Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Reptile Presentations

In 2008 I was asked to perform two reptile presentations to the Kathy Caraway Elementary second grade classes. The interest in the shows—from students and teachers—was overwhelming. I was asked to return in 2009, this time to perform four shows.

These presentations have made an impact not only on the students and staff, but on me as well. I realized how much I enjoy talking to people about these fascinating, often misunderstood creatures. After last year's shows, with the encouragement of school staff, I made the decision to offer more shows at more schools in the Austin area.

Currently, I'm offering presentations for grades K–5. The shows are designed to captivate students while exposing them to important grade-appropriate information with TEKS coverage, a variety of live reptiles, engaging discussion and fascinating reptile facts. The small group setting allows the students an up-close and personal experience.

Presentations generally consist of 6–10 reptiles, primarily snakes, but also include lizards and or/tortoises as available. Availability is determined by the reptiles' feeding, shedding and breeding cycles. Reptile eggs and hatchling reptiles may be included when available. NO venomous or aggressive reptiles will be included in the presentations.

Special presentations can be tailored to fit middle school and high school curricula, including lessons on genetics. I'm happy to present to scout groups, birthday parties and other groups.  

If you want to know more, contact me. I'll send you an information packet with all the 411.

How Do You Keep A Snake?

Part 3: Substrate

Once you have an enclosure for your snake, you need some sort of substrate or bedding to cover the cage floor. Snakes like to burrow in their substrate and hide between layers of paper; it makes them feel secure. There are several substrates that are suitable for most snakes. We prefer to use Aspen shavings for our hatchlings and juvenile snakes and newspaper for our adults. Cypress bark is also an acceptable substrate.

Wood shavings and bark should be spot cleaned every few days and replaced every few weeks—or more often—as needed. Newspaper should be changed at least once a week or as it becomes soiled. It is very important to keep your snake's enclosure clean to avoid potential health issues.

NEVER use cedar shavings as the oils in the wood are toxic to snakes, Pine shavings have received mixed reviews, so we avoid using this in our cages. Also avoid sand and other soils, as they may be ingested and cause intestinal impaction. They're also more difficult to clean.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

I Do Not Like Green Eggs and Ham!

Convincing Your Problem Feeders to Eat Pinky Mice

Snakes are pretty easy to keep, but there can be challenges. Feeding time can stress you and your snake equally, especially if you're dealing with a very young snake that isn't well established. Sometimes baby snakes just need a little boost...or trickery..to get them started. But first, let's look at your husbandry practices. Be sure to check:

-Temperature and humidity. Are they at appropriate levels? Do you have a proper temp gradient?

-Housing. Is the snake's enclosure too large or two small? Sometimes small snakes become stressed if their enclosures are too large.

-Hide spots. Does your snake have one or more places to hide?

-Outside stressors. Are you handling the snake too much? Has the snake recently been moved? Is there loud music or excessive action outside the snake's enclosure? Try covering the cage with a towel or dark construction paper. Be sure not to block air flow.

-Photoperiod. Are you giving the snake proper periods of light and dark?

-Winter. Sometimes snakes simply refuse to eat in the fall and winter months. Brumation may be in order.

Once you've checked out your husbandry practices and made sure all is within the appropriate parameters, it's time to look at ways to persuade your picky reptile to eat. One of the main reasons that a snake may refuse to take pinky mice has to do with instinct. In the wild, snakes don't usually run across conveniently placed pre-killed baby mice. Lizards, frogs and other snakes are often the first things eaten by many hatchlings. Some snakes will devour just about anything that moves, but many will only eat what they are hardwired to eat in the wild. That's where the persuasion and trickery come in.

Offer something a little easier to swallow. Try these alternate foods to kick start your snake's feeding response and to keep the calories flowing:

-first off, try live mice.

