Dana Payne, Keeper
Day Exhibit
Woodland Park Zoo
5500 Phinney Ave. N.
Seattle, WA, 98103 USA

Keeping a Snake as a Pet

Over the last 25 years, the staff of the Day Exhibit at Woodland Park Zoo has received thousands of phone calls from people needing information about their pet reptiles. Common themes have become quite apparent through these many conversations and most are covered here in a very general way. Although the zoo does not wish to actively promote the keeping of exotic animals in the home, zoo staff do want people who have reptiles and amphibians to have the information they need to care for their animals properly.

However, many people who wish to engage in a particular activity are not too happy to find out, upon investigation, that there are ethical and environmental aspects to what it is they wish to do, or that it is more technically challenging than they had imagined. Oh, not here, too! Isn't life complicated enough without getting all tangled up over something as seemingly straightforward as keeping a treefrog in a classroom terrarium? Yeah, it is. Sorry about that. But this isn't all bad news. You can still enjoy the magic of exotic animals, in your home or in your classroom, without sin. Read on.

Researching and Choosing a Pet Reptile or Amphibian
Before you acquire an exotic animal of any kind, you should learn (research, read) about its care. Over the last few years, as interest in captive reptiles skyrocketed, a series of excellent and inexpensive booklets were published, which explain the care of a particular popular kind of reptile or amphibian. Not every one of the thousands of species of reptiles and amphibians are covered by one of the booklets, but most of the popular species are. The booklets together form the Herpetocultural Library Series, and having read the appropriate booklet, one can go about readying a home for the new reptile. There are other similar booklets available that are simply not as good. These should be passed over in favor of the Herp. Library Series, booklets of which can be ordered through your local pet store or directly from The Bean Farm ((206)-861-7964) in Carnation, Washington, which stocks most of the different titles.

Often, people put the cart before the horse and buy an animal before educating themselves about its needs. The animal then has to endure until its requirements can be discovered and accommodated. This is obviously not ideal.

Sometimes, a pet store staff person will give verbal instructions on care. At best this is too brief -- it is not reasonable to expect one person to tell everything about the care of an exotic animal to another, not to leave anything out, and for the other person to remember it all accurately, for years afterward. At worst, it can be well-intentioned misinformation, or even disinformation to encourage the sale of the animal or associated goods or feed ("Naaah, baby alligators don't get all that big, and you can always donate them to the zoo!").

Some wild-caught animals are sold in pet stores without any real information on their care or even their natural history being available -- they may never have been imported before and no one knows anything about them. This happens all the time as animals from a particular country or region become available, and wholesalers order up a quantity of new, cheap and "cool" animals.

Some captive-bred reptiles and amphibians, which we believe make better classroom "pets" than most are: bearded dragons, horned frogs, corn snakes, boa constrictors, and leopard geckos. All are bred in captivity in large numbers, are fairly easy to care for, and can be handled to a greater or lesser extent (less on the horned frogs, more on everything else).

Some reptiles which are really not good pets: spectacled caimans (also known as "baby alligators"), venomous snakes and giant pythons.

Crocodilians, including caimans and alligators, are sold in large numbers in the pet trade and almost never (like one in a hundred thousand, perhaps) survive to maturity. Who has a place for an adult crocodilian? They get big, they're hard to handle, they require a large amount of space, clean warm water, a place to bask, and appropriate-sized small whole animals to eat. Many, like the "Green Lake Gators" of a few years ago, are released in local bodies of water, where they die of cold, pneumonia or other disease, or starvation.

Giant pythons are generally sold as babies, and many people become gradually more discouraged with the increasing challenges of caring for a snake which just grows and grows and grows. Snakes over 10 feet, even good-natured ones, can overpower their owners in their excitement over food, and once every year or two someone in North America is killed by their pet python in just this way. They get bigger than their owners, eat bunnies as adults, need large cages, and are hard to find pet sitters for when you go out of town.

Venomous snakes are really bad pets. Bites occur with amazing frequency in Western Washington, all from pet venomous snakes. We're continually loaning our antivenom to local hospitals.

