My friend had a snake that…
(and many other reptile myths explained, part 1)
By Rob Pettipas
Over the many years I have been keeping reptiles, I have heard it all as I am sure many of our readers have as well. I am going to attempt to dispel many of these myths, urban legends, and rumors surrounding our industry and hobby.
“My friend had a large boa/python that was sizing her up at night to eat her.”
We have all heard this, I’m sure many have heard it more than once a day! This is easily one of the most prevalent myths going around today; it’s quite simply false. The species most often cited in this myth is Python Molurus bivittatus, or the Burmese python. While these snakes are among the largest snakes on earth human fatalities are indeed quite rare. Quite simply, a Burmese python on average is just not large enough to consume an adult, or young adult human. We aren’t shaped like food, and we don’t smell like food.
It would take an extreme scenario for even a large Burmese python to consider eating a human; most certainly they wouldn’t voluntarily pass off food for the chance to eat something that large, it would be difficult to even eat and of course doesn’t smell like something they would eat. The myth is immediately called into question at this point. The second thing that bothers me about it is, clearly the people to propagate this myth have no idea how a large constrictor hunts and eats. Those that keep even the smallest ball python would notice that a snake doesn’t size up its prey. In my many years of keeping snakes, and others who have decades on me, no one has seen this particular behavior. It simply doesn’t happen.
Most snakes are opportunistic feeders, meaning they will eat whatever and whenever they can, assuming what they are eating smells like food. This is one of the reasons why they readily take pre-killed prey. They aren’t going to be choosy with their food and size something up. If it happened to your friend, either you or your friend is lying. It doesn’t happen. That being said, Burmese pythons are not a snake I would recommend to beginners or something just looking for a snake pet. They are very large predators and should be kept with respect by keepers who know large constrictors. There have been human fatalities involving this species in the past, 2 of them in the mid-nineties involving teen boys, both of which did not have their animal in a proper enclosure and live feeders were nearby. No evidence of an attempt at ingestion was there in both cases.
In florida, a case that caught massive media attention in 2009 where a toddler was killed by a 9 foot Burmese python. The snakes owner, was later charged distributing cocaine, and the snake was loose and apparently malnourished and emaciated. This was a case of desperation for the animal, it was eat this prey or die. In all of these cases the animal was not kept properly and resulted in deaths. There are tens of thousands of these animals in the United States and Canada alone, cases like this are anomalies, they aren’t a common occurrence. Dog attacks are far more common than Burmese python attacks. Make no mistake, these animals can be dangerous but can also be an awesome addition to any household given the owners are respectful of the animal, and well versed in keeping large constrictors. In closing, your burm is not going to size you up, and eat you. No snake will size you up at night. If the snake is cuddling next to you at night, that means the temps in its habitat are not proper and it’s trying to leech off of your body heat.
“My snake will only eat live prey”
This myth is a little harder to debunk, so I am only speaking from personal experience and only on the species that I have worked with. I realize that experienced breeders/keepers do actually have animals that will not take pre-killed prey. This is more geared towards the people that picked up their animal at a pet shop, it’s their only one and they have very limited experience keeping reptiles. I often hear when that the reason they feed live is due to the fact their animal will only eat live.
I often question how much time and effort they have put into converting their pet to pre-killed. I have kept many snakes, a lot of whom were rescues from either bad caregivers or people that just do not know better. Many times I have heard from them they will only take live prey. Since I do not feed live, I always offer a thawed rat.
Nine times out of ten the animal takes it right away. The other time it usually takes a couple of tries but never have I been unsuccessful in switching them over to frozen/thawed prey, not once. This leads me to believe that either they 1) have not tried very hard or 2) like to see the spectacle of the snake eat. Most, if not all snakes will take a pre-killed rat or mouse. Sometimes, however it takes some effort.
If you offer the prey and it does not take it, wait a week and try again. You may waste a couple of rats, unless you have a garbage disposal snake in the house that will eat the castaways. There are several reasons why it is beneficial to feed pre-killed. The biggest reason is the safety of your animal, I have seen countless images on forums and websites showing boas and pythons eaten alive from a rat, it’s gruesome and unneeded. If you care enough for your animal, and do not want to risk large vet bills, why take that chance?
It may not be a common occurrence but it is completely avoidable. I have a modest collection in my house, I simply don’t have the room to keep live rats in there. The smell alone would drive my wife crazy, however I do have a small freezer that I keep frozen rodents in, no mess , no feeding them and it keeps them out of the way. All in all, I cannot tell you how to keep your snake, and that is not my intent, however before you are quick to say the animal won’t eat frozen/thawed, you may not be trying hard enough.
“Corn snakes do not need an external heat source.”
This one is actually partially true, and it’s one that I myself have been guilty of. I have heard time and time again that due to the corn snakes northern habitats, they do not need an external heat source if the room is warm enough. I have kept corn snakes without before, albeit the room they were in was quite warm itself and they did have a cooler hide area but they have done very well without any digestion issues. Make no mistake; this is not a good example of how to keep a corn snake. It’s one of those do as I say, not as I do scenarios.
All reptiles need to thermo regulate, all of them, no exception. That is how they control their temperature, which is important for all bodily functions, from the immune system to digestion. Corn snakes are a colubrid snake that has a fairly northern habitat range, so they live in areas with very moderate temperatures. Keep this in mind, if you live in or close to the corn snakes natural habitat on a hot summer day find yourself a rock, feel that rock. You will notice it being very hot. That is what they use to warm up in their environment. When they get too hot they move away, go into the shade and cool down. Aside from explaining thermoregulation as I just did the fact of the matter is that all reptiles do it. By not providing an appropriate range of temperatures for your corn snake you could expose it to either being too warm with no way to cool down or the opposite. While you may not have any issues, it’s always better to have the option for the animal if it needs it.