Archive for menagerie

Feeding Your Reptiles: Frozen/Thawed Rats and Mice

Posted in Animalia with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 29, 2014 by KarenElizabeth

One of the first questions that comes up whenever I tell people that I have pet snakes is inevitably, “what do you feed them?”  People are incredibly curious about how snakes eat, what they eat, and where you get such things.  And many people reveal during these conversations that the only reason they’d never looked seriously into getting a snake as a pet was because of a fear of (or simple distaste for) the idea of feeding live prey.

Most people are a bit surprised when I tell them that I simply buy frozen mice or rats, usually in bulk (packages of 12 or 24) so that I don’t need to worry about going to the pet store every single week.  I can then thaw the prey items out, one at a time, much like you’d thaw out a chicken breast before cooking it.  It’s fast, easy, and convenient.  And my snakes get a good meal whenever they need it, without me having to trek across town to the pet store, or worry about keeping live rodents in my apartment.

nom nom nom


So Why Frozen/Thawed Instead of Live Prey?

There are people who make the argument that live prey is more “natural”, because a snake in the wild has to stalk and kill its prey.  I find such arguments to be patently ridiculous, because there’s really nothing “natural” about keeping a snake in a glass enclosure in your home.  Most snakes in the pet trade were captive-bred — they’ve spent their lives living in “unnatural” conditions — and many were selectively bred for traits that would get them killed in the wild (ie, albinism).  Snakes in the wild rarely live for more than a few years, while in captivity they can live for decades.  Perhaps a frozen/thawed mouse is a bit unnatural, but it’s certainly no more unnatural than feeding kibbles or canned food to your cat or dog.

Many shops that carry reptile products do offer live prey items as an option, but any argument that a live mouse is somehow “healthier” or contains “more nutritional value” than a frozen one is purely specious — if anything, the frozen prey will be healthier, because pet stores often don’t have very good housing conditions for their prey items, don’t properly feed them, and don’t monitor for health problems the way that a dedicated rodent production facility has to do.  Live prey items might also carry parasites picked up at the store (or elsewhere), which freezing will kill off — live prey items are a potential source of mite infestations, for example, or may contain parasites in their guts.

The biggest risk with live prey, of course, is that it might fight back.  Rodents have long, sharp teeth that can seriously injure your beloved snake-friend.  A snake that misses on the first strike, or gets a bad grip on its prey, can be severely bitten (even killed) by a cornered, fighting-for-its-life rodent.  Vet bills for reptiles get expensive quickly — since they’re an “exotic” pet, even walking in to the vet’s office or emergency clinic with them can be a $100 appointment fee, before any tests/surgeries/medicines/etc even enter the picture.  And many vets are untrained in reptile care, and will be able to do little to help your injured friend — especially if you’re going to an emergency clinic or the like.  Herpetological specialists are rare, and their offices may have limited hours.


What If My Snake Doesn’t Like Already-Dead Food?

There are instances where a snake doesn’t immediately take to eating things that have been pre-killed for it.  Wild-caught individuals (which you should never buy — animals taken from their natural habitats are usually illegal and have to be smuggled across borders, are typically less healthy, and you may be destroying natural ecosystems by participating in their sale), or animals who were raised on live prey in captivity (there are still some major breeders out there who feed live, despite the risks), may not immediately recognize a frozen/thawed rodent as a food item.

There’s the odd animal who will simply never take to eating frozen/thawed, especially if this type of prey was not introduced to them until they were an adult.  But in 99% of cases, a bit of care and attention will get your animal eating f/t prey.  A few tricks to try, if you’ve got a fussy eater on your hands — I’ll arrange them from least to most macabre:

  • Warm the prey item to approximately body temperature by immersing it in hot water until it feels warm to the touch.
  • Wiggle the prey item around in front of the snake’s face (you may want to use tongs or forceps, rather than just holding the prey item in your hand — it’s not unheard of for a snake to mistake a human hand for a yummy rat, especially if you’ve got rat-smell all over your fingers).
  • Cut the prey item open a little bit, to get a stronger “blood” smell for attracting the snake.  Anecdotally, puncturing or crushing the skull is the best way to do this (apparently brains smell delicious), but if you’re squeamish it may be better to go for a less-gruesome tactic.
  • Try purchasing a live prey item, but killing it just before feeding it to your snake.  I’ve seen various YouTube demonstrations of how to use vinegar & baking soda to make a CO2 chamber at home, or how to use CO2 cartridges for the same purpose, but such DIY creations tend to be unreliable — often the prey simply falls asleep, and doesn’t actually die.  And there’s an argument to be made that suffocation may not be particularly kind, even if it looks (from an outside perspective) like just falling asleep.  If you’re not terribly squeamish, snapping the spine is one of the most humane & painless ways to euthanize a rodent.  If you feel confident in your ability to do so, snapping the neck manually is the most precise and “gentle” method.  Many people teach to simply whack the rodent (hard) off a table or other hard surface, which is less precise and may only stun the prey item, not actually kill it … plus it just looks & feels fairly brutal.  My chosen method (because I hate feeling bones snapping in my hand) is to place a hard, thin object like a screwdriver over the rodent’s neck, hold the tail in my off hand and the screwdriver in my dominant hand, and push (sharply) down and forwards.  It’s fast and precise, and the prey item feels little-to-no fear or pain, because it all happens in less than a second.  I don’t like doing it, but I’m pragmatic enough to understand that this is still far less traumatic to the animal than being dropped into a tank with a live snake, and then bitten & squeezed to death, would be.  Always wear gloves when handling live rodents; they have big teeth and can deliver mean bites.

If absolutely none of the above suggestions work, and your snake has gone a long time without eating, you may have to resort to live prey.  If that’s the case, feeding smaller prey items with greater frequency is usually the way to go.  A snake that could eat a medium-sized rat twice a month, for example, might do better if fed rat pups, every single week.  Younger/smaller prey items are less likely to be able to fight back or inflict serious injuries on your snake.  Never feed live prey without supervising the feeding process (have a set of good, thick gloves on so that you can pick up a struggling rat or snake should things go badly), and be aware of risks like parasites — check incoming live prey thoroughly to be sure it’s not carrying mites or the like, and always check your snake out visually following a feeding to look for bite or scratch injuries.


Are There Any Risks With Frozen/Thawed?

Now that I’ve outlined how f/t is the safer and more humane way to go, I’ll go over the couple of risks that may come along with feeding frozen prey items.

Most important is making sure that the prey item is thoroughly defrosted.  Snakes are cold-blooded.  A prey item that feels warm to the touch, but still has a big chunk of frozen meat inside of it?  That could cause your snake’s internal temperature to drop enough to cause serious problems, or even death from organ failure.  The same is true if the prey becomes too warm (which is why you should NEVER use a microwave to defrost frozen prey — the internal organs of the prey item will heat much faster than the outside, and can get hot enough to cause burns).  The microwave also risks actually cooking the meat, and snakes don’t have the same biology that we do — their bodies aren’t designed to digest cooked meat.  Defrosting a frozen prey item is best done by immersing it in hot water and leaving it to sit until it’s thoroughly thawed out (the larger the prey item, the longer it needs).  Give the prey item a squeeze, to make sure there’s no big frozen parts inside.  If it still feels cold to the touch, it’s not ready yet.

The other risk (which isn’t really limited to f/t items, but is more of a concern because they’re probably being stored in your freezer alongside your own food) is transmission of any rodent-borne dirt/bacteria to your own food & utensils.  Keeping separate “snake utensils” is recommended — a set of tongs & a “defrosting bowl” that are for snake-related uses only.  Frozen rodents are unlikely to have any parasites or diseases still living on them, since most bacteria and viruses and the like can’t live at freezer temperatures, but double-bagging frozen rats/mice & being sure to wash your hands after handling is a useful “just in case” measure.  Double-bagging also helps to prevent freezer burn, and may help to disguise the bag of frozen rats from any friends/family who happen to open your freezer and peek inside (I’ve definitely had friends scream and drop glassware upon going into my freezer to grab the bottle of vodka I keep in the freezer door, because the other shelf in the freezer door is the “rat shelf” … several broken glasses later, I’ve learned to warn people of this in advance).


Costs and Additional Notes

Snakes are extremely low-maintenance pets.  Being cold-blooded, they only need to eat a fraction of the amount that a warm-blooded mammal or bird would — and (generally) the larger the prey they eat, the less often you need to feed them.

Here in Southern Ontario, small “pinky” or “fuzzy” mice cost about $1-$1.50 apiece, while adult mice may be $2-3.  Medium-Large rats may be more in the $5 to $8 range.  If you’ve got an especially large animal, you may need to be feeding a larger prey item like rabbits, which can cost $15-20 depending on availability in your area … but on the plus side, such larger animals often only need to eat once a month or so.  Buying in bulk can get you discounts, but you need to have freezer space for storing 24 or 50 or 100 prey items in order to make such discounts a viable option — and remember that like with all food, there’s a limited amount of time that something can be kept in the freezer before freezer burn starts to set in & nutritional value is lost.  Airtight storage bags & a clean freezer without frost on the walls will help with longevity in storage.

