Meet the Menagerie: Penelope
In this, the fourth installment of my “Meet the Menagerie” posts, I’m introducing you to my California Kingsnake, Penelope.
For years I’ve had a special love for colubrid snakes, and kingsnakes in particular. When I was in high school, I had a friend whose older sister had a pet red kingsnake. Every time I visited their house, I’d find an excuse to go stare at the snake tank for a while. He was a fun snake to watch — very active, and very pretty. So when I decided last fall to get myself a pet snake, kingsnakes were first on the (longish) list.
Kingsnakes (genus Lampropeltis) are non-venemous, constricting snakes that are common in much of the United States and Mexico. They have shiny, unkeeled (non-ridged) scales, sleek heads, and long, thin bodies. There are many different subspecies of kingsnake, from the brightly coloured red kingsnake with banding that imitates the venomous coral snake, to the dark chocolate-coloured Mexican kingsnake. California Kingsnakes like Penelope (Lampropeltis getula californiae) are, as the name suggests, most commonly found in California — but they’re also seen in Arizona, southern Nevada, southern Utah, southern Oregon, and northwestern Mexico. There are several regional colour variations within the California Kingsnake species; Penelope exhibits what is commonly known as the “Newport-Long Beach” phase, with a broken-up pattern that looks almost like a cross between bands and stripes. Banded snakes with either black and white or yellow and brown bands are more commonly seen, and snakes with longitudinal stripes are also found in the wild. The thickness of the bands or stripes can also vary, creating different-looking snakes. Check out some photos of different morphs here.
Kingsnakes in the wild live in a variety of different habitats, but are most commonly found in rocky or scrub-brush terrain where there are plenty of hiding spaces. They’re good snakes to have around, and those who know their reptiles are happy to find kingsnakes living near their homes, because kingsnakes are immune to the venom of most rattlesnakes and will happily eat the venomous snakes. Their taste for other snakes is why they are called “kings”. They also eat mice, rats and other unwanted vermin, which is also appreciated by their human neighbors.
Kingsnakes are often killed by humans when mistaken for other, more dangerous species. Red kingsnakes have a pattern that imitates the banding of the venomous coral snake, and those who don’t know the rhyme “red and yellow kills a fellow; red and black is okay, Jack” may kill the harmless and helpful kingsnake by mistake. Other kingsnakes, like the California kingsnake, may be mistaken for rattlesnakes, because when threatened they will quickly vibrate their tails. Despite the fact that they don’t actually have “rattles”, this vibration will often create enough of a noise to fool a predator — or a human — into thinking that they’re the real thing. If you do live in an area where kingsnakes are common, get to know what the local species look like. This way you’ll be able to protect both the snakes and yourself.
Kingsnakes in Captivity
In captivity, kingsnakes have a few simple requirements. First, and most important, is a large enough tank. With kingsnakes, as with most snakes, you want to follow the “L Rule” when selecting an enclosure: the length of the snake should not exceed the length of two consecutive sides of the tank. In other words, if the snake were to bend into an “L” shape, with the tip of its tail in one corner of the tank, would its head touch the opposing corner? If so, you should get a bigger tank. For an adult kingsnake you’ll likely be looking at a 40 gallon tank, as they grow up to about 5 feet long. If you can afford to go even larger than that, please consider doing so: these are very active, curious snakes, and more space will give them more mental stimulation, and allow you to observe a wider range of natural behaviours. Speaking of mental stimulation: making changes to their environment on a regular basis can also keep life more interesting for your animal. I try to move at least one piece of cage furniture every week, to encourage exploratory behaviors and keep Penelope active and happy.
Always remember when keeping snakes: a secure lid is VERY important. Snakes are curious creatures and amazing escape artists — if they can push the lid of the tank up even a little bit, they’ll escape, and with all the multitudinous hiding places available in an average house you may never find them again. Many large terrariums are designed with lids that lock closed, specifically to prevent snake escapes.
Kingsnakes also need a ready source of fresh, clean water — and their water dish should be large enough for them to curl up and take a bath in, if they want to. A large margarine tub is a simple (if not very attractive) option. There are also commercially available reptile dishes that are large enough — or you can go with any other (non-breakable) dish that’s of an appropriate size. I specify non-breakable because if your snake is anything like mine, that dish is going to get moved around the terrarium quite a bit. Kingsnakes are curious and will happily re-arrange their tank furniture during their exploratory missions. You can also increase the amount of activity and exercise they’re getting by taking them out of their tank on occasions (always make sure you’re carefully supervising, as they can make quick getaways when you’re not paying attention). Some snakes will enjoy handling more than others. Penelope is quite personable and enjoys exploring people (and especially crawling inside of shirts and into pockets). Other snakes may be more skittish, and so you’ll have to limit the amount of handling they get. Respond to your snake’s personality, and do what is best for them. If you find that your snake is extremely aggressive when handling, you may want to increase the amount you’re feeding them, since kingsnakes are usually a very docile species.