Crocodilians, giant pythons and venomous snakes are all prohibited in the City of Seattle, and are subject to confiscation. Crocodilians and venomous snakes are prohibited in King County.

Animals Bred in Captivity vs. Wild-Caught Animals
There are many reptiles and amphibians in captivity which were taken from the wild. The ancestors of all captive-bred animals came from the wild. There is no point in making children or anyone else feel guilty about already having an animal which used to live free in nature, but everyone should give some thought to the following before acquiring any more wild-caught animals:

Today, more reptiles and amphibians are being taken from the wild than ever before, in spite of the wild becoming smaller and more damaged every day, and in spite of more reptiles and amphibians being bred in captivity than ever before. Over the last 10 years, interest in and demand for reptiles, especially novel and interesting species, has grown incredibly. Some kinds of reptiles are collected by the tens of thousands and are sold in lots of a hundred or more for quantity discounts. Because every step of the exotic animal trade (importer to wholesaler to pet store) doubles the price of each animal, many animals can die along the way without significantly impacting the profitability of the enterprise.

There is little regard for the wild population's ability to withstand these sorts of pressures. One example: North American box turtles. Huge numbers are taken for the domestic pet trade and thousands more are exported to Europe each year. Box turtles do not produce very many babies each year, and most of their babies are taken by their natural predators. There is no way that the wild population can sustain this sort of pressure.

In Egypt, the Egyptian tortoise (the second-smallest tortoise species in the world) was wiped out in just a few years by exportation for the pet trade. When importers learned that the U.S. government had set a date for the tortoise to be placed on the endangered species list and importation of the tortoise would therefore be made nearly impossible, they increased the pace of their imports to the point that the price for each animal plummeted. Most of the tortoises did not appear to adjust well to captivity. Many died.

By the time the tortoise had been officially declared endangered, it had been completely wiped out in the land for which it is named. It can be found today only in national parks in Israel. (Unfortunately Israel has nowhere else to conduct its military exercises, and tanks drive back and forth through the tortoise habitat...)

The trade in wild-caught reptiles and amphibians is all about money; the animals are simply commodities to be harvested and sold. The typical scenario: each animal, which has managed to run the gauntlet of competition, predation, starvation and disease, is picked from its habitat like a piece of ripe fruit, tossed in a bag with many others of its kind, is held in primitive conditions for a period of time, then endures a journey from its native land to an importer's facility where it is caged with many others, is exposed to their illnesses, and is given little or no care until it is shipped to a pet store. Even at the pet store, it will usually continue to share its accommodations with so many of its own species or other species that it will be very stressed and often will not feed. Because reptiles do not need to eat as much or as often as mammals or birds, some survive this journey and are purchased by well-meaning pet store customers.

It doesn't really matter whether an individual animal will survive in captivity or even survive to reach the pet store, or will make a good pet, or if the wild population can survive collection pressure. What drives the trade is the money that can be made from it over the short term.

So What to Do?
There are large numbers of reptiles and amphibians bred in captivity, especially of certain popular species. Purchasing these animals does not have an ecological downside, and they are of species that are known to do well in captivity and whose care is understood. They are usually healthy when purchased, and are far more likely to thrive than a cheaper, but wild-caught animal.

Because a breeder invested food and time in each captive-raised animal's care, it will usually cost more. If there is a herpetological society in your area, you may be able to meet local breeders at their regular meetings. Your zoo may have information on a local herp society.

For a list of commonly captive-bred reptiles and amphibians, see the previous section. If you encounter one, chances are that it was captive-bred.

Native Reptiles and Amphibians
Taking native reptiles and amphibians from the wild for pets is a very traditional thing to do, but may or may not be appropriate, depending on the status of the wild populations in your area, and for some species may also be prohibited by state or federal law. Development and habitat destruction, pollution, human disturbance, and predation by cats, dogs, and children have already severely impacted many visible reptile and amphibian populations. Tadpoles of native frogs however, can be raised through metamorphosis and released.