If you’re getting a new snake, ask the breeder/store/rescue where you’re acquiring it if it’s already eating frozen/thawed prey.  If not, be prepared that you might have to spend some time teaching your new pet to take f/t, and be ready to potentially buy some live rodents & kill them yourself, to get things started.  If that doesn’t seem like something you’re prepared for, ask for another animal that’s already taking f/t, or ask if they’d be willing to “test” the animal on f/t food for you, before you commit to buying/adopting.

And if you really love the idea of having a pet snake, but really *can’t* stomach the idea of handling dead mice/rats, there are a few species out there that eat other foods — like eggs or fish.  Dasypeltis, an African breed, is a commonly known egg-eating colubrid snake which you may be able to get your hands on (although they’re much less common than other colubrid species in the pet trade, and finding a captive-bred specimen may be challenging) — they are usually fed quail eggs in captivity.  Many species of garter snake prefer to eat fish (although live feeder-fish carry high risk of parasites; do your research before deciding on a fish-eating snake as a pet, and you may want to go frozen/thawed with fishy feeders, too, to kill off any parasites).  Other colubrid snakes may eat eggs, fish, or earthworms — but they may require vitamin or calcium supplements added to their diet, as these foods are not as nutritionally valuable as mammal prey.  Thorough research is necessary before acquiring any pet — don’t simply trust what “some guy at the pet store” said.  There are myths out there about snakes eating insectivorous diets and the like — these are MYTHS, and a snake won’t get proper nutrition eating only bugs.  But if you’ve done your research well, a non-rodent-eating snake may be a very beautiful and rewarding pet choice.


Meet the Menagerie: Hypatia and Daedalus

Posted in Animalia with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 24, 2012 by KarenElizabeth

As regular readers will be aware, I’ve got a particular love for colubrid snakes (snakes of the family Colubridae, which includes king snakes, rat snakes, milk snakes, and many others).  To that end, I’ve expanded the menagerie recently with two new additions:  baby corn snakes, Pantherophis guttatus guttatus.  Hypatia and Daedalus.



Since corn snakes require virtually identical care to king snakes, which I’ve already covered in a previous post about Penelope, my California king, I’ll avoid repeating myself and instead focus on some of the other interesting aspects of my new little friends.  There’s also lots of reputable websites out there with excellent basic care information, and I’ll link to a few of them at the end of this post.

Colour Morphs

Now, someone not particularly familiar with snakes might look at those photos I posted up above and say, “wait, those aren’t the same type of snake!”  But looks can be deceiving, and yes, they are both corn snakes.  Corn snakes have, however, been a popular pet species for several decades, and in that time there have been many captive breeding projects aimed at producing interesting, and incredibly varied, colour morphs.  Hypatia is what is known commonly as a “butter” corn snake, while Daedalus is a “lavender”.  Neither of these are colours that you’d be likely to see in the wild.  But in captivity, there’s been a lot of success with producing a great variety of morphs, and captive-bred corn snakes are now available in almost every colour you can think of (not in blue, yet, but I’m sure there’s someone working on it as we speak).

How these different colours are produced is actually quite interesting, if a little bit complicated.  To begin with, there are several different “wild types” of corn snakes.  These are corn snakes that, because of being geographically isolated from each other, have evolved to have slightly different colours and patterns.  The Keys corn snake is a pinkish hue, and tends to have a slightly smaller adult size.  Miami corn snakes have grey or very light tan bodies, with dark orange “saddles” (the splotches on the back) outlined in black.  Okeetee corns (found on the grounds of the Okeetee hunting club in South Carolina) have bright orange bodies with dark orange or red “saddles”, and the saddles have thick, black outlines around them.  And finally, there’s the Carolina (or “normal”)  corns, which have bright orange bodies, dark orange or red “saddles”, and thin, often incomplete, black outlines around the saddles.  Any of these “wild types” will act as dominant, while other colours may be present as recessive traits, hidden invisibly in a snake’s genetics.

In the wild, with so many snakes interbreeding with one another, it would be unlikely for two snakes with the same recessive trait to meet and produce eggs.  But get snakes into captivity, and the available gene pool shrinks considerably.  Inbreeding tends to bring out recessive traits, and in captivity, that’s what happened.

