I’ve had many other snakes over the years – several corn snakes, a black rat snake, 2 ball pythons and even a western hognose – but Flamma was my first. When I started studying and moved to a tiny student flat I got rid of the other ones and kept only her. I think/hope she’ll stay with me all her life.
Since snakes are somewhat unusual pets I always get a lot of questions (and raised eyebrows) when people find out about her, so in honour of my Lady in Red I thought I’d take a moment to share some information with you!
Don’t worry, there are no nasty pictures!
* WHY would anyone want a pet snake?
By far the most common question, usually followed by a shudder. Most people are either afraid of snakes or think they’re just plain disgusting.
When people ask I usually respond with “Why do people keep goldfish?”. You can’t pet a fish or cuddle with it – but they’re pretty. And a nicely done aquarium is a beautiful addition to a room.
Well, same goes for snakes. I think they’re beautiful and interesting and the terrarium is decorative. Different people have different preferences and interests. I like snakes. Simple as that.
* But can you pet it? Can you talk to it?
Yes, I can pet her. She’s used to being handled and will allow me to pick her up and carry her around.
When people say “Can you talk to it” they usually mean “Does it respond when you talk to it? Do you form a personal relationship with it”. The answer to that is sadly no. First of all, all snakes are deaf so there’s no point talking to them at all… Also, they’re not pack animals, they live alone and don’t communicate well with other species.
I will talk to my snake and pet her and such, but I’m under no illusion that it makes any difference to her. I don’t think she cares about me and if I’d sell her away to someone else she wouldn’t miss me. Sometimes when I take her out and let someone else hold her she might try to slither her way back to me and the other person will go “Aww, she wants to go back to mummy”, but in reality she’s probably just unfamiliar with the other persons scent and is therefore trying to get back to a more familiar (i.e. safer) scent/place.
Snakes are wonderful animals – but they’re not social. If you buy a snake thinking you will get a loyal and loving friend you will be very disappointed.
* What does it eat?
In Flammas case: small rats. She’s pretty big for a corn snake so mice are a bit too small. Fully grown rats are too big on the other hand, so I give her young, half-grown rats.
In captivity you’ll most likely feed all snakes rodents of some sort, unless it’s a really big snake, like a tiger python or such, that might eat rabbits or even small pigs.
Also worth mentioning is that snakes doesn’t eat very often. Flamma for example only eats about twice a month. I give her a rat – she eats it and then crawls into her cave to digest it for like a week, then take a huge poop – I clean out the poop, wait a few days to see if she’s gonna poop again, then I feed her again. Rinse and repeat. Smaller snakes eat less and therefore also more often. A newly hatched one will eat pretty much every day.
A fun fact is that most snakes (once they’ve reached a decent size) can go a really long time without food. Flamma could probably go without food for like 6 months without being in any immediate danger.
* You don’t give her live rats, do you!?
No, don’t worry about that. I buy them frozen from the pet store and when it’s time to feed her I take one out of the freezer and put it in a bowl and leave it to defrost for a couple of hours. When it’s completely unfrozen I give it to her using a huge pair of tweezers.
I don’t feed her by hand because she strikes with lightning speed and isn’t always 100% accurate. If I hold the rat in my hand she might miss and bite me instead.
For a number of reasons it’s actually best to never feed live prey to a snake in captivity. On one hand it’s cruel to the prey, on the other hand the snake might get injured if you feed it a particularly feisty rat that tries to defend itself. On the third hand, the snake might get a taste for fresh blood and moving targets and then it will NEVER take dead prey again – and having a snake that only eats live prey can get really really difficult. I mean, you’d have to run to the pet store to buy new rats all the time which might lead to uncomfortable conversations with the shop clerks questioning you about what you’re doing with all the rats. Or you’d have to start breeding rats yourself – and rats are way more high maintenance than snakes so you’d end up spending more time caring for the rats than for the snake.
* Is it dangerous in any way? Have you ever got bitten?