Non-native reptiles and amphibians should not be released to the wild, even the suburban wild, as a way of disposing of no-longer-wanted pets, classroom or otherwise. They introduce diseases and compete with beleaguered native animals. West of the Rocky Mountains, released bullfrogs (which are native to North America east of the Rockies) are a particularly serious threat to local wildlife and ecology. Released turtles are also a terrible problem. In many areas, released pet turtles outnumber native ones. How can native turtles compete with a constant influx of pet turtles that eat the same food and occupy the same few basking spots on sunny days?

Longevity - The Duration of Commitment, or How Long is This Thing Going to Live?
Most lizards, frogs and snakes can easily live for 10 years, and often much more. Water turtles can live for decades, tortoises for more than a century. When you buy a cornsnake, a boa, a leopard gecko, are you in for the long haul, or will you be just the first in a sequence of owners? When you acquire a reptile or amphibian other than a turtle, think "15 years." If you're acquiring a turtle, you may need to will it to your grown children decades from now, when you become too old to care for it. If you think you'll be moving to a place where you won't have room for a pet reptile, if you think you might lose interest in the animal during the next decade and become weary of caring for it, if you might be heading off to college or could be traveling frequently, you might want to reconsider acquiring a pet reptile or amphibian.

Many pet reptiles experience a sequence of homes and owners until they arrive at their "final home" where they suffer neglect due to ignorance, laziness or oversight. Animals such as green iguanas, large pythons and turtles are already a problem as far as the number in need of homes. It is particularly difficult to find good homes for these kinds of animals.

Do Zoos Want Your Unwanted Reptiles and Amphibians?
No. Zoos concentrate mainly on endangered species, not pet species, and cannot begin to absorb the pet reptiles and amphibians in need of homes.

It isn't possible to cover all the details, all the esoteric facts important to the care of all the many kinds of reptiles and amphibians, but the following are some perspectives on the subject, which may also be of use in teaching some of the important concepts. First, you read the appropriate little booklet (see Researching and Choosing a Pet Reptile or Amphibian). Then you do what needs to be done. From time to time, you review the booklet. If you get into trouble and you don't understand what's going on, give us a call at (206) 684-4818. We'll try and talk you through it. But please - know the booklet front to back before you call.

This is something that is not as simple as one might think, but not so hard that it can't be done.

Nutrition is easiest for snakes and larger lizards which eat whole vertebrates. Snakes eat small whole animals, usually vertebrates, and therefore they get everything they need to live. You are what you eat, and for snakes, they're enough like their prey biochemically that they're pretty well set nutritionally, as long as they get enough (but not too much) to eat.

Reptiles and amphibians that eat insects or reptiles that eat fruits and veggies have a tougher time getting everything they need to support life. They need extra vitamins and minerals sprinkled on their food to survive. Where do they get these extra nutrients in the wild? Probably in many different ways, especially by varying their diet as they crave different nutrients; the simple diets we offer them are often lacking in something they need to grow, reproduce or simply live. Young, growing animals, or females who are putting a lot of nutritional "investment" in reproduction are at greatest risk of nutritional disease.

We take for granted that animals can survive on very simple diets, like cows eating grass. But even cows are given richer kinds of feed to supplement their grazing, and are susceptible to nutritional problems when the grass is grown on soil lacking certain minerals. Vertebrates generally need the same long list of nutrients that we need. Look at the side of a multi-vitamin bottle. Think about it.

Nutritional diseases are ugly: Effects of some of the different deficiencies: sores, skeletal deformities, trembling, cramping, seizures, weakness, anorexia, secondary infections, death. It's a pet owner's responsibility to do their best to keep these problems from occurring.

Housing and Natural Environments
One obvious part of keeping a reptile or amphibian in captivity is meeting its housing needs. This doesn't always mean replicating its natural habitat; for some reptiles, such as cornsnakes, their needs are very simple. For others, it does mean simulating a little corner of that animal's world. Regardless, the best thing to do is to follow the advice found in references like the Herpetocultural Library Series (you'd think I was getting a commission on the sale of these booklets, wouldn't you?).

