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Some of the following questions are shown exactly as I received them, while others are a paraphrase of many similar questions I have received.

Q. We have a big water snake in our pond. It is grayish black with X's all the way down its body. It is cream colored in between the X's. It is about 6’ long. What kind is it and is it poisonous?

A. The description varies, but the question is always the same. “What kind of snake is it?” As with all verification, you must first have a common frame of reference. Is this pond in Alaska, or Argentina? Is the animal truly 6’, or is it about 4’ with fearful exaggeration? In this age of digital zoom photography, it is best to take a picture, and then head to the library. Yes, I said the library, not the Internet. The Internet is a good source of general information, but if you want clear, concise, specific information, get a book. There are dozens of Field Guides available for just about every corner of the globe. For the United States, the best two books are in the Peterson Field Guide series.

They are:

A Field Guide to Reptiles & Amphibians of Eastern & Central North America by Roger Conant, Joseph T. Collins, Isabelle Hunt Conant -Artist, Tom R. Johnson -Artist, Suzanne L. Collins –Photographer
(ISBN: 0395904528) -Houghton Mifflin Co.

-And-

A Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians : Field Marks of All Species in Western North America, Including Baja California by Robert C. Stebbins (ISBN: 039593611X) -Houghton Mifflin Co.

 

Q. I am currently in possession of…

A. Sometimes the finish to the sentence is a Red Tail Boa (always the common Boa constrictor imperator), but most often is a 9’ Burmese Python. Size is the problem here. When Burmese Pythons are in the pet store, they are really cool looking at 2’ long. When they get to 6’ long, they are then an impressive pet, and all your friends think you are cool. When the snake reaches 7’ long, a small voice starts to whisper in your ear every time you open the cage, “This isn’t all that cool anymore.” By the time the snake reaches 9’ long, the voice is speaking in a firm tone, “This is very un-cool, that snake is flat out dangerous* now.” There is really no answer here. The zoo won’t need or even want a snake commonly available in the pet trade. The pet shop knows they can’t sell it and won’t even take it for free. You should still call the zoo. They may know someone who will take the animal off your hands; perhaps a school, local Herpetological Society, or other institution will be able to take it or place it for you. BUT, your best course is to think ahead, and buy a pet that will not grow to such a size that the family Cocker Spaniel may turn up missing one day.
*I would like to make it absolutely clear that I do not consider the Burmese Python to ba a dangerous pet, but because of the potential adult size it is not a good pet for a beginning herpetoculturist. The behavior of a Burmese Python is certainly less dangerous, and more predictable than a Pit Bull or German Shepherd dog.

(If you are in possession of a large python and live in the Dallas/Fort Worth, North Texas area, contact me and I may be able to help you find a new home for your pet)

If you want a Python, the Ball Python, AKA: The Royal Python Python regius is an excellent choice. They are typically docile, grow to only about 4 or 5 foot, and if well cared for will live long in captivity. A long time friend, Dave Barker has been working with Pythons for many years, and specializes in Ball Pythons. Although the rare morphs he breeds may not be suitable for the new keeper, his website (http://www.vpi.com/) has a wealth of information, and books.

If you are interested in Ball Pythons...
Pythons of the World, Volume II
BALL PYTHONS: History, Natural History, Care & Breeding
by David G. Barker & Tracy M. Barker

This is the most detailed, comprehensive book on Ball Pythons available. The book is written in easy to understand language and yet the information is so comprehensive that even a veteran herpetologist will find new information. This book is to Ball Pythons as Laurence M. Klauber's massive two volume magnum opus is to Rattlesnakes.

 