Hiding spots are also important when you’re setting up your snake’s home, as kingsnakes in the wild will find sheltered spots to curl up in when they rest. At least one of these hides should be a “moist hide”, with some sort of moss or soil inside to retain moisture. Snakes, like other reptiles, seek out humid places when they are shedding, as it helps them in sloughing their skin. In Penelope’s tank I’ve used a mix of branches and PVC pipes to create spaces for her to hide. I’ve also sectioned off one area of the tank to have soil as the substrate (to retain moisture and give a natural look to the space), and another section to contain a product called CareFresh — a recycled paper product that is commonly used as reptile or small mammal bedding. Penelope likes to burrow under the CareFresh to hide. The only reason I don’t recommend it as the substrate for the entire tank is that it turns to mush when wet, and so you can’t really use it near the water dish.
Some people use wood shavings or chips as a substrate for their snakes, but it’s not my substrate of choice. Some types of wood — like pine and cedar — MUST be avoided because they contain resin that can be irritating to the snake’s skin and respiratory system, and it’s poisonous if ingested. Wood chips of any kind are also very hard to digest if accidentally ingested, and can cause impaction, so if you’re keeping your snake on wood chips you’ll always want to take them out of their tank before feeding them. Some snake enthusiasts and breeders swear by aspen shavings, but I’m just not a fan, and I definitely encourage you to do your research before deciding on wood (it’s not a decision to make just because “the guy at the pet store said so”).
The final requirement for your snake is, of course, heating. Like all reptiles, snakes are cold blooded and need to regulate their body temperature by moving between warmer and cooler parts of their environment. You’ll want it to be about 87-90 degrees Fahrenheit on the hot side of the tank, and 78-80 degrees on the cool side. Temperatures above 90 or below 75 degrees should be avoided. A heat lamp is the best source of heat for snakes, as they have a tendency to burrow when they are feeling too warm — many injuries have been caused because a warm snake decided to burrow closer to its under-tank heating pad, instead of moving further away.
Delicious and Nutritious Foods
While wild kingsnakes will eat a wide variety of foods, ranging from other snakes to rodents to eggs to lizards, in captivity they are most commonly fed on rats or mice. These are easily available live or frozen from any pet store that handles reptiles, and they come in many sizes. Choose the size of rat based on the size of the snake — the food shouldn’t be bigger around than the largest part of the snake’s body. I prefer to buy frozen, myself, because they’re easier to buy in large quantities, and I don’t need to worry about doing the killing (it’s not really difficult, but it’s unpleasant). With frozen rats, all you need to do is thaw them out by leaving them in warm water. Be sure the rat is thoroughly thawed, so that your snake doesn’t get frostbite, and never use a microwave to thaw out the rodents, because they may thaw unevenly or get too hot and burn your snake. If you decide to go with live rats or mice instead (some snakes will never take to eating something that’s been frozen first), you’ll want to kill them just before giving them to your snake. The kindest way to do this is by snapping the neck (it’s pretty much instant death), or by using CO2 gas (which puts them to sleep). Don’t put your rodents in the freezer to kill them — it’s a long, slow, unpleasant death. I’m also not a fan of the “whack them off a table” method … it’s brutal and not always accurate (sometimes the rodent is only stunned, and it wakes up a few minutes later and you have to do it again). I don’t recommend feeding live rodents to any snake, as it causes unnecessary terror to the prey, and your snake might get bitten or scratched if the rodent fights back in self-defense.
If you’re squeamish about killing the prey yourself, simply ask the person you get the snake from whether they’re eating frozen/thawed prey (if they are, you’ll be able to feed them that, too). Or you may be able to get the staff at your pet store to do the killing for you, and then just feed the rodent to your snake immediately when you arrive home with it.
Juvenile kingsnakes should be fed every 5 to 7 days. Once they’re full grown, you can go 10 days to 2 weeks between feedings. The only exception occurs when they are shedding: snakes are unlikely to eat when they’re preparing to shed their skin, so always check their eyes to see if they have gone “opaque” before you attempt to feed them. A snake that is going to shed in the next few days will start to look dull and have a whitish sheen. When their eyes appear to have a white film over them, it’s a sign that a shed is going to happen in the next day or so. At this time the snake is more likely to be defensive and it won’t want to be handled. Young snakes will shed about once a month; adults will shed four or five times a year.
Once your snake has eaten, try to minimize handling for the next few days. They’re busy digesting, and undue stress can mess with that process or even cause them to regurgitate their meal. In the wild, a well-fed snake would probably remain mostly in hiding while it digested its food, and your captive friend will want to do the same. A few days after eating, your snake will poop (snake poop is pretty smelly, so you’ll want to clean it up right away). After that he or she will be back to their normal, personable self, and you can resume regular handling.
A Final Note
If you’re interested in getting a kingsnake as a pet, do your research, people! They’re not difficult animals to keep, but they do need more extensive (and expensive) setups than, say, a leopard gecko. There’s no substitute for knowing your stuff, and people at pet stores can’t always be trusted when it comes to accurate reptile information.