-offer the type of prey your snake would eat in the wild (ei., lizards, non-lab mice)

-switch from mice to pinky rats or vice versa

-live prey followed by frozen/thawed

-rodent tails for very small snakes

Scenting and De-scenting. First, use unscented bar soap to wash the scent from a frozen/thawed pinky. If that doesn't work, try scenting a pinky mouse with:

-lizard, fish, snake, fish, frog or other known prey

-pinky blood (this works very well for some of my hondos)

-pinky brain juice

-egg yolk

-pinky rats (there's a difference in smell, and some snakes prefer rats)

-chicken broth/tuna water

-the skin of some other food item (even shed skin) wrapped around a pinky

Other Trickery. Sometimes you have to get really sneaky with your serpents. Try these tricks:

-put the snake and food in a paper bag or other small, opaque container and leave over night in a dark, quiet area

-put prey just outside of the snake's hide box

-wiggle prey with hemostats to simulate live prey

-bait and switch (Get the snake going with one type of food, then get it to strike a pinky instead. This takes some practice.)

-change substrate type (I've found that some snakes eat better with aspen than newspaper and vice versa)

-try feeding at different times of day, such as late at night.

-try feeding with lights off

You'll often need to combine two or more of these techniques. Watch your snake's body language to see what draws its interest. Once you get a snake to feed regularly, it's usually easy to switch over to the desired food type.

Know any other tricks? Please share!

How Do You Keep A Snake?

Part 2: Housing

Snakes can thrive in a variety of enclosure types. Glass aquariums are very popular among most consumers and some entry level breeders. They are most suited to small collections where space is not at a premium and there aren't too many cages to clean. Among breeders and those with larger collections, plastic shoebox/sweaterbox enclosures are more popular. These are easy to clean and can be placed in racks to save space.There are also more expensive plastic cages specially designed for reptiles. These are probably the best, but are more expensive.

Many baby snakes will do well in a 2 1/2 to 5 gallon aquarium or a plastic shoe box (approximately 6 quarts). As the snake grows, the size of the enclosure should grow as well. Adults should be kept in an aquarium at least 2/3 of the length of the snake or a plastic box of 41 quarts or larger (Rubbermade and Sterilite storage boxes designed to fit under a bed are the perfect size for this).

It is vital to make your snake's enclosure escape-proof. For aquariums, a tight-fitting screen top with some form of fastener is essential. For plastic boxes, there are two ways to keep your snake from escaping: stacks of books or other heavy objects (which is not visually appealing or convenient) or a rack designed to hold one or more boxes of the size you have chosen. In this type of rack, the boxes slide out like drawers and the shelf above each box acts as a lid. This method, while ideal for most large collections is generally not practical for the average pet owner. If you use plastic boxes, make sure to punch/drill air holes in the sides!

The majority of my snakes get four enclosures throughout their lives:

First is a small Ziploc brand food container with a snap on lid (about 2 quarts). I use this smaller box to establish new baby snakes so that they will feel secure and feed well. They come in packs of two for about $2.50 and can be found at just about any grocery store, Target, Wal-Mart, etc.

The second enclosure is a 6 quart Sterilite plastic shoebox in a rack setup. These cost $1 each. The rack cost me about $50 to build, but it has housed about 20 snakes already and doubles as a set of shelves when not in use.

Third is what I call an intermediate cage. I use 15 quart Sterilite (#1924) plastic boxes. These are the ones with the green latches. I use the lids for these and place them on shelves with weights on the lids. These cost $3.50 at Wal-Mart. These have proven very versatile, and house snakes between 20 inches and 3 feet long. They are good for transporting reptiles and I even use them for larger snakes when I cool them for the winter.

Finally, for my adult snakes, I use 41 quart Sterilite (#1960) under-bed boxes in a rack setup. These cost $7-9, or $5 if you catch them on sale. The rack cost me about $200 to build, but houses ten snakes at a time.

You can do the same thing with aquariums if plastic boxes aren't to your liking.

So why all the different sizes? Why not just put the snake in the biggest cage and be done with it? Snakes like cozy, confined spaces. Putting them in larger enclosures often stresses them, causing them to lose their appetites. They also seem to have trouble finding food left in a larger cage sometimes.

