SHOULD I KEEP A SNAKE [or any other reptile] AS A PET?

From Snakes in Question: The Smithsonian Answer Book (pages 149-151) by Carl H. Ernst and George R. Zug, published by the Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC
Copyright © 1996 by the Smithsonian Institution.
Used by permission of the publisher. Not for re-use without written permission from the publisher.
[If you still plan on keeping a reptile as a pet after reading this, consider a captive-born one or one from a rescue center such as Midgard Sanctuary in North Carolina.]

We do not believe that any amphibian or reptile should be kept as a pet.

Why do we discourage keeping snakes when we are writing a book about them? Snakes are fascinating creatures, and we understand the desire to keep them in captivity. We also know many people who take good care of their snakes, but we have seen too much poor care. Too often, snakes and their kin are viewed as requiring minimum care rather than specialized care. The care provided is often inadequate, and the reptile or amphibian soon dies or experiences ongoing suffering.

Though some pet-trade amphibians and reptiles are now being bred in captivity, the majority still come from wild populations. During transport to pet stores, amphibians and reptiles are typically held and shipped in unsanitary and inhumane conditions. Many die, and most of the survivors arrive in ill health. Furthermore, collecting for the pet trade has drastically reduced many populations. Thus we view the pet trade mainly as an anti-conservation activity.

We realize that many people want snakes as pets, so even though we discourage the practice, we will offer a few suggestions for keeping a pet snake healthy. Keeping a snake requires the same commitment and responsibility as keeping any other pet. You are responsible for its well-being and must be willing to expend the time and effort to ensure its proper care.

If this is your first snake, choose a common species that does not require specialized care or housing (ideally, a captive-bred individual) and about which adequate information exists. A well-cared-for pet snake will outlive a dog or cat. The life spans in captivity of ratsnakes and kingsnakes are commonly more than fifteen years, and boas and pythons often live more than twenty years. Are you willing to commit yourself to maintenance of snake for that long? Boa constrictors and pythons become large and potentially dangerous. Zoos rarely accept pet snakes, and finding a buyer -or even someone to accept a gift snake- can often be difficult.

Having decided what sort of snake you want, learn as much as possible about the species by reading the available literature before you buy it. You can also ask other snake keepers about the special needs of the species. With this knowledge, you can prepare for the arrival of the pet snake. This is also the time to check out the reliability of the pet stores or sellers you are considering.

Whether purchasing a snake or receiving one as a gift, check its health before accepting it. Caring for a sick snake will be frustrating and depressing, and will become expensive as well. The health of a snake can be difficult for a novice to determine, but a careful and thoughtful examination will offer some clues. Is the snake thin or emaciated? Are its scales wrinkled or dull? Are some scales raised rather than flat? Does it have scars or open sores? Are its eyes dull? Does it move oddly, yawn constantly, or wheeze? Does it have a discharge (liquid or semisolid) from its nose or mouth? Any one of these characteristics suggests that the snake is sick, and several definitely identify a sick snake.

Keeping your snake requires regular cleaning of its cage and regular feeding. Information on care is now readily available for many of the common snake species. We recommend reading several care manuals. If you consult several sources and use common sense, your snake should remain healthy and have a long life.

An exotic species might impress your friends, but its care requirements are probably poorly understood or unknown. Under these circumstances, even the best intentions do not serve the actual needs of the snake, and its health will begin to decline. Maladaptation syndrome - declining health because one or more life requirements are not met - reduces the snake's resistance to normal bacteria, which then become virulent, and the snake rapidly succumbs to septicemia, pneumonia, or similar diseases (see chapter Do Snakes Get Sick? in Snakes in Question).

You might decide to catch a local snake for a pet. We discourage this practice, but we will also offer some hints for the well-being of the snake. As a pet, a larger-bodied species is best. Its food preference is likely to be easier to determine at your local library, and its food will be easier for you to catch or purchase.

If you have difficulty finding food for a local snake, you can return it to its home and allow it to fend for itself. Indeed, we recommend that local snakes be kept for only a few days or weeks and then returned to the wild, well in advance of the hibernation period (to ensure that the once-captive snake has enough time to build up adequate fat reserves for fuel during hibernation). When returning a local snake to nature, it must be released at the exact locality where it was captured. Doing so ensures the snake's familiarity with the locality, and thus its ability to find proper shelter and food. Otherwise the snake may search for its original home and die while searching. Also, moving a snake even a couple of kilometers might introduce it into a population with a differently adapted gene pool (heredity). If the released snake survives and reproduces, its genes might disrupt the local adaptation and decrease the probability of survival of subsequent generations.

Disease transmission is a serious hazard of keeping a local snake, no matter how briefly, and then returning it to its original home. A captive snake can pick up parasites and bacterial or viral diseases if housed with other snakes or in a cage previously used for other snakes. When released, it transmits the disease or parasites to the wild population. We know of no such transmission in snakes, but a respiratory disease transferred from pet Old World tortoises to native gopher tortoises now occurs in all North American tortoise species.

Venomous species as pets? No! A venomous snake as a pet is a contradiction in terms. Keeping a venomous snake in your home is like keeping a loaded and cocked handgun in your china cupboard. Sooner or later, someone will be seriously, perhaps even fatally, injured (see Figure 5.7 in Snakes in Question).

Keeping a venomous snake as a household pet is irresponsible. It endangers your life and the lives of family, friends, and neighbors. A snakebite also threatens the lives of zoo personnel. None of the snake fanciers who have been bitten by an exotic species in the metropolitan Washington area has had an adequate supply of antivenom serum on hand. The reptile departments of nearby zoos expected to help, and of course they do. But their assistance reduces or eliminates their own stocks of antivenom serums, thus endangering the lives of their employees who work with venomous species.

[Bold and colored text by Peter Uetz]

Postscript (by P.U.): Well, there may be two exceptions to the aforementioned statements: I have little problems with species that are bred in captivity (i.e. specimens that are born in captivity) and species that are studied for scientific purposes. It goes without saying that in both cases sufficient space and excellent care has to be provided.


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This page is maintained by Peter Uetz

Created: 6 Sep 1998 / Last changed: 4 Oct 2011