No. She’s perfectly harmless and has never bitten anyone. Although I have been bitten by another snake of similar shape and size and I can say it’s honestly not that bad.
Thing is, this type of snake doesn’t have the large fangs you see on cobras and rattle snakes – instead they have lots of small, sharp, needle-like teeth. When I got bitten I didn’t even feel it, it didn’t hurt at all. When he let go (almost instantly) only a few of his teeth had even managed to pierce my skin. I had like 4-5 tiny red dots in the skin between my thumb and index finger. A quick rinse with cold water later there was no sign of any damage.
I got bitten by a hamster once and that was WAY worse. Really, I’d take a corn snake bite over a hamster bite any day.
Of course, bigger snakes have bigger teeth and stronger jaws. Or venom. I recommend staying away from the huge and/or venomous ones unless you REALLY know what you’re doing.
* How do you keep them? Are they difficult to keep?
One of the reasons why I decided to get a snake in the first place was because they’re so easy to care for. Unless you buy some super exotic, super special species a snake is probably the most low-maintenance pet you can have.
To keep a snake happy you need the following:
You need a terrarium big enough for the snake to live comfortably in. The bigger the better of course, but as long as there’s enough room for it to slither around and stretch out it’s fine. It can be made out of any material. The one I have for Flamma is (self) made out of wood but I’m going to buy one completely made of glass as soon as I find one big enough (I don’t think I’m handy enough to build a glass vivarium by myself). In my experience glass is generally easier to keep clean.
What you fill it with is up to you. Put some fake plants (or real ones if you’re up for it) and some rocks and/or branches in there for decoration. It’s also good to provide some kind of cave for the snake to hide in.
Some people cover the bottom of the vivarium with ordinary cat litter, but I think that looks rather cheap and boring. I use a type of bark that is normally used in gardening, it looks natural and Flamma likes digging in it. If you have a desert snake it might be nice to put sand in it. A tree dwelling snake will probably like a higher vivarium with lots of branches etc.
Snakes don’t produce their own heat like us mammals, so you need either a spotlight or a heath mat. How much heat is requierd varies depending on the species. Of course an African desert snake will want more heat than a European forest snake.
But it’s not that tricky, a standard heat mat/spotlight will do just fine in most cases.
Just like most other animals they need to drink. Some species of snakes (like the tropical rain forest types) need more humidity and/or like to take baths. In that case you might need to take a spray bottle and spray inside the vivarium every now and then (i.e. making it rain) and maybe get a terrarium with some type of swimming pool. Or just a really big water bowl.
* If I want to get a snake, where do I start?
Same as for all pets: do your homework. Find as much information as possible about the species you’re interested in and how to care for them. Then if you’re still interested you should find a reputable breeder to buy from. And find a pet store that sell snake stuff like frozen rats and such.
You should know that snakes can live for a very long time in captivity – over 20 years is not all that uncommon!
As far as species go, rat snakes in general make pretty good pets even for inexperienced owners. They’re generally hardy, non-aggressive and come in a huge variety of colours and patterns. Just read up on the different species as they’re not all the same.
Of course I’m biased and will say “get a corn snake!” to everyone who asks.
Other popular species are constrictors like boas and pythons, but they’re generally larger and tend to require more special care.
My personal favourite is the ball python (python regius). They are arguably the calmest and most non-aggressive snakes in the world. Their first instinct when threathened is to curl up in a ball (hence the nickname “ball python”) and stay perfectly still. It’s almost impossible to get them to bite you. They’re also one of the most beautiful snakes and the cutest with almost dog-like faces and dark, round eyes.
Unfortunately though, some ball pythons can be rather sensitive (need perfect temperature and humidity etc.) and need attentive care to stay healthy.
Just do your homework and I’m sure it’ll be fine.
In conclusion: snakes may have an unfortunate reputation but in my opinion they’re interesting and beautiful animals. Give them a chance.