If there isn't specific husbandry information available, then it gets a little more challenging. What you need to know are things like: Does the animal climb around in trees, hide under rocks, burrow in the earth, swim in rivers? Does it live in a temperate or tropical climate? Does it come from a desert, forest, or some other kind of habitat? What sort of microhabitat does it inhabit? (That's an important concept - it sounds fancy, but it just refers to the specific bit of the animal's habitat in which it actually resides and hunts for food.) If it comes from the desert, does it shelter in a moist burrow or bake on exposed rocks? What kind of food does it like? Sometimes this takes some real research, and requires knowing the animal's real name. (See Common and Latin Names below.)

A major principle of reptile housing (less relevant to amphibians) is providing a range of temperatures, or a sufficient source of supplemental heat so that the animal can thermoregulate. This technical term refers to the way reptiles move from cold to warm or hot places and back again to regulate their body temperature. Unlike mammals and birds, reptiles and amphibians do not produce their own body heat; they get the heat they need from outside themselves. In the wild, a reptile may sit in the sun, or on a sun-heated rock to warm itself in the morning, then may retreat to a cooler burrow to avoid the killing heat of the afternoon.

In captivity, reptiles, with a few exceptions (e.g., snapping turtles), should have access to a supplemental heat source appropriate to their behavior and metabolic needs. Most reptiles need a "hot spot" where they can raise their body temperature whenever they wish (at least during the day) to nearly 100 degrees F, or even higher in the case of some tropical or desert species. This allows the animal to digest food and fight off disease. The animal should have the option to move well away from the heat source and cool off whenever it wants.

Hiding is an important strategy for staying alive for small animals. Many reptiles are predators, but nearly all are also prey. If an animal is not performing a necessary activity, like looking for food, or basking, or searching out a mate, it may increase its chances of living through the day by hiding the rest of the time.

Even in the security of captivity, many reptiles, especially snakes, still need the psychological comfort of a hiding place. Denied one, they may refuse to eat or even become stressed and ill.

Most animals that live in trees, including arboreal reptiles and amphibians, need more space, more height and volume, than their terrestrial counterparts. Branches (of the appropriate size and texture) and shelves, carefully placed, can make the most of the available volume, but cages still should be larger than for non-arboreal species.

Common and Latin Names
Common names work fine for animals like birds, for which there are standardized common names, but for the thousands of known species of reptiles and amphibians, Latin names are much more important, just as they are for tropical plants. Common names are sometimes made up in the pet store, or by an importer or wholesaler; the same name may even be used for more than one species. People have called the Day Exhibit asking how to care for some unfortunate wild-caught reptile or amphibian, and knowing only the common name by which the animal was sold to them by the pet store; they are unable to tell us what they really have and we are unable to help them.

Using Latin (or "scientific") names is not elitist, not a high-falutin' way of showing off obscure knowledge. It's the proper and accurate way of specifically referring to a kind of living thing. Knowing the Latin names for reptiles and amphibians means that much more information is accessible in the scientific and even in the popular literature about reptiles and amphibians - information that may be critical to properly caring for an animal.

Veterinary Care
It can be difficult at times to decide whether or not a reptile needs veterinary care. If it is displaying symptoms that your reptile manual describes as characteristic of a problem requiring veterinary care, then it probably does.

At other times, you might ask yourself a hypothetical question: If I had a medical problem that appeared this serious, would I go to the doctor? If the answer is yes, your reptile or amphibian should probably go see a veterinarian.

Who should treat your animal? Many veterinarians have little or no experience with reptiles and amphibians. They probably shouldn't really be treating your animal unless you simply have no other choice (e.g., because you live in a remote area). Try to locate an experienced reptile vet in your area, prior to needing one. If your animal does suffer an injury or illness, you'll be glad you did.

Suggested Reading List
Due to the increased interest in reptiles and amphibians, there is more literature available on them than ever before.

Dana Payne, Keeper
Day Exhibit
Woodland Park Zoo
5500 Phinney Ave. N.
Seattle, WA, 98103 USA

This essay may be reproduced, unaltered and in its entirety without specific permission.