Written by Mike Corcoran, DVM, DABVP (R/A), CertAq
Welcome to the third exotic animal blog! I’m sure there will be some playing around with format over the next several blogs, and I am open to ideas and feedback if someone has some special interests. For some blogs I had the idea of exploring different groups of our exotic animal pets and discussing them in broad historic terms, followed by any ecological, ethical or environmental concerns with those groups and finally a discussion about how this teaches us to care for them better in captivity as companions.
I’m going to start this week with snakes since they have a bit of a bad rep in our culture, and they are one of my favorite unsung heroes.
Snakes in Western Culture
Interestingly, snakes fair better in Eastern and Native American culture, perhaps because people in these areas had more natural interaction with reptiles. Many Native American tribes viewed snakes as symbol of fertility or of healing. The shedding of the skin was a rebirth. In Chinese mythology, Fuxi and Nuwa are deities involved in the creation myth. They are half human and half serpent; the gods of human creation, hunting and fishing. Snakes protect the Buddha from the elements after his enlightenment. A number of snake gods (nagas) are present in Buddhism and Hinduism in protective roles.
In Western culture, not so much…
Going back to one of the earliest Western cultures, we can see reptiles in Greek mythology. Here we see Medusa and her Gorgon sisters with snakes for hair. She turned men to stone with a mere look. The hydra is a multi-headed snake that was defeated by Hercules. When one head is cut off, two more grow in its place. The Lamia in Greek mythology is a half-woman, half-serpent that devours children.
Moving forward to the Judeo-Christian times, they didn’t get much better press. A serpent first appears in the Garden of Eden when it convinces Eve to try forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, leading to the downfall of humanity. In later literature, snake-like dragons are slain to defend the honor of a fair maiden. Milton describes Satan and demons as serpentine in Paradise Lost. Saint Patrick is most well known for leading the snakes out of Ireland.
In pop culture we have films like Anaconda and Snakes on a Plane. Indiana Jones encounters snakes in every creepy tomb he enters. In The Jungle Book, Kaa the cobra is the antagonist. Harry Potter has to hide the fact that he can talk to snakes since that was previously only known to be something done by Voldemort. The Slytherin house is perceived as the “bad” house in that series. It’s little wonder why we have phrases like “snake-in-the-grass” and “speaking with a forked tongue,” or why evil people are “cold-blooded.” Let’s not forget that people who are acting irrationally, emotionally or with severe anger are responding to their “reptilian brain.”
When looking for some positive examples of snakes in Western culture, I didn’t miss the obvious example for me: the Rod of Asclepius (often mistakenly referred to as the Caduceus). This is the staff and snake that represents the medical professions. However, a very popular theory is that the snake is a representation of the dual roles of a physician dealing with sickness and death as well as health and life. It is also thought to represent the fact that many medicines can also act as toxins.
Natural history and ecology of snakes
Evolutionarily, reptiles were the first true land animals. Many of the reptiles’ characteristics are related to the fact that these animals were the early adapters to life away from water. Prior to the evolution of reptiles, the vertebrates were limited to fish and amphibians, both of whom were intimately connected to the water and had at least part of their life intimately tied to an aquatic environment. Scaly skin with few glands is an adaptation to conserve water. Lungs had developed in some amphibians, but were now seen in all life stages of reptiles.
Snakes are very closely related to lizards, and in fact likely evolved from burrowing lizards, losing their limbs from generations of evolution where it was advantageous. More complex and efficient locomotion has become possible without limbs. Boas and pythons actually retain some remnants of pelvic bones and hind limbs. Snakes have existed for tens of thousands of years because they are so well adapted to their environments. It’s a common misconception that they are simple organisms because their lineage is so distant and they have not developed traits like the ability to use tools or keep a stable body temperature; however, these species have evolved complex behavioral and physiological adaptations to fill these needs. Burrowing, basking, daily schedules, anatomy, blood vessel dilation and color changes are all adaptations to control internal body temperature, hydration and other biological processes.
In the wild, snakes play a valuable role in the ecosystem. They are predators that are usually near the top of the food chain. Without their presence, rodent and bird populations can explode and drain resources. Snakes in the wild are facing numerous threats from the pet trade, climate change, habitat loss and outright slaughter in the name of fear. “Rattlesnake roundups” still happen today. These are events where rattlesnakes are caught in the wild and killed by the hundreds. They are usually done with no evidence that the population is overgrown. Closer to home, here in New England, wild snakes are being threatened by Ophidiomyces ophiodiicola, otherwise known as snake fungal disease. This fungus grows on wild snakes while they are hibernating. When they emerge in the spring, they can have infections in the skin, eyes or lungs and can cause death. If you want to help, you can donate to the conservationists studying this disease. You can also make sure you adopt pets that are captive bred (most are in recent years). Educating people about the complex lives of these animals and understanding the source of fear can help people get past this irrational fear and gain some compassion and respect so that they are protected for the future.
Caring for snakes as pets
This background helps us care for our pet snakes better. Understanding that snakes have adapted to a variety of environments helps emphasize the need to research the species kept at home. Every effort should be made to match the captive environment and behavior to that in the wild. This does take some effort, but it can be a lot of fun. Learning more about your pet’s wild habitat will help you understand them better. Learning about their normal behaviors can help you create some fun activities and provide enrichment.
Puzzles & Learning
Snakes are capable of learning a great deal. You aren’t likely to get them to sit up and speak, but in zoos, snakes have been taught to shift cages and enter tunnels voluntarily to assist in safe handling of venomous species. Puzzle boxes or mazes can be utilized to help them “hunt” for their frozen, thawed pret items in captivity. This helps stimulate their minds and get additional exercise. It also provides a fun challenge to add to the puzzles and keep them compatible with the behaviors. Mazes for constricting species won’t work since the tight space doesn’t allow them to wrap properly, but some puzzle boxes will. Other snakes hunt in burrows. Mazes work very well for them.
Some snakes have a very large territory in the wild and move to different locations for sleep. In captivity, frequent changes to the furnishings can help stimulate more normal behavior. For arboreal (tree-dwelling) species, a variety of branches can be offered with different textures, thicknesses and at different levels in the cage. Burrowing species may enjoy different substrate materials at different times. Try to offer as much variety as they would have in the wild and enjoy watching them explore the different environments! Some snakes have very small ranges and may be stressed by too much change, but you can still create very elaborate habitats to explore.
Many snakes also appear to identify individual people and do well with handling. Getting them out of the enclosure (with proper supervision, of course) and letting them explore a room, be held in hands or interact in a different enclosure can help encourage more exercise and mental stimulation. It’s also a great way to bond with your pet and increase the enjoyment of having them in your life. If they do very well with handling, maybe they can help be ambassadors to show new people how gentle and interactive they can be. They can help dispel the fear in others who can then understand the importance of protecting these wonderful animals.
Rescues: Gecko Sanctuary (yes they have snakes, too!): www.geckosanctuary.org
Education/conservation: New England Herpetological Society: http://neherp.com/ Northeastern Reptile Welfare League: https://www.nereptilewelfare.org/
Enrichment: Facebook page for Reptile Enrichment and Training: https://www.facebook.com/groups/reptileenrichmentandtraining/
Articles: http://www.reptilesmagazine.com/The-Vet-Report-Environmental-Enrichment-for-Reptiles/ https://www.aazk.org/wp-content/uploads/Suggested-Guidelines-for-Reptile-Enrichment.pdf
Snake Fungal Disease: https://cwhl.vet.cornell.edu/disease/snake-fungal-disease