Sound complicated? It's not, really. Just start small, step up as the snake grows.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Ban on Pythons and Boas

Yesterday the Senate Committee on the Environment & Public Works held a business meeting on S.373, the "Python Ban" bill. This bill, in its current form, would list 9 species of python and boa as injurious species covered by the Lacy Act. This would ban the import, export and interstate transport of these species.

The supporters of the bill cite the problem with escaped Burmese pythons in the Everglades and a questionable report by the USGS. They also are very vocal about the tragic death of a 2-year old girl in Florida. She was killed this year by a Burmese python that escaped when the girl's father failed top properly secure it's cage. Interestingly, the bill, if passed into law, would do nothing to either eradicate the escaped pythons in Florida or make toddlers safe from large constrictors, as there is no provision to remove any pythons already existing in the U.S.

S.373 was voted by voice vote to move out of committee and on to the Senate. If voted on and passed by the Senate and House of Representatives it will then move on to President Obama to be signed into law.

USARK, the United States Association of Reptile Keepers, is working with Senators and EPW Committee Staff to change or kill this and other threatening bills.

For the average pet owner, it would appear that this is of little importance. But it's not. And for the avid reptile community this is disastrous. Many breeders of boas and pythons would be forced into bankruptcy, as interstate sale and trade is vital to their livelihoods. A domino effect would ensue as all the businesses that support these breeders would lose out on millions of dollars in revenue. A typical reptile breeder spends money on rodents, freezers (for storing rodents), heating (pads, rope, tape, lights and or RHPs), caging and rack systems, paper towels and other cleaning supplies, bedding, water bowls, shipping containers and other shipping supplies, shipping costs, electricity costs, office supplies, medications and supplements, veterinary bills, advertising, taxes, etc.
Think only the big-time breeders spend a significant amount of money? I only own 19 snakes, not including recent hatchlings, and I spend almost $2,000 a year to keep them alive, healthy, growing and breeding. That works out to about $100 per snake per year. To put that into perspective, I don't know of any breeder who makes a living with less than 200 adult snakes. Big-time breeders and industry pioneers sometimes have thousands of animals.
We're talking about serious economic impact, which WILL affect the average pet owner.

Furthermore, the authors and supporters of this bill are using this as a stepping stone to introduce more bills calling for the ban of other species of reptiles, including ALL pythons, certain species of fish, birds, mammals and invertebrates. They are implying that importing and trading in these animals will automatically threaten the ecosystems of the entire country. There is no scientific evidence to support this.
So one has to ask why? What's the real agenda here?
It is a fact that S.373 and related bills are supported by the HSUS (Humane Society of the United States). You thought they were all about saving puppies, right? So did I. The ugly truth is that the position of high level members of HSUS is that NO animal should be kept as a pet. They consider caging any animal as cruelty.
Don't confuse HSUS with your state or local humane society. They are not affiliated.
It's also a fact that Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, the sponsor of S.373, stands to lose huge amounts of Everglades restoration money if he can't show some kind of results.
And guess when the five-fiscal-year Strategic Plan by the USGS (supporters of the bill) ends: 2009. They're trying to get token results to get more funding.

USARK, the United States Association of Reptile Keepers, is working with Senators and EPW Committee Staff to change or kill S.373 and other threatening bills.
I urge you all to join USARK and contact your senators and representatives. The cost is minimal and the stakes are high.

These are the species currently affected by S.373 are:

1. Python molurus
2. Broghammeras reticulatus
3. Python sebae
4. Python natalensis
5. Boa constrictor
6. Eunectes notaeus
7. Eunectes deschauenseei
8. Eunectes murinus
9. Eunectes beniensis

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

How Do You Keep A Snake?

Part 1: The Basics

A few people have recently told me that they were interested in getting a snake but felt they weren't ready to take care of one. I applaud the decision to not take on a pet that is beyond one's means or experience to keep. At the same time I'm astounded at how many people think that snakes are difficult to keep.