So far, we know of more than a dozen different genes that can affect a corn snake’s colour and pattern.  Several produce similar effects (there are 4 different strains of hypomelanistic, or albino, corn snakes to be found, and it’s difficult to tell the difference between them just by looking; you have to know your snake’s lineage to be sure if it’s a hypo, a sunkissed, a lava, or an ultra).  Others are quite unique (the Palmetto morph, for example, is particularly striking, and certainly hard to miss).  Other genes don’t affect the snake’s colour, but change the shape of its pattern — Motley snakes have dots instead of saddles on their backs, while Stripe morphs are, well, striped.

It doesn’t just stop there, though.  Because each of these colours or patterns is produced by a different gene, you can get snakes that exhibit multiple different recessive traits at once.  Butter corn snakes, like my Hypatia, are such a combination: a butter corn must have both the “amelanistic” and “caramel” traits.  And it’s not just as simple as taking a caramel-coloured father and an amelanistic mother and breeding them together: it takes several generations to produce a line of snakes with such a combination of traits, because you have to eliminate any “normal” genes, which would dominate over the recessive traits and thus the snake would appear just like a wild-caught specimen.  Even harder is combining 3 or 4 traits — but with patience, almost any number of combinations can be achieved.  It can be a bit of a gamble for breeders, though — while combining 4 different traits could produce something never before seen in the pet trade, it won’t do you much good if the resulting snake looks boring, or too similar to something that’s more easily produced.

A Basic Corn Snake Genetics Lesson

If the above paragraph left you feeling lost, I’ll try to make it a bit more simple here.

Say a corn snake has 4 different genes that can code for 4 different colours (they have a lot more, but I’m reducing it here to make the example a lot more simple).  We’ll call those genes N (for normal, like a wild-caught snake would be), a (for amelanistic), c (for caramel), and l (for lavender).

Now, each snake would have two copies of each gene — one from their mother, and one from their father.  Because N is dominant, while the other genes are recessive, a snake needs 2 copies of the same recessive gene in order to express (show) the colour for which that gene codes.  Otherwise the dominant N would be the thing that ends up showing.

In this example, Daedalus (my lavendar corn snake) would have two l genes coding for lavender, but only N genes in the places that might code for caramel or amelanistic.  So a chart of his genetics would look like:

amelanistic    NN

caramel           NN

lavender          l l

Hypatia, on the other hand, would have double-recessive genes for both amelanistic and caramel — but since she doesn’t express a lavender trait, she’d have N genes there:

amelanistic    a a

caramel           c c

lavender          NN

Now we’re going to complicate matters.  If Hypatia and Daedalus were to have babies together, their babies would all look like normal, wild-caught corn snakes, because each one would receive one recessive trait from one parent, and one dominant trait from the other.  The dominant Ns would be what showed up — but all of the babies would be what is called “heterozygous” for all 3 traits, since they’d have the recessive traits still hidden, unexpressed, in their genetic codes.

__________from Dad      from Mom

amelanistic    N                          a

caramel           N                          c

lavender          l                           N

But if we were to breed those babies together with each other, that’s where it gets really interesting, because now there are many options for what each parent could contribute to the genetic mix.  This website is great for calculating the odds of what you’ll get from parents with known genetics, and from that we can see that there’s a 1 in 64 chance that you’d get a baby with all 3 traits expressed: caramel, lavender, and amelanistic together.  The vast majority of the babies (27/64) would be just like their parents — normal in appearance, but with hidden genetics lying unexpressed beneath the surface.  Some would have one, or even two of the traits expressed, giving you some amelanistic babies (9/64), some caramel (9/64), some lavender (9/64), some butter (3/64), some caramel/lavender combos (3/64), and some opal — a combination of amelanistic and lavender — (3/64).

This is, essentially, the same way that human genetics work.  Just like blonde hair and blue eyes are recessive and may be “hidden” by dark hair and eyes, so may various corn snake colour traits remain hidden for many generations, until a limited gene pool (or sometimes just random chance) brings them out.

Less Complicated Things

All right, so that was still rather complicated.  Genetics are kind of weird, although once you get the hang of it, they’re very much predictable.  But let’s move on to some of the less complicated reasons why corn snakes are so interesting.

Corn snakes are fairly common in the wild, being found all across the southern U.S. and down into northern Mexico.  They live in a huge variety of habitats, from the arid climate of Texas to the damp woodlands of Florida, from sea level to as high as 6000 feet in elevation.  In cooler areas they will hibernate through the winter, but in more temperate climes they’ll simply go into a period of reduced activity between December and March, spending more of their time hiding in rock crevices and less out hunting and basking in the sun.  This winter cooling, or “brumation”, is actually a necessary part of their breeding process — without a brumation period, snakes won’t readily breed in captivity.

