A couple days ago, I was in the back yard with my family when Wife asked the rest of us if we'd like to see a snake. Cool! I like snakes.What a great opportunity. Ignorance breeds fear and I want my kids to understand and respect (not fear) all animals. Come on kids, lets go check it out.
As we approached, I kept asking my wife for more info. Where it it? What is it doing? How big? I intended to catch it and I was trying to get gauge of what tools I needed and how fast I needed to act. No worries. The snake was small and curled on the step to our deck and wasn't going anywhere. OK, no need for real fast action. I got a 5g bucket and a piece of scrap wood to help handle it.
Preliminary ID time. First concern, is it venomous? In the US there are 2 classes of venomous snakes. The coral snake is a cobra relative but is so rare as to be not a concern. It is also very easy to ID by its bright color. All other venomous snakes in the US are vipers. All vipers have a few common traits. They all have fangs but if you've seen those, you probably already made your ID. They all have triangular or wedge shaped heads. That can be a little tricky to see for sure plus some non-venomous snakes mimic that head shape. Finally, all vipers have "cats' eyes", pupils that are verticle football shaped and not round. So, if you're in the US, the pupils are round, and it's not a coral snake, its not venomous. That doesn't mean it won't bite, and some snake bites are prone to nasty infection. Our vistior? Pretty brown bloched coloring with round eyes. Non-venomous. Good.
My first thought is that it is a water snake (not a water moccasin) and I believe them to be very agressive and bitey so I do not want to just grab it. I use my make-shift snake stick to try to pin it. The snake coils and threatens. Its being very defensive and possibly bitey. I don't want to grab it. I try to pin it and then I get a good look at it's head - a definate triangle! Whoa! Hold on a second. Did I false negative a viper? Double check, round eyes, not a viper, we're OK. But now Mr. snake is moving through a crack. I grab it and try to gently pull it back, no luck. My wife put the bucket under where it was going and we manuever the snake in. Captured!
I examine it and pick it up for the kids. Not acting agressive, it just wants to be gone. I can tell by a slight buldge that it ate not to long ago. My wife takes a picture for FB. I close up the bucket with a loose lid and we go in to put the kids to bed.
We have an unoccupied aquarium that had housed hermit crabs, so I move that into the garage and put in a bowl of water. I handle the snake a little and put him away for the night.
I hit the net to get a better ID. I find a page called The 10 Most Commonly Seen Snakes in DC Metro Area. Partway down, the site shows a picture of exactly what we have, white with dark flecks on the bottom, slightly keeled (ridged) scales, brown box pattern on a greyish background, about 16-18 inches long. It is (drum roll please) a juvenile Eastern Ratsnake (AKA Black Ratsnake). The Virginia Herpetological Society has an excellent website that gave me a lot of detail about our new friend. As I read about the behaviors, I find that one of the defensive mechanisms of this snake is that it will flatten and widen its head to look meaner like a pit viper (ours sure made me pause). Juvies have much more apparent markings than adults that tend to black. At that moment, Wife comes in to announce that one of her FB freinds has ID'ed the snake as a Copperhead. Plu-lese. In their defense, the picture was dark and the markings were not clear.
Let me take a moment to say that I grew up in La. (the state) about 100 yards away from a bayou (swamp) where I played. La. is home to Coral Snakes, Rattlesnakes, Copperheads, and "Cottonmouth" Water Moccasins, the quad-fecta of venemous snakes in the US . I was an active Boy Scout and I spent plenty of time in the woods. I visited my Grandmother's farm frequently and both my parents grew up on farms. My Grandmother wouldn't kill snakes in the yard because they kept rats and raccoons out of the hen house. I am 7/10 or better expert on North-American snakes.
The reading I did on Eastern Ratsnakes indicates that they make excellent first snake pets. I like snakes. We have most of the required gear to keep a snake. I think it would be really cool for the kids to have a pet snake. Hum, can we keep it? Well, it is wild, not hand raised but could probably be tamed. Snakes are pretty boring most of the time so the kids would lose interest. It would take some time before I would trust the kids to care for it. I doubt Wife would really want to care for it. Catching it if it got loose would be problematic. Disturbed Ratsnakes emit a musk for defense (the tank really stinks already) and Wife would not tolerate that. Eastern Ratsnakes can grow to be 6ft long. Taking on a pet is a long term responsibility. The coolness factor is high but the practicality factor is low. We will keep it a few days in the garage, try to feed it and then release it. OK, we have a plan.
What do I want to accomplish with the snake? I want my kids to respect and not fear animals. I want them to understand how nature works. I want them to appreciate the wild. So the bucket list is:
- Touch the snake.
- Hold the snake by themselves (picking it up is pushing the limits)
- Watch the skake eat.
- Release the snake back to the wild.
I've been handling the snake a little every day now to get it used to being handled and also to learn it's nature. So far, it has been very non-agressive. When I first go to pick it up, it threatens a little but doesn't strike. The cage stinks of musk. All reasonable defensive actions. After I pick it up and let it slither across my hands for a little, it even calms down a little.
Let's work the list. I bring the kids and snake outside to an open grass area. At first I let them just touch it's body. Then I let the 6 year old girl support the back half of the snake. After a little slithering like that, I put the entire snake on her hands. She does great. Now the 2 year old. Same deal. Even she held it solo for a few seconds. Wife even got into the act.
I'm into my kids understanding the whole "circle of life" thing and not just the Disney version. Hamburger and steak is cow. Veal is baby cow. Ham and bacon is pig. Eggs are baby chickens. Fish and chicken are (wait for it) fish and chicken. Hotdogs are ... (no, that's just way TMI). We've seen all of those animals at farm parks and petting zoos. I like the idea of my kids seeing a snake eat live prey and really understanding where food comes from. Ratsnakes eat, you guessed it, rats as well as other small rodents, lizards, eggs, birds, insects, and just about anything else else they can catch and get their mouth around. For small snakes, stores sell frozen pinkies and fuzzies, that is, newborn and baby mice and rats. I wasn't sure if a wild snake would go for dead food but I took a shot. After thawing and warming a pinkie in the bag, I put the snake in a "feeding box" (I've heard and read that's the thing to do because of the various Skinner (or Pavlov if you prefer) associations that could develop either way) and used tongs to wave the warm pinky near the snake.They seemed to be interest so I dropped the pinkie and stood back with the family to watch. It took a few minutes, but the snake went to investigate. He didn't seem to know exactly what to do. Ratsnakes are constrictors so they strike, coil, and squeeze their prey to submission before eating it whole tail first. This snake grabbed the pinkie in the middle then tried to swallow it sideways for awhile before finally getting it going tailfirst. In just a couple minutes, no more pinkie, and not much buldge either. I think we need a fuzzie or another pinky. I will still want to get a "strike" so I may try crickets for a snack.
I shot through the plastic box so the photos suck. I'll try for more later.
We've had Mr Ratsnake a few days now. I checked on it on the way in after work. It had shed its skin! Even a nice clean 1-piece peel. Cool! This is all great stuff. I show the skin to the kids and explain it. I think I'm more excited about it than they are but that's OK. Perhaps my enuthiasm will be contagious.