Q. My snake won’t eat. What should I do?

A. This of course will vary according to the species of snake, but I will focus here on rodent eaters. Rodent eaters are the most common problem feeders in the pet trade, and among those, the Ball Python seems to be the most problematic. Ball Pythons are by nature secretive and shy, and are not always the best suited to a captive environment. If you end up with a problem eater, and we’ll assume for the sake of argument that the animal is otherwise healthy, start by putting the cage in an area with little traffic. Make sure you have all the other variables covered such as heat, hide box, and fresh water, and then leave the snake alone for a couple of days to adjust to the new surroundings. Food should not be offered live. This is very important. It is possible (but not likely) that your snake will only take a fresh rodent. If this is the case, at least stun the animal before putting it into the cage. If that mouse or rat gets the opportunity to bite your snake, it will, and that can cause further timidity in feeding, or the injury can turn into a fatal infection. Trust me, live food is a very bad idea. With a little patience, you should be able to get your snake to eat. First, buy a frozen mouse, rat or rabbit (according to the size of your pet), and thaw it out thoroughly (8-24 hours for large rats and rabbits -use common sense). I thaw out mice in hot water, and it only takes about 20 minutes. Use a paper towel to dry it before offering the food to the snake. Using tongs or some other similar device, offer it to your snake. You may find that the offering will be eagerly accepted. Watch your fingers! If the food is not taken directly from you, lay it in front of the hide box opening and leave it there overnight. It will probably be gone in the morning. Some captive snakes are shy about feeding and prefer to eat at night undisturbed. If the snake still does not feed, you may have to resort to a bit more gruesome operation. Take a small rodent (relative to your snake), and make an incision from the top of the head between the ears to the tip of the nose. Cut deep and pull back the skin to expose the bloody underneath. Cutting into the skull is permissible. You are trying to expose the snake to the tempting odor of meat. Again, leave the food item in front of the hide box overnight. You may waste several food animals before your snake eats. Just be sure you leave your snake undisturbed except for the attempts to feed it. Once the snake has eaten, you should not handle it for several days.

For more information about captive husbandry, pick up the book,
They Don't Have to Die by Jim Dunlap.
It is written in very plain english for the layman, and covers basic husbandry and advice for Amphibians, Arachnids, Arthropods, Birds, Crustaceans, Fish, Lizards, Mammals, Snakes, Turtles, Worms and Mollusc, a chapter titled Sick Call, and the final chapter of notes.

 

Q. When I moved into my apartment, the landlord refused to let me have a dog or cat, so, not one to live without a furry companion, I bought a rabbit. She has a cage in my bedroom and for a few hours a day is allowed free roam of the apartment. I have no plans of getting rid of her, but at the same time, I'm quite interested in caring for a ball python. Having owned one years ago (with successful results), I know I am capable of taking proper care of it. Only problem is, at that time, I didn't also own a rabbit. Is this a super bad idea to keep both animals? Of course I would never have one in the same room as the other, and I always wash my hands before and after reptile handling anyway, but would the snake still think my hands are a plump bunny?

Thanks,

Tim

A. Tim, actually, it is not a bad question... snakes can smell really well, a necessity for survival. BUT, there should be no problem with having a Ball Python and a rabbit as pets. Yes, you will need to wash well after handling the rabbit/before handling the snake. I have known many individuals who have raised rodents for food in a room adjacent to the room with the snakes. You just have to be very aware of what you are doing.

One thing you may want to consider is to create a cage situation for the snake that uses behavioral modification... that is to say, the "two doors" method. Use a cage for the snake with access doors/panels/hatches/whatever on different sides of the cage. Only feed through one door and only handle through the other door. This will effectively modify the snake’s behavior to only expect food through the food hatch, and conversely only handling through the other access point.

This way, you should never accidentally be bitten in a feeding response.

 

Q. We recently bought a black corn snake, it was very lovely for a few days and now it strikes and bites whenever we put our hand in the cage. My son called the pet store where we bought it and they said give it a couple of weeks. I am afraid if he waits a couple of weeks, the snake will get neglected and my son will lose interest. Any suggestions?

Thanks,

John

A. That sounds like a Texas Rat Snake, although it could be a Black Rat Snake (Same Genus and species). There is no such thing as a “Black” Corn Snake (unless it is an "Anerythristic" Corn Snake which lacks all pigment other than black, grey, and white). Elaphe obsoleta is the genus and species for the Black Rat and Texas Rat. They are only different subspecies. Texas Rat Snakes are almost always vicious... and I mean bad to the bone. Black Rats can be aggressive as well. Take it back. Tell the guy you want your money back. If you want an actual Corn Snake, Elaphe guttata (Pantherophis guttatus -2001), look up your local Herpetological Society and take your son there. Learn first, and then buy. If you want to know about Corn snakes, the authority seems to be Don Soderberg, at South Moutain Reptiles, www.cornsnake.net.