Like most snakes and other reptiles, corn snakes do not care for their young the way that mammals and birds do.  After laying her eggs in a warm, moist location, the female corn snake goes away to resume her normal life.  The eggs are left to incubate by themselves (not a problem, since they incubate safely at a wide range of temperatures, anywhere between 72 and 90 degrees, which in their habitat is a relatively normal summer temperature).  Depending on temperature, the eggs will take 50-60 days to fully develop.  The baby snakes that hatch out are completely independent, ready to go out hunting almost immediately for their very first meal.

In the wild, corn snakes are sometimes mistaken for venomous snakes such as copperheads and killed by ignorant humans.  But these shy little snakes can be a great help in keeping down the numbers of pest species such as rats and mice, and so they should be encouraged to live in your yard if you happen to be in an area where they are native (plus it’s just nice to have cute little snakes in your yard!)  Corn snakes, while not endangered, are at risk from habitat destruction, and so by creating a place that is safe for them, you are protecting your local biodiversity.

While corn snakes usually like to stay on the ground, they are excellent climbers.  In the wild they may climb up trees to get at bird eggs or other delicacies, while in captivity they will explore every inch of their tank and may even amaze and baffle you by climbing up the bare glass, like Hypatia is in this picture:

They are also incredibly good at finding absolutely any hole or gap in their enclosure through which they might escape, and so it’s very important, if you want to have a corn snake as a pet, to buy a tank that is specifically designed for keeping snakes, and to check it carefully for any little gaps and spaces (note the bit of duct tape on Hypatia’s tank in the photo above — that’s covering up a tiny space where the lid clips on to the tank).  Corn snake escapes are unfortunately rather common, and they can be hard to find again once they do get out.  Protect your baby (and show courtesy as a pet owner) by making sure they can’t pull a Houdini on you.

More Information

Care sheet and basic information

Another care sheet

Pictures of hundreds of different colour morphs (information, links, and forums)

Corn Snake Calculator (figure out what morphs you’ll get by breeding your snakes)

Blue’s New House

Posted in Animalia with tags , , , , , , on June 21, 2010 by KarenElizabeth

Blue, my Avicularia avicularia (pink toed) tarantula, has grown quite a bit since you saw her last.  She’s now got a legspan of a little over 3cm.  And her old house, a mere 2.25 x 2.25 x 3 inches in size, was beginning to look decidedly too small.  So today’s project involved setting up a new and much larger home for my little arachnid friend.

Blue’s new house is a 3 x 3 x 6 inch glass storage cannister purchased from the dollar store for the whopping price of $1.25CDN.  The lid is aluminum, and I’ve punched a bunch of holes in it for ventilation.  Then all that was needed was a couple inches of substrate (a mix of soil, sand, and a bit of sphagnum moss), a chunk of broken terracotta pottery (good for holding moisture), and a piece of plastic greenery.

As I mentioned in my previous post, A. avicularia like Blue require a good humidity level (70-80%) to stay healthy, so this container was chosen with that in mind.  The untimely demise of my previous tarantula pet, an A. versicolour named Pinky, can (I think) be at least partially attributed to her enclosure having too much ventilation, and the humidity level as a result being too low, too often.  Not enough ventilation can cause problems, too — warm, moist environments may encourage the growth of fungus and bacteria.  So I’m keeping a close eye on things, and I’ll add more/larger ventilation holes to the lid if necessary.

The other consideration that I had to be choosy about when picking this particular container was height.  A. avicularia are an arboreal species, used to living high up in the trees of their natural environment.  Therefore their height requirements are much greater than their length/width requirements.  An enclosure should always be taller than it is wide, to facilitate climbing and web-building.  Of course, you don’t want the enclosure to be TOO tall.  A fall from a great height could kill your tarantula, and while it’s rare that they lose their footing, it’s really not worth taking the risk.  Having obstacles in the way to gently break a potential fall is also a good idea — hence the plastic vegetation that I’ve got set up.

Once Blue has had the chance to explore the new space and get used to the change, I’m hoping to see some serious web-building going on.  Avicularia species are known for building intricate tunnel webs, and Blue’s old house was just too small to really get a proper tunnel-castle going.

Meet the Menagerie: Penelope

Posted in Animalia with tags , , , , , , , on March 21, 2010 by KarenElizabeth

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.

Basic Info

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.

