How many snakes?

“How many snakes do you have?” That’s easily the most common question we get about our snake keeping. The number fluctuates, especially if you include the offspring we’re raising for sale, but it hovers around 40 or so permanent snakes. Right now — I just counted — we have 38 permanent snakes and seven babies being raised for sale.

The answer to the first question invariably brings us to the second question: “How can you keep that many snakes?”

The straight answer is, they don’t take up much room and their cages are stackable. This is quite true: zoo guidelines suggest that snakes be kept in cages the combined length and width of which equal or exceed the snake’s length — for example, a four-foot snake would be properly housed in a cage three feet long and one foot deep. And since we make a point of working with smaller species — about one-third of the collection is made up of garter snakes, for example — it’s not at all difficult to find the room for that number of snakes.

But people asking that question aren’t really looking for a technical answer; they’re really asking, “How (on Earth) can you (possibly) keep … ” It’s akin to being asked how you can possibly eat a disgusting food item: while saying that “I open my mouth and shovel it in” is technically answering the question, it’s not what they mean.

So I’ll try to answer the question they’re really asking.

First, snakes take very little time. A while back, I estimated that a single snake needed no more than 15 minutes a week of care: one feeding, one cage cleaning, and several water changes. You can, of course, spend more time on a snake, and most snake owners handle their snakes for more than 15 minutes a week. But for the most part they don’t need it: snakes are not social animals and don’t need the interaction; and, with few exceptions in my experience, once tame, they stay tame. If you forget to handle a tame snake for a month, it’s usually still tame — one exception is our California kingsnake, who does appear to need to be handled regularly if you don’t want him to chew on your knuckles.

People who have hobbies like to spend a lot of time on them, and people who are interested in snakes are usually interested in them to the point of obsession. Fifteen minutes a week will not satisfy that particular jones. So you get another one. Thirty minutes a week. You still have more time. So you get a third. And so on, and so on.

Space and money, rather than time, are usually the limiting factors. Despite a total of 45 snakes (and one turtle), it takes Jennifer, who’s in charge of such things, no more than an hour and a half to feed them all each week, and another hour and a half to clean up after them. Three hours a week, all told.

Compare that to the amount of attention a single horse requires, and you will understand how it’s possible to keep so many animals. I know people who keep many, many more than I do, and do so while maintaining a day job.

(As an aside: lizards and turtles are far more labour-intensive than snakes; you couldn’t keep four dozen lizards with three hours’ weekly effort, not by a long shot.)

Second, one thing that I believe attracts people to snakes is their difference. It’s what makes them interesting to us. They’re not just an interesting pet, they’re an excuse to find out about a whole different kind of animal. And there are a lot of different snakes out there. Though the taxonomy changes constantly, there are something like 2,700 species of snake out there; hundreds of these, nonvenomous and venomous (unfortunately) alike, are available through the exotic pet trade. Many of these — including dozens of species from North America — are easy enough to keep that a 10-year-old child can look after them properly.

If you’re interested in snakes as a group, you may not necessarily be satisfied with a single corn snake, or a single milk snake — you may want to have a few of each — corn snakes, rat snakes, kingsnakes, milk snakes, pine snakes, garter snakes, boas, pythons and more. There’s a tremendous diversity out there, and sometimes it’s awfully hard to pick just one species.

Fortunately, because they take so little time and effort to look after, you don’t have to. And did I mention they’re stackable?