If you are considering a first pet snake, I can recommend a Corn Snake as they are well adapted to captivity, and relatively easy to maintain. If you are looking for a resource about Corn Snakes, I can highly recommend Don Soderberg's Book, Corn Snakes in Captivity. It is one of the most comprehensive references available. The book covers every aspect of Corn Snake husbandry from acquisition to breeding, and is a good general reference for keeping any colubrid snake.

www.cornsnake.net

 

Q. Is saltwater effective to clean and disinfect a glass tank? My neighbor has owned various snakes over the years and says that he feels it is safer than bleach and easier to use but I don't know if it will kill bacteria. I can't seem to find anything about this on the net. I would really appreciate your input. Thanks for any info you can give me.

Thanks,

Carol

A. Carol, salt water will not clean the tank. There are several things you can use to clean the tank. Many zoos use a green disinfectant called Rocall-D, but that could be difficult for you to find. As long as the snake is not in the cage when you clean it, you can use anything that you would normally use to clean glass such as Windex, vinegar & water, or even bleach. Windex will get it clean, but it is a chemical that could be harmful to the snake if ingested. Vinegar & water works very well, but can leave the vinegar smell behind. Bleach disinfects effectively (if you are worried about bacteria), but actually doesn't rinse easily, so you really have to rinse it very thoroughly.

The best thing for cleaning glass if you want to be absolutely sure there are no chemical contaminants left behind is plain water and elbow grease. Several aquarium shops I worked at when I was younger would only allow plain water... no chemicals whatsoever, but that was for fish tanks. Snakes are a lot less vulnerable to toxins as long as they don't end up in the water bowl. So just remove the water bowl (wash it with plain hot water in the sink -or run it through the dishwasher, but follow with a hot tap water rinse to make sure there is no detergent residue), and wash the tank with the hose in the yard. OR, clean the glass with a chemical cleaner if needed, then rinse the tank with the garden hose in the yard, and dry thoroughly. The most important thing is to never get any chemicals in the water bowl.

 

Q. Hi, I am a seventeen year old girl who is thinking about getting her first snake. My mother refuses to have a snake that needs to be fed mice in the house. Because of this I was thinking about buying a garter or ribbon snake. I was wondering if there were any tips you could give me about what to look for in these types of snakes and if they are the right type of snake for a first time snake owner.

Thank you very much for your time.

Sincerely,

Megan

A. About Ribbon and Garter snakes...

 

The following question is not frequently asked, but I thought it was too funny and needed to be posted.

Q. I have an albino python and a black rat snake. Can I mate them? The albino one is 1 ½ [foot long] and the black snake is 5 ½ feet.

Dave

A. Dave, That is simply not possible. You can mate animals that are the same species. You can cross animals that are the same species, but different subspecies (called an "intergrade"). Intergrades will produce viable offspring, capable of mating when mature. You can sometimes cross one species with another in the same genus (called a "hybrid"). Hybrid snakes often are sterile and may not be capable of mating successfully when mature. Anything matched beyond those criteria would be a mutation. The two snakes you have are not even in the same genus or family. They will not mate. Theoretically it may be possible for a geneticist to cross the DNA, but that would be something for a science fiction film, not the real world.

 

Q. How do I know the cage is dirty if I am using wood shavings as a substrate?

A. The best substrate to use in a snake cage is newspaper (avoid colored inks and glossy finish). It is cheap and may be discarded after it is soiled. The green or brown grass indoor/outdoor carpet works well and looks better, but takes a little more effort to clean. The best method for using carpet substrate is to have two pieces for each cage. Pull the dirty one and replace it with the clean one. Clean the dirty one and hang it up to dry. It should be ready once the cage is again dirty.

Wood shavings and bark chips tend to stay dirty and fragments may lodge in the snake's mouth during feeding causing mouth sores or ULCERATIVE STOMATITIS (Mouthrot). Mouthrot looks a bit like impetigo (infantigo) and will kill the snake in time if left untreated. Plus it is not very pretty and impossible to treat if you are squeamish.

 

Q. hi I need help with my snake and I am broke and do not know what to do. I can not afford the vet till I get paid and I broke the golden rule of not feeding live rats to my snake when i could not acquire F/T rats. The rat turned on my snake and started eating him it is awful. I will send pics [see below] to show you. No vet will see him without money up front and I am scared I was hoping you could offer some advice until I can take him. Maybe how to clean the wound or will he be ok, or how can I help him at all. I feel so awful and just want to help but I can’t and don’t know how to. Any advice you can give would be terrific.