I realized that everyone who expressed this concern to me owns at least one dog and/or cat. Let me tell you, most snakes are much easier and cheaper to care for than a dog or cat.

Snakes require a relatively small space compared to many other pets. They don't eat as often or as much. They live in cages, so poop is contained and easy to clean. Snakes don't require elaborate setups or toys. A very simple enclosure will suffice. In fact, the only thing a snake needs that a dog or cat doesn't is a source of heat. I've had better luck with snakes than with fish.

So what do you need to care for a snake?

1. A suitable enclosure. Most people use glass aquariums with secure lids made especially for reptiles. Smaller snakes can also be kept in Kritter Keeper plastic cages. The important thing is to make sure the snake cannot escape.

2. A substrate such as aspen shavings or newspaper.

3. A water bowl that is not easy to tip over and is large enough for the snake to soak in.

4. A safe source of heat such as a lamp, heat pad or heat rope designed for reptiles.

5. A place to hide.

6. Thermometer and/or temperature gun.

7. Food.

That's it in a nutshell. I'll go into specifics in upcoming posts.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Last Meals

Most of my snakes have had their last meals for the 2009 season. Why? Breeding season 2010! An important part of breeding many reptiles, including most snakes, is a process called brumation. Brumation involves allowing a reptile to spend the winter in a cool, dark area for a few months to prepare it for the spring and summer breeding season. Brumation stimulates the production of hormones that kick start a reptile's reproductive system.
Methods for cooling reptiles vary, but mine is simple and straightforward. Toward the end of summer I decide which snakes I will try to breed the next year. I feed them as much as they will eat to build up body mass. Around mid October I stop feeding the selected snakes. After waiting three weeks, to allow for all food to be digested, I turn off the cage heaters. This allows for a slight drop in temperature in each cage. After a few more days (3-7), I move the snakes into smaller cages with bedding and a water bowl. I place these cages in an unheated closet. The temperature in the closet gets as low as 50 degrees during the coldest part of the winter and it stays dark.
I check on the snakes every couple of weeks to make sure they have water and to make sure all is well. Occasionally, snakes will shed during brumation, so they receive extra attention to make sure there are no shedding issues (stuck sheds, retained eyecaps, etc.).
After two months, the snakes are removed from the closet and gradually exposed to warmer temperatures. After about a week, I offer food, which is usually met with great enthusiasm!
That's it for brumation.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Anery Clutch

I had just about given up on this clutch when I spied this tiny anerythristic Honduran peeking up at me with it's little bandit mask. I'm pretty sure this is the only one of the four eggs that will hatch from this clutch, but I was thrilled to see it. This baby is 17 grams and comes from an anery to anery pairing. What does that mean? Anerythristic (anery for short) means lacking red pigment. Both of the parents display this simple recessive trait, so the baby does as well. Want to learn more about simple recessive reptile genetics? Comment on this post or contact me and I'll write about it in an upcoming post.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Is it poisonous?

Every time I do a snake presentation or show off any of my snakes the question comes up. Is it poisonous?

The answer is no. I don't keep any poisonous snakes, and I probably never will. Why? It's not because I'm afraid. I'm much more afraid of vicious dogs than venomous snakes. Rather, it's because I understand venomous snakes, their tendencies and their capabilities. I'm not trained to handle "hots", as they are called. Furthermore, I don't feel I have anything to prove (as a FEW venomous keepers do). Finally, there is always the chance of escape. With a wife and hopefully kids in the future, I would not risk their safety or my own. It's a personal question of responsibility that each keeper must answer for himself or herself.

That said, I have handled one venomous snake. It was a sea snake we found on the beach in Costa Rica. I picked it up with a short stick (to avoid giving my new wife a heart attack on our honeymoon). After I was done examining it and taking pictures, I revealed to her the fact that it has one of the deadliest venoms on Earth, although it rarely bites humans.

I also held a monocled cobra once, bare-handed, but it was a venomoid (which means it's venom glands had been surgically removed), so I don't count that one. Although I will say that it is a high-strung snake, prone to hissing, puffing and jerking. Definitely not for the faint of heart.

