitated.
- Avoid selecting a snake belonging to a species that is notoriously difficult to keep in captivity, requires difficult or elaborate environmental setups, or spends most of its time hiding or burrowed underground.
- Avoid selecting a poisonous or venomous species. Only the very experienced herpetologist should attempt to keep these types of snakes in captivity. State and local laws prohibit possession of venomous snakes except by experienced individuals holding legitimate permits.
Enclosure and Space Requirements
As a general rule snakes require relatively little space because of their limited and nonexertional activity. Generally speaking, the size of the enclosure should allow inclusion of certain required items (discussed below) and still allow the snake adequate space to stretch out and move about. Snakes will use both the horizontal and vertical space within their enclosure if provisions are made for this activity.
Aquarium and other similar glass or plexiglass-lined enclosures are usually most suitable because they allow optimum visualization of and safety for the occupant(s), and help to maintain desirable environmental temperatures and generally high relative humidity levels. Wire-lined enclosures may afford adequate visualization of the snake but certainly cannot contribute to the maintenance of desirable temperature and humidity levels. Further, such enclosures promote injuries to the rostrum (nose and surrounding tissues) as snakes repeatedly try to “escape” through the wire mesh. Any enclosure used must have a secure top and be escape-proof. All hinges and locks should be secure. All snakes are potential “escape artists” and many (especially the California King snakes) can escape from almost any apparently secure enclosure.
Floor Coverings and Enclosure Items
Unprinted newsprint, butcher paper, paper towels, terrycloth towels and indoor-outdoor carpeting are the most suitable materials for covering the bottom of a snake’s enclosure. In fact, the first 2 materials mentioned can be cut to size and placed many layers thick on the floor of the enclosure. When the top layer(s) are soiled, they can be easily removed, leaving clean dry paper. This make cleaning of the enclosure very quick and efficient. If indoor-outdoor carpeting is used, it is best to have 2-3 pieces cut to the correct dimensions. This way, replacements can be used while the soiled piece is cleaned and disinfected.
Under no circumstances should pea gravel, kitty litter, crushed corncob material or wood shavings be used. These are unquestionably more visually aesthetic than most of the materials mentioned above; however, they are unsuitable because they trap moisture and filth, provide unlimited “hiding places” for external parasites, and make enclosures very difficult to clean. Furthermore, these types of particulate matter are easily and inadvertently eaten while the snake is feeding. This can cause mechanical injury to or obstruction of the digestive tract.
Various objects should be included within a snake’s enclosure that occupy its vertical area. These include sturdy branches of various hardwood trees or those fabricated from artificial materials, driftwood, grapevine, hanging ropes, and shelves situated along the sides of the enclosure.
It is very important to provide some privacy for a captive snake. Many snakes will not feed without the privacy afforded by some degree of visual security. This can be accomplished by providing a “hide box” into which the snake can retreat when if feeds or at other times when privacy is desired. Visual security can also be provided by the use of strategic placement of silk artificial plants and trees.