Thank you!!

Melissa

Wound from rodent

A. Just treat it as you would a wound on yourself... clean it and use Neosporin or any other multi-antibiotic salve. Keep the cage clean and have no brush or other material in the cage with the snake. Just have clean paper and a water bowl. A hide box is okay, but it should be solid plastic... no cardboard or metal. The wound looks worse than it actually is. It is fortunate that it was on the tail. Keep it clean and medicated. I wouldn't worry about a bandage, there's probably no way to secure it. It should heal if you keep it clean and medicated. If you see any necroses, use hydrogen peroxide. Have someone help you handle the snake. No matter how gentle he is normally, he may not be when you are cleaning the wound. Don't be rough when cleaning the wound, but be as thorough as possible. Once the wound starts to seal up, spread the medicating out, every other day, then every third day. Use common sense, and everything should be fine. You may have to help the snake shed, but be very gentle when removing skin from near the wound. Your snake will probably shed more often than usual for awhile.

 

Q. How do I breed my snakes?

A. Of course, this varies greatly by species. The only thing you can do is research the animal’s biology as it is known. You should always be involved in your local Herpetological Society if one exists and if you are serious about breeding your snakes. If no information is available, learn what you can about the photoperiod, rainfall, temperature, humidity, and other variables of the animal’s natural habitat. Duplicate the natural environment as best you can, and put a male and a female into that micro-habitat.

 

Q. My snake laid eggs, what do I do?

A. On the one hand, if it is a Burmese Python, you should probably just step back and let momma do her job. To do otherwise could be to put your general health and well being in jeopardy. If on the other hand, it is a smaller colubrid snake, the following was published in 1979 in the Dallas Herpetological Society Occasional Papers, and has been a very effective method of incubation. It is published here verbatim.

The Vermiculite Method

The vermiculite method is one which has been used for a number of years in hatching reptile eggs. It is a modification by the reptile staff at the Fort Worth Zoo of a technique used initially by Richard Zweifel and his associates at the American Museum of Natural History. Bern Tryon of the Fort Worth Zoo published this modification in 1975 in the Bulletin of the New York Herpetological Society (Bern Tryon, personal communication).

The ingredients to be used are the following:

  • 1 glass or plastic gallon jar and lid 
  • Vermiculite 
  • Water 
  • A warm place, approximately 80o F

The jar should be clean, preferably sterile. Vermiculite is a sterile potting soil ingredient, available at any greenhouse, nursery or lawn supply store. The choice of a warm place is highly arbitrary: a few places to consider may be the top shelf of a closet, on top of the refrigerator or in the hot water heater closet.

Add the vermiculite and water to the jar in a ratio of one dry once of vermiculite to one liquid once of water. A liquid once may be measured in a measuring cup: a dry once may be measured on a postage scale. Fill the jar with vermiculite and water in these proportions to a depth of three inches. Close the jar and shake vigorously to mix the two substances as evenly as possible. Open the jar and place the reptile eggs in the barely moist vermiculite at a depth ranging from slightly to totally buried. If the eggs are stuck together, DO NOT SEPARATE THEM. If they are separate, place them short distances from one another. Do not allow the eggs to touch the sides of the jar. An important point to remember is that if the jar is sealed at the time of hatching, the hatchlings will suffocate, yet it is necessary to leave it sealed for as long as possible.

-Dave Barker

 

Q. Is this cage big enough?

A. Technically, a snake cage only needs to be big enough so that the water bowl and snake can share the cage floor without either being forced to rest at an angle. I knew one individual who raised a Boa constrictor from a baby to 6’ long in a standard twenty gallon fish tank. However, it is best if you have a cage that is large enough to allow the snake to find areas that vary in temperature. As a very rough rule of thumb, two joining floor lengths should at least equal your snake’s length. That is, if your snake is 2’ long, a 10 gallon aquarium is fine. The added lengths of two joining sides equal 30” which meets the “at least” aspect of the rule of thumb. If you use an under the cage heat source, do not put it directly in the center. Put it to one side (not under the water bowl), and this will allow the snake to maintain its optimum temperature.

 


Herpetological Care Information

Melissa Kaplan's Anapsid.Org is by far one of the best resources for captive husbandry on the net. If you are considering getting a reptile or amphibian as a pet, this is a good place to start.

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