Meet the Menagerie: Lord Ivan et al

Posted in Animalia with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 11, 2010 by KarenElizabeth

Time to introduce you all to the first lizardy-baby to enter my life, Lord Ivan the Not-So-Terrible.  Ivan was adopted two years ago from an old high school acquaintance who couldn’t keep her two leopard geckos any more.  I took Ivan, and Kenneth took Java.  We’ve since had many other leopard geckos arrive in our lives — first Java had babies, then Kenneth rescued two more leopard geckos from a person who didn’t know how to properly care for them and was bored with them, then more babies, and, well, you get the picture.  Most of the babies have been adopted out to other homes, because we can’t possibly keep dozens of geckos around.  But we’ve still got quite a few of these friendly little guys.

That’s Ivan there.  He’s pretty normal-looking, as leopard geckos go.  A wild leopard gecko wouldn’t have such bright yellows, but the colour and pattern are pretty standard.  Leopard geckos have been popular pets for many years, now, so there have been lots of fancy colour morphs developed in captivity through selective breeding.  Just take a look at Vladimir, Kenneth’s Tremper Albino male:

Notice the brighter orange colouring, the light eyes (always a sign of an albino), the brown instead of black spots, and the more broken-up pattern on the tail.  Vlad’s colouring would be pretty useless for camouflage in the wild, so you can tell that this was a colour morph developed in captivity.  And there are even stranger things out there — check out this list of leopard gecko morphs.  Just among our little collection, we’ve got Lola, a Hypo Tangerine Carrot Tail morph; Adrasteia, a Patternless little girl with light colouration; Java, a Jungle morph with dark colouring; and Frigga, one of Lola’s babies, who we’ve decided to keep because she’s almost patternless except for a few spots on her head, and she’s got some nice white “snow” colouring.

As you can probably guess, it’s often hard to tell exactly what you’ve got.  There are a lot of trade names out there for specific genetic lines, and leos have so much variation that you can wind up with totally random, very cool-looking individuals who simply don’t fit into any established morph.  This is because leopard geckos in the wild have a lot of genetic variation from region to region, and most morphs are recessive traits.  So even breeding together two completely normal-looking individuals, you can get some totally unexpected new traits showing up in the babies.

The scientific name for leopard geckos is Eublepharis macularius, which refers to the fact that they are spotted (macularius) and to the fact that they have true eyelids (eu = true, blephar = eyelid).  Many geckos do not have eyelids, and instead rely on licking their eyes to keep them clean.  Leos are able to lick their own eyeballs, but mostly rely on their eyelids to keep their eyes clean and moist.  Since they come from desert regions such as Afghanistan, India and Pakistan, this only makes sense:  unlike many geckos, who live in humid regions and rarely encounter particulate matter that could irritate the eyes, leos live in a place where eyelids are something of a necessity.

As you can see from the photos, leos have big, fat tails (they are in fact related to the similar-looking African Fat-Tailed Gecko).  A chubby tail is a sign of a healthy and well-fed individual, and this is where the gecko stores most of its fat reserves.  Leos can drop their tails if threatened by a predator (a process called “caudal autotomy”), which is why you should never pick up a gecko by the tail.  The tail will re-grow, but a re-grown tail is never as pretty and symmetrical as the original, and until the tail has grown back the gecko is at severe risk of health problems.  Without their fat reserves, they are at great risk of malnourishment, and of course there’s always the chance of infection as the new tail starts to grow.  The risk of tail loss is why you should never keep two male geckos together — they may fight for territory, and during the fight one or both geckos could drop their tails.  You also sometimes need to be careful with housing females together, because some females are more aggressive than others.  Kenneth’s female Jungle morph, Java, is sometimes prone to aggression, and so we don’t keep her with the other girls.

Leopard geckos make excellent pets for anyone who’s just starting out in the lizard hobby, and are a good one to introduce kids to.  They’re relatively small (only growing up to about 8-10 inches long), and a 20 gallon tank is more than adequate for a single individual.  They’re also very friendly and easy to handle, especially if they’ve been handled regularly throughout their lives and are accustomed to it.  Even if they do bite (which is rare) it’s not serious, as they don’t have much in the way of teeth.  Usually it doesn’t even draw blood, even on a thin-skinned individual like me.  I’m silly enough to hand-feed them from time to time, so I have received a few accidental bites when my fingers were mistaken for tasty treats.  Ivan’s very gentle about feeding and hasn’t ever bitten me, but Lola and Jave are more competitive eaters.

