In a previous post, I wrote about recent experiences with snakes and briefly about my lifelong love for them, I will link you to that earlier post here.
I will continue on by saying that I believe that snakes and to a lesser extent, larger species of lizards are some of the most abused, neglected and mistreated animals in the pet trade.
Reptiles (as well as many other kinds of pets) have fallen into the same category as appliances, cars, clothing and even homes in this modern economy. They are seen as disposable. A family buys their child a snake that they are ill prepared for, if they are prepared for it at all and then suddenly the realization hits them that the snake in question is always, ALWAYS going to require that you feed other animals to it. It has certain environmental needs, their enclosures need to be kept clean, some of them grow quite large and suddenly, the family is posting ads on Craigslist trying to recoup some of their investment by trying to sell the snake and its enclosure.
Or worse, the snake is just left to suffer, dehydrate, starve or succumb to any one of a number of ailments.
Considering that captive bred snakes, if properly cared for, can live anywhere from 10 to more than 30 years, how many of those purchases do you think are living full lives?
Not very many.
I can’t stand that part of the hobby/lifestyle that I am so passionate about.
Let me introduce you to Orchid. Orchid is a Corn Snake, also known as a Red Rat snake (Pantherophis guttatus). Orchid came to us just a little over a month ago. A friend contacted me and said that an acquaintance of hers was trying to get rid of a Corn Snake and would I take it.
I of course said yes. Gypsy loves Corn Snakes, as do I and I also hate to see them neglected, and so sight unseen, I drove an hour north to meet our new family member.
Nothing really shocks me anymore, I have seen such terrible cases of abuse in reptiles that I seldom flinch, and in truth, Orchid wasn’t in that bad of shape, but everything about her situation was wrong and bad for her.
The gentleman that brought her, was the father of her owner. His daughter had purchased the snake, her enclosure and lights, and then before more than a month had gone by, had moved away without warning, leaving the snake behind with no care instructions and not a backward glance.
So, what I picked up was a young, small (14 inches), thin, underfed, dehydrated female Corn Snake, in a 36x18x17 inch enclosure, with four inches of sawdust in the bottom of it and a tiny one cup sized Tupperware container in the middle of it for water (that had no water in it, but since he was driving the snake around I will give him the benefit of the doubt.)
The tiny snake had no place to climb, it had this enormous area, all exposed where it had to burrow to hide, it had to hunt for its water container, which looked like it had been dry a long time and she obviously had not been fed in a while.
I thanked the man, listened to his story about his daughter and then tucked Orchid and her accessories into the car and brought her home for love and rehab.
I wish I could say that this was a rarity, but most of the snakes that come to us have been neglected or outright abused and we cannot save all of them. We see them in organ failure, we see them so underfed that they are not strong enough to eat, we see them so dehydrated that their skins tear like paper and always there is a litany of excuses, of reasons, of justifications, but all of them amount to the same thing. People are saying, “Who really cares? It’s just a snake.”
Who cares? I do. I really do, to the point of tears on some nights.
Recently, Gypsy was fortunate enough to be invited to be the photographer at the Mid-Atlantic Reptile show in Carlisle Pennsylvania. We spent the entire day, visiting with the vendors, getting to know them and some of their animals and educating some people along the way.
Two of my favorite snakes from that show were this stunning, ten foot male Purple Albino Reticulate python:
And this beautiful Albino Jungle Boa.
They were both healthy, well behaved and as you can see, large. I handled the python for the best part of an hour as the crowd moved around us. The owner and I answered questions, presented facts and posed for pictures, but part of me felt incredibly guilty.
Very few people have the space, the resources, the knowledge or the experience to keep such massive, intelligent and potentially dangerous creatures, yet there I was, with ten feet of stunningly beautiful animal draped around my shoulder, making it look so easy.
It is. And it isn’t.
Ease, in any discipline from playing piano, to practicing Kung-fu, to handling potentially dangerous animals, comes from years and YEARS of experience. It comes from trying things, observing, listening to your mentors, doing your research and making mistakes.
Have I made mistakes?
Have I paid for them? Yes, painfully.
I have paid for my errors in injuries, bites, broken bones, dislocated joints, and worst of all, in poorly cared for animals.
When I began in this, there was no internet, there was no know-it-all resource and many of the snakes we were keeping were not common and little of their needs were known. But we learned, we passed on what we learned and we became good at what we do.
Do I get bitten? All the time.
How do I react to it? Generally with laughter now. Not long ago a friend’s Goini Kingsnake decided that my thumb looked delicious and he spent about five minutes trying to figure out how to devour me, thumb first. What did I do? I went and found Gypsy with her camera so that others could get a giggle out of it too.
I very seldom ever get bitten by big snakes, the more dangerous ones. Why? Because I have a method, and while I will describe it here, I warn you, it comes off sounding a little esoteric or new agey.
It is a combination of how I move, how I breathe and my knowledge of each particular species’ intelligence and habits.
Okay, well a bit more of an explanation is probably in order. Movements that are likely to make a snake nervous are jerky, hesitant, fearful and sudden. Smooth, yet deliberate movement always is best. Think of the way a Tai Chi master moves, fluidly, steady, calm, without hesitation. This is good for the way snakes move, constantly moving your hands to support them as they move, never moving quickly toward their faces from straight on or from above, always from below or slightly to right or left.
Make sure that the snake feels supported and secure, falling frightens them and if you react harshly or rashly when a snake begins to drop, they can and will lash out in instinct.
Some snakes like Retics, Boas, Rat Snakes and Carpet pythons are naturally arboreal and are good at climbing and holding on. Where King snakes, Milk snakes, Drymarchons (indigos and cribos) and Bullsnakes are much more terrestrial and need more support when handling because being off of the ground is not their most common scene.
And also, when standing, I seldom stand still but sway slightly as I hold, especially larger snakes. I am not sure why this works but it has proved out to be very effective for me.
Breathing is important, more for self-control than anything else, but I try to breath as slowly as or more so than the snake. If you breathe when they breathe, it seems to settle them more quickly and they tend to grow quiet and calm at a much faster pace. Plus it makes you mindful of your own anxiety, fear and impatience, all of which the snake can sense.
Lastly, the most difficult one of the bunch, knowledge.
Books are wonderful. The internet is an amazing resource. Television has had some great educational programming, but the problem is, they are not immersive. If you want to learn about snakes, find snake people and ask them to show you how to interact with their animals. Then let the snakes teach you.
Snakes have been my gurus since I was in diapers.
You will learn, quickly if you are passionate that Bullsnakes are not Ball Pythons, and Ball Pythons and Burmese Pythons are night and day. You will discover that while your Corn Snake is super gentle taking the frozen mice out of your tongs, that you should not expect the same reaction from a hungry kingsnake.
You can spend the rest of your life exploring these things, like I have and will continue to do. Snakes are simply one of the most diverse, beautiful, complicated, fascinating and awe inspiring groups of creatures on this planet and I speak up for them, because I have seen too many of them suffering.
Get to know a snake, and maybe, like me, you will hear them whispering.
Take care of each other.