Snakes–the Myth, the Legend, the Pet!
Points On Pets
By Jane Koska
Snakes–the Myth, the Legend, the Pet!
Everybody’s heard that the reason there are no snakes in Ireland is because St. Patrick chased them into the sea. In reality, Ireland wasn’t a good place back then to practice herding snakes, and it still isn’t today. Scientists believe there were never any snakes in Ireland to begin with. That’s because if any snakes had ever lived there, they would have perished during the Ice Age. Subsequently, Ireland’s separation from the European mainland kept new snakes from recolonizing the island.
Ireland reported its first venomous snake bite – ever – in March 2020, when a man was bitten by his “pet” puff adder, a large, dangerous species native to Africa. While we don’t know much about this incident, it certainly illustrates the danger of keeping a snake capable of a venomous bite. It’s safe to say that venomous animals of any sort should be approached with caution and not kept as pets.
Snakes are a polarizing group of animals! It seems that people fall at the ends of the love-hate spectrum, rather than in the middle. Snake fans appreciate the animals’ beauty, uniqueness, and interesting behaviors. Fans know that, contrary to some misconceptions, snakes are not slimy. They’re smooth and shiny and muscular. Snake lovers also understand that snakes are an important part of the ecosystem, and their presence benefits humans as well. A single snake, depending on its size and species, can eat dozens of rats and mice in a year.
Many of us can satisfy our interest in snakes by visiting an accredited zoo or aquarium where we can safely view them from a distance. Also, some local nature centers exhibit snakes, and are a great place to see native species up close. Some snake aficionados, though, choose to keep snakes as pets so that they can enjoy watching the snake at home and even handling it (after proper instruction).
Prospective snake owners can consult a myriad of sources providing advice on acquiring and keeping snakes, such as the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), Pets 4 Life at The Ohio State University, and Southeast Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (SEPARC). (See references below.) Some general things a snake keeper needs to be prepared for include:
- Investing in a habitat that meets the snake’s needs and provides it a stimulating environment. A good habitat includes places to hide, to climb, to drink and soak, and to explore. Snakes must have a source of heat, usually a heat lamp or pad, but also need a cool spot in their space. Habitats should be big enough for the snake to stretch out, and definitely have to be escape-proof!
- Feeding the snake the food it needs. There’s no “snake chow.” All snakes are carnivores, that is, they eat other animals. For safety reasons, snake owners typically don’t feed live prey, but condition their pets to accept dead prey, often frozen/thawed or freshly-killed rodents. This can be difficult for some people.
- Learning to safely handle the snake – and what to expect. Snakes, like all reptiles, are ectothermic. This means that their body temperature depends on the environment, and so in turn does their metabolism and activity level. Put simply, cold snakes are slow snakes. This also means that snakes seek heat sources. While they’re not exactly cuddly, snakes that are used to being handled will get close to humans for warmth, sometimes crawling into unexpected places. Also, snakes can’t be house-trained, so it’s pretty likely you’ll be pooped on if you handle enough snakes. And of course, non-venomous pet snakes are capable of biting, and may do so when startled or if they feel threatened.
- Ensuring proper veterinary care for the duration of the snake’s life. Snakes are lower maintenance than dogs or cats, but they are not maintenance-free. They require medical care just like any pet and may need to see a vet who specializes in reptiles. Moreover, snakes can live as long as 20 years.
- Complying with ordinances and regulations that pertain to keeping snakes. Requirements vary by jurisdiction, and can typically be found on the jurisdiction’s website. Owners should be sure to check state, county, city, and even apartment building rules.
Once a prospective snake owner understands what is involved with keeping a snake and is prepared to welcome one home, it’s time to choose the species. Experienced reptile keepers recommend corn snakes, milk snakes, and king snakes, which are easily raised in captivity and have the reputation of being calm and gentle. A more experienced owner might want to choose one of the tropical constrictors. Experts recommend the ball python, which doesn’t get too large and tends to be fairly placid. Large constrictors, like the reticulated python and Burmese python, which can grow up to 20 feet long and 200 pounds, are dangerous and make poor pets. Their size and temperament can become too much to handle, and irresponsible owners have released these non-native snakes into the wild, where they have devastating, disruptive effects on the ecosystem.
Pet snakes are best acquired from knowledgeable, reputable breeders, frequently at reptile shows. Animals raised in captivity are likely to be healthier and live longer than those in the wild. While the Commonwealth of Virginia allows residents to catch and keep certain native snakes, there are distinct downsides to doing this: you could put yourself and the snake at risk of injury; a wild snake is more likely to have health problems and parasites; and capturing it would remove an important component of the ecosystem.
Guides and advice for prospective snake (and other reptile) owners:
Wild snakes in the U.S.:
St. Patrick and snakes in Ireland:
Jane Koska is an animal lover who appreciates all creatures, from ants to whales, although she’s a little creeped out by hyenas and is still looking for something good to say about cockroaches. She lives in Washington, DC, with two adorably fluffy young cats.