On ringneck snakes, difficult species and expertise

Mike Fedzen writes to damn the Ringneck Diary — my abortive attempt to chronicle our attempts to keep Southern Ringneck Snakes (Diadophis punctatus punctatus) in captivity in 2003 — with faint praise:

I found your little project with ringneck snakes doing an internet search. It was interesting, a little.
You made it seem too difficult to keep ringneck snakes, that’s for sure. I’ve worked with ringneck snakes for over 10 years … I am basically a professional. Basically. I have bred them, and kept many many specimens successfully. My longest kept specimen was an almost 10 year albino northern ringneck snake captive.
You picked southern ringneck snakes. In my experience, they are EASILY the most easily kept sub-species. They feed on worms, FISH, frogs, lizards, snakes, and will switch onto mice easier than you can imagine. Try guppies if you don’t have worms. Southern ringneck snakes in my experience have the largest menu out of all sub-species. I’ve gotten many specimens on mice scented with fish/worms/frogs … basically anything with slime.

I’m glad to hear that Mike has had much better luck than we had, but to be fair to those of us involved in the project and the snakes we were keeping, the odds were very much against us from the start. We bought four snakes from a pet store that was keeping more than a dozen in a single, very cramped cage. These were snakes that had been through the pet-store supply pipeline: they were stressed, sick and in some cases injured — in a worse position in every way than a snake freshly caught from the wild would have been. It was a crap shoot — that’s why we bought four of them — and we didn’t win.

The snakes probably never had much of a chance in any event, but at least we’d done our homework. I’d already read as much as I could about ringneck snake care — what little there was — and applied it. And whatever killed them, it wasn’t their diet.

Now for a digression that is not directly related to Mike’s e-mail, but will come back to it.

There’s a tendency among reptile keepers to measure your worth based on your ability to keep species alive. If you can keep a difficult species successfully, you’re good; if you can’t keep an easy species, you’re not. There are two problems with this attitude (apart, I mean, from the obnoxiousness).

The first is that it’s really not up to the keeper. I’ve had a lot of trouble keeping Red-spotted Garter Snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis concinnus) alive, for example, but I have kept three other garter snakes for more than seven years, and one of them is almost certainly a captive longevity record for her species. The individual snake’s health is as much a factor as the species’s tendencies or the keeper’s competence. So-called experts lose snakes all the time — even specimens from so-called easy species. There are too many variables that could explain why our ringnecks didn’t thrive, whereas Mike’s did, apart from the worthiness of the keepers involved.

And the second is that the game is rigged. Who decides which species are worth keeping and which aren’t worth bothering with, and which species are easy and which are hard? If a self-styled expert likes a species, and is held in respect by other herpers, his authority makes the species inherently desireable. (A good and enthusiastic writer can generate a tremendous amount of demand: Okeetee Corn Snakes and Gray-banded Kingsnakes come to mind.) And if that expert says that a species is difficult — possibly because he hasn’t had much luck with the specimens he’s worked with — then it’s difficult by definition.

This is magnified with species that just aren’t kept very often — like ringnecks — where there are too few data points to be of much use. Here, authority distorts the data. Give the same snake to an experienced keeper and an inexperienced keeper: if the experienced keeper kills it, then it’s the snake’s fault, and the species is difficult; if the inexperienced keeper kills it, it’s the keeper’s fault, and he’s incompetent.

As reptile keepers, we need to be unafraid to share our experiences. No one benefits if we won’t share our failures for fear that someone else will think less of us. Nor should we be so arrogant that we reject other keepers’ observations if they differ from our own. It’s risky to generalize: for many species, we simply don’t have enough data to be certain. Who’s to say which of us is the exception, and which of us is the rule?

Does that mean I shouldn’t have recommended that people not keep ringneck snakes unless they had a good reason to do so or knew what they were doing? Was I wrong? Absolutely not: my recommendation is based on my experience, which is limited but not necessarily invalid. It’s one thing to recognize that you don’t know everything, quite another to be paralyzed by self-doubt. Have your say, in other words, but remember that it’s not a big deal if someone disagrees with you. Mike is absolutely correct, in other words, to share his experiences when they differed from mine (even if his guff about being a “professional,” and the implied subtext of that, stuck in my craw a bit, and led to the digression you’ve just finished reading). The trick is that you have to remember than neither of us is definitive: judge the suitability of ringneck snakes from the aggregate of our — and other keepers’ — experience.