If I ever kept venomous, it would probably be eyelash vipers, gaboon vipers, coral snakes and/or copperheads. I consider all these to be among the most beautiful of animals. A few rattlesnake species are also amazing.

As cool as some of the hots are, my hands are full caring for my collection of colubrids and pythons.

So, to recap: Is it poisonous?


Thursday, October 29, 2009

Why would anyone want to keep a snake?

A recent news article published in Florida--and circulated on the web--quoted several keepers who attribute their fascination with snakes to a thrill that comes from owning "dangerous" animals. They say they get off on handling "something that could kill you." This, for the most part, is a load of manure. It's true that there will always be a narrow slice of the population who finds validation in owning a venomous snake just because it's venomous, or a giant constrictor just because it could get big enough to kill a human. It's the same as people who keep pit bulls because of their violent reputation.

So what do most snake lovers see in the scaly, cold-blooded creatures?

Speaking for myself, snakes, like all reptiles, are interesting on several levels. Even though we have a dog and some cats, I'm not big on the traditional slobbery, stinking, hairball pets. My preference is cool, smooth and hypo-allergenic. To me, watching and handling snakes is relaxing. A smooth-scaled snake, such as a kingsnake or ball python, feels like living glass as it glides through your hands and over your arms. Creeped out? Don't be. It's like a massage. In fact, some spas in foreign countries are using snakes in their massage treatments to great effect. Closer to home snakes are being used to encourage interaction among nursing home patients and to calm patients in psychiatric facilities.

Another turn-on for me is the variety of color. In Honduran milk snakes alone one can see a glossy riot of rings ranging in color from red to orange and white to yellow...all separated by jet black. And that doesn't even include the color-affecting morphs. Albinos, anerythristics, hypos and extreme hypos produce insanely bright oranges and whites, grays and silvers.

Corn snakes come in over one hundred color and pattern morphs, as do ball pythons. Reticulated pythons are catching up.

Even in wild-type (non-morph) specimens there is tremendous variety. One keeper, Thomas Davis, says. "...like baseball cards, but alive. How cool is that?"

I couldn't agree more.

As living creatures, consider how snakes thrive without limbs. How they survive on all continents except Antarctica. How they live from sea to mountain to desert. This interests many of us. As does the fact that species of boas and pythons contain the remnants of a pelvic girdle and tiny spurs...the last vestiges of legs. There is a certain fascination in watching a snake eat, unhinging the jaws and swallowing prey whole. And in realizing how efficient the snake's digestive tract is, breaking down even hair and bone. And did you know they smell with their tongues?

Then there is the satisfaction of caring for a living thing. Snakes, in general, are easy and rewarding to keep, making it easy to have several. And that's a good thing, because keeping snakes is addictive.

Finally, some people have an attraction for things outside the mainstream. We root for the underdog or revel in the music of an underground band. We enjoy trying to understand the misunderstood. Snakes have always been special to me. Even after dabbling in turtles, lizards and frogs I've always returned to the legless, the narrow fellows in the grass.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Snake in the Grass

While mowing the grass this morning I came across a welcome visitor: a hognose snake. When disturbed, these harmless hams put on a great show. First comes the hissing and puffing. They inflate their already fat bodies to twice their normal girth, then expel the air with an intimidating hiss. To enhance the menacing illusion, they flatten their heads in a cobra-like display. Sound scary? It's all a bluff; they don't even bite people!
If the scare tactics fail, hognose snakes have one more card to play: they will often play dead, flipping onto their backs, convulsing and flopping their tongues onto the dirt before "expiring." The funniest part is that if you flip them over, they will roll onto their backs again as if to say, "no, really, I'm dead." As kids, my brothers and I loved seeing how many times we could get these snakes to roll over.
I was hoping this one would go through the whole act, but all he did was huff and puff...and poop all over my hands. I kept him inside long enough to finish mowing and snap a few pictures before returning him to the yard so he could hunt for toads tonight. Hognose snakes use their upturned snouts to dig into toad burrows and pull out their prey.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Baby Hondos

These baby Honduran milk snakes hatched in September. I have two of the tri-colors left for sale. The tangerine is sold.