Besides a 20 or 30 gallon tank, leopard geckos do need a few things to be healthy and happy.  A heating pad or heat tape beneath one end of the tank is the best way to provide a basking area, as leopard geckos absorb heat best through their bellies.  In the wild they don’t come out when the sun is high in the sky, because it would be too hot for them — they prefer to wait until the day has cooled off, and then they will lie on the still-warm sand to get their heating needs.  A temperature gradient should be provided so that the gecko can regulate its own internal temperature by moving from the hot side to the cool side of the tank — the hot side should be kept around 85 degrees Fahrenheit, and the cool side around 75.  A light on a timer to provide some sort of circadian rhythm is recommended, but, unlike many lizards, leos don’t need UVB light in order to metabolize vitamin D, so a regular bulb works just fine.  A spot to hide should be provided at each end of the tank, and at least one of these hiding spots should be a “moist hide”.  Although leos come from the desert, the humidity levels inside their burrows can get quite high, and a hide box with a high humidity level makes shedding more easy for them.  The easiest way to create a moist hide is to simply put some moss in there, and spray it regularly with water to keep it damp.

Leos are carnivores, and are best fed with a variety of insects that have been dusted with a calcium supplement.  Like many lizards, they are prone to metabolic bone disease if they’re not getting enough calcium, so supplementation is very important.  Crickets are the most commonly recommended food, but they also live quite happily on mealworms, superworms, roaches, and occasional fatty treats like silkworms and butterworms (not too many of those, though, or you can end up with an obese gecko).  In general, an adult leopard gecko only needs to be fed about four or five crickets, once or twice a week.  I also like to leave a small dish full of calcium powder in the enclosure at all times, because if they are feeling calcium deficient they will go and lick at the powder.  And of course, fresh water should be provided at all times, because even though they live in the desert, leos are healthier and happier if they can get all the water they like.

Meet the Menagerie: Ziggy

Posted in Animalia with tags , , , , , , on January 24, 2010 by KarenElizabeth

Back in the summer, a co-worker of Kenneth’s got herself a bearded dragon (Esme).  Very exciting — until she figured out that Esme was pregnant!  Fortunately, Kenneth and I had already had success breeding our leopard geckos, and had the setup required to take care of some dragon eggs.  When Esme’s eggs were laid, we brought them home and put them in the incubator.  A few months later, we had babies!  They were tiny, and there were lots of them.

We ooh’ed and awww’ed over them for a while, but we couldn’t keep them all.  So we started finding homes for them, through pet stores, friends, and Craigslist.  It took a few months, but they’re all off to other homes now — except for one.

Meet Ziggy (yes, as in Ziggy Stardust — note the pretty orange face stripes).  Ziggy’s just about 6 months old now, and eating and growing fast.  Adults get to be anywhere from 1-1/2 to 2 feet long — Zig’s just about 8 inches now, so there’s still a ways for him to go.  In captivity, beardies can potentially live up to 20 years — but usually 10-15 is a more reasonable estimate.  Unfortunately, early death is a common thing among captive reptiles, as owners (either through having bad information, or through simple laziness) do not always provide proper care for their scaly pets.  Bearded dragons need high temperatures, UV light, and a good diet in order to live a long and happy life.

Bearded dragons are native to Australia, and are omnivorous.  As juveniles they eat a much higher percentage of insects than they do of plants, but as they get older they will develop more of a taste for salad.  At present, Zig’s eating mostly roaches, mealworms and silkworms, with a few leafy greens (dusted with calcium and vitamin D3 powder) thrown into the mix.

Beardies are known for being docile and for tolerating handling very well (especially if they’ve been handled often for their entire lives and are accustomed to it).  They’re very popular pets, and most are now captive-bred instead of wild-caught.  Many different colour morphs have been developed in captivity, and there are lots of exotic trade names for these different colours and patterns.  Ziggy is hypomelanistic — meaning that he lacks the dark pigments found on wild bearded dragons, and has clear toenails instead of dark.  He also has some pretty, orange highlights on his face and back.  But he’s not nearly as bright as some of the “red dragons” that are now being bred.  Based on my research, he could probably be called a “hypo-pastel”, or perhaps a “translucent”.  However, as I mentioned before, there are endless trade names out there for different colours and patterns, and different breeders would probably call him different things.  His colours may also develop further as he gets older, and he could become more (or less) orange as he matures.

As you can see in the picture above, I’ve recently put down sand as a substrate in Ziggy’s tank.  There are mixed feelings on sand-as-substrate in the bearded dragon world.  When they are babies, it’s a bad idea to keep them on sand — especially if you’re keeping many of them in the same tank and they are competing for food.  Babies can be clumsy eaters, and might get a mouthful of sand (which can cause digestive impaction, a potentially fatal and very painful condition).  Some owners feel that there is still a risk as their dragons get older, while others dismiss the risk as extremely minimal (an adult would have to eat quite a lot of sand before impaction would occur, and they’re less clumsy about eating).  I’ve decided that Zig is old enough (and a careful enough eater) to try the experiment, but I will be watching closely during mealtimes to be sure that there’s no sand-eating going on.  If I notice any troubles, I’ll switch the sand out for ceramic tiles, which are less nice-looking and don’t offer the same opportunities for scratching and digging about, but have no risk of being accidentally ingested.