King Snake

My mom used to be deathly afraid of snakes. So when she picked up a shovel and killed the speckled king snake in our backyard, she had no idea that the next year she would be buying me the exact same thing for my birthday. I think I was twelve or thirteen. It was early summer and talk had turned to my birthday (I probably turned it that way). Where the idea came from I don't know. Was it the king snake book I'd checked out from the LeBlanc Middle School library? Was it the kid at summer camp who had talked about his own pet king snake? Maybe it was the memory of that snake my mom had killed. Somehow I got it in my head that I needed a king snake.

The pet shop was called Peaceable Kingdom and was run by a couple of old hippies. They were weird, for sure, but nice enough. One thing I remember is that it was the cleanest pet shop I've ever entered. Even though they had cats, my allergies never flared up in that place; that's how clean they kept it. It smelled of fresh corn cob bedding.

My mom had reluctantly agreed to buy me a snake for my birthday, so we went to Peaceable Kingdom, the only local pet store that dealt in reptiles, to ask questions and look around. They showed me their stock of speckled kings and I was hooked! Such shiny awesomeness! Alas, I had to wait. My birthday had not arrived, and besides, even the meager $35 price tag was a big deal in those days. The waiting was unbearable. I fantasized about raising my very own king snake. About holding it and showing it to my friends.

Just before my birthday we went back to Peaceable Kingdom. I darted from cage to cage. Where were the king snakes? There were corn snakes. Rosy boas. Boa constrictors. Iguanas. Where was my speckled king snake? The hippy-wife came around to help us. My heart pounded as my mom timidly asked about the snake. I knew what the lady was going to say. I knew all the beautiful, gleaming speckled king snakes had been sold.

"Oh, I remember you!" she said. "We have one left."

I don't remember ever being so elated about a snake as when that lady emerged from the storeroom holding my first king snake.

After my mom paid the bill and we were leaving with my snake and a few supplies, I heard the lady call from behind me.

"Happy birthday!" I turned to say thank you and she handed me a book. "Here you go." It was the T.F.H. Book of Snakes, by Thomas Leetz. I was overjoyed!

I looked at that book--and read and re-read it-- until the pages started falling out and and I could quote my favorite parts. After over twenty years the snake is long gone, but I still take down the TFH Book of Snakes from time to time, flip through the pages and think about those magical days.

Thanks, Mom. And thanks, Hippy-wife.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

First Snake

It was a sunny day around 1980, which would put me about five years old. I was riding in a dusty sky-blue '72 Chevy pickup called Blue-tcher, a name I had given it when I was a toddler because I couldn't say "blue truck." My father was driving. The road was probably somewhere in the reforested area between Sulphur and DeQuincy, Louisiana. We were most likely on one of my dad's scouting trips--he was always on the lookout for new hunting spots--or maybe we were just out for a ride so he could relieve some stress. I would learn all about driving to relieve stress later in my life.

A seemingly inconsequential thing happened then, but it was something that would ultimately make a huge impact on the rest of my life: a ribbon snake shot across the road in front of the truck.

"Get it for me, Daddy!" I didn't think he really would. But then he was out, the truck barely stopped, he cleared the ditch in a leap and landed on the snake an instant before it would have disappeared behind a barbed-wire fence. Seconds later it was in my hand, biting and musking. My first snake.

I don't remember what ever happened to that snake. I'm sure it escaped (perhaps with help from my mom) or died due to my lack of experience. I DO know that it was followed by a number of other ribbon snakes over the years and that it sparked an interest in reptiles that has never waned.

My father was never into reptiles, but that didn't stop him from bringing home the occasional turtle, lizard or snake for me. Anything scaly that he found on a construction site was destined to be loved by his little boy.

Thanks, Dad.