Compared to many other reptile pets, bearded dragons are relatively high-maintenance.  As babies and juveniles, they require food at least once per day (and even more when they’re very small).  As adults they still need to be fed at least every other day, and offered a good variety of insects and vegetables.  Compared to a leopard gecko, which needs only a few insects once or twice a week, or a snake, which only needs to eat every week or two, it’s a lot of upkeep.  But beardies are very active and personable, which definitely makes up for the extra work involved.  And if you’re someone like me, who likes to eat their veggies, it’s not that difficult to buy things that can be shared with the dragon.

Expect more updates on Ziggy in the future, as I’m sure he’ll continue to be a source of interest and entertainment as he gets bigger.

Meet the Menagerie – Part One: Blue

Posted in Animalia with tags , , , , on January 19, 2010 by KarenElizabeth

One of the more interesting things about me is that I live with upwards of 30 animals. And since I love my babies, I’m probably going to talk about them a lot. So here’s part one of what’s probably going to be a very long-running series of blog posts: Meet the Menagerie.

This is Blue, my Avicularia avicularia, commonly known as a Pink-Toed Tarantula. They’re native to many parts of South America, and are especially common in Guyana (they are sometimes called Guyana Pink-Toes for this reason). Blue’s just a baby yet (only about a centimeter and a half across), but she’ll grow up to be about 10 to 12 cm.

As you can see from the photo, juvenile A. avicularia like Blue have pink legs with dark toes and dark bodies. This colouration will reverse as they get older — adults have pink on the toes, and pinkish highlights on their bodies, with dark legs. It takes 4 or 5 years for an A. avicularia to reach adulthood, and females can live for up to 10 years (males tend to die soon after reaching adulthood, as male tarantulas are unable to moult).

Tarantulas of the Avicularia genus are my absolute favourite, as tarantulas go. They have bright colouration, and tend to build intricate web structures. Other tarantulas will burrow and be invisible when looking into the tank, but Avicularias tend to be active and visible most of the time. They’re also relatively simple to care for, requiring only some space for climbing and building webs (adults can be kept in a 5 gallon tank quite happily), and a 70-80% humidity level. Misting the tank with water from a spray bottle on a regular basis helps to keep the humidity levels up, and if you put down some soil and moss it will hold moisture and help to maintain the levels.

Feeding is one of the most fun aspects of tarantula ownership, and Avicularias are known for being good eaters. Watching them pounce on their prey is exciting, because they’ll do it very quickly and effectively. Blue is currently eating several small mealworms, crickets or roaches every week. As they get older they eat bigger prey, and can even handle the occasional vertebrate (in the wild they might eat small rodents, lizards, or even birds — in captivity, owners will often give a pinkie mouse as an occasional treat).

There has been some reported success of keeping A. avicularia in communal living situations, with many individuals sharing the same tank. This is odd for tarantulas — most are territorial, and will fight with and even cannibalize other members of their own species. I don’t think that I’ll ever try the experiment myself (I’m too protective of my critters), but it’s still a very interesting fact.

Of course, the question that everyone’s probably asking right now is “aren’t tarantulas dangerous?” Short answer: not really. They’re certainly no more dangerous than a dog or cat, which could bite or scratch you, or bring parasites into your home. Tarantulas (like most arachnids) are venomous, but the venom isn’t the thing of horror movies, and it certainly won’t melt your face off or kill you. A bite from an A. avicularia is sort of on the same level as a bee sting: it might hurt and swell up a bit, but that’s all. Of course, there are some people who are allergic to tarantula venom (just like there are some people who are allergic to bees), so it always pays to be careful and avoid being bitten. Nobody wants to find out the hard way that they’ve got an allergy. Tarantulas also have other defense mechanisms: A. avicularia have long hairs on their abdomen and back legs that they can kick off if threatened, and these hairs will stick into your skin and be irritating (kind of like fiberglass insulation). A. avicularia also have the charming habit of spraying feces at an attacker — not dangerous, but gross.

Blue was a birthday present back in September, so I’ve still got several more years to go before he/she is an adult. Until adulthood it’s impossible to tell if you’ve got a female or a male — but I can be patient. Blue is a pretty and entertaining part of the menagerie.