Herp Collection

Snake geriatrics

The Butler’s garter snake is on her last legs (so to speak). For a few months now she’s been growing a lump in her midsection that looks identical to the liver tumour that killed Big Momma, my extraordinarily fecund female red-sided garter snake, in 2002. It’s awfully big now, almost as big as Big Momma’s, but Big Momma was a much bigger snake. And after her last shed, we discovered that her tail has withered almost completely, which is something I’ve never seen before. It won’t be long for her, I think.

But, like Big Momma was in 2002, the Butler’s garter is old. For her species, she’s preposterously old: she was born in the summer of 2000, which makes her 10½ years old. Her sister died nearly five years ago, and that was from age-related causes. So I’m not at all upset that the Butler’s garter snake is dying now, because she’s had a better, longer run than almost every other member of her species in captivity. For some time I thought she held the longevity record, but I’m no longer sure that’s the case. In any case, I’m not ashamed: we’ve managed to keep her alive for more than 10 years (I got her in October 2000), and that’s saying something.

In fact, because we stopped buying snakes several years ago, and because many of the snakes who’ve dropped dead on us were more recent acquisitions, our snake collection is looking downright geriatric. The average age of our snakes is, in fact, nine years old (the median is eight and a half). That’s a rough estimate, because I’ve had to guess the exact age of several of our snakes who arrived as adults, and I’ve assumed each snake was born in the middle of the year — I know the year of birth, but not necessarily the month. But the point is still there: these are not young snakes. Most were bought at about the same age (i.e., young) and at about the same time, so these snakes represent a cohort of sorts.

Which means they’re going to start dying off at roughly the same time. Now garter snakes as a rule don’t live as long as corn, rat or pine snakes, so a 10-year-old garter snake is much closer to the end than a 10-year-old corn snake, which might easily live another five or ten years. So the snakes’ departure from our household is going to be a bit more spread out than their arrival was. But it’s going to happen. There are three garter snakes in our collection, including the Butler’s, who are more than 10 years old — Extrovert, the female wandering garter snake, will be 12 this summer — and I don’t expect to have them much longer. And George the plains garter, whose age I can only guess at, is as handicapped as ever and still not dead.

Mice to buy, mouths to feed

Grab and swallow

The price of feeder rodents seems a lot higher than it was 10 years ago. Lately I’ve been feeling a little sticker shock: I now have fewer snakes in the house than at any time in the past last decade (though still a lot by rational standards), but the cost of mice — we buy in bulk every two months or so — isn’t going down by a commesurate amount. Mouse and rat prices are going up faster than the snake numbers in our house are going down.

Cheap bastard that I am, I thought it might be a good idea to figure out exactly how much each of our snakes costs to feed (at least on paper: the real cost depends on their willingness to eat when fed and our remembering to feed them on time). One thing I was particularly interested in was whether there were any cost outliers: i.e., whether there were snakes that were more expensive to feed.

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Too hot for snakes

Aesculapian Snake soaking

This week has been hot and oppressive, and today’s heavy rain is a welcome respite. Not just for us, but for our snakes. For the past week, we’ve been keeping an eye on the thermometers and the snakes’ behaviour to ensure that they aren’t overheating. We don’t have air conditioning, so it’s gotten as warm as 34°C in our house. At that point the snakes start taking to their water dishes, hoping to cool off. Every so often we mist the cages down with refrigerated water. If it had gotten any warmer, I would have started dropping ice cubes in their water dishes — whether or not they were still soaking in them — because at that point I’d be worried about having some of them die on me.

You may be surprised to learn that hot weather isn’t always good for cold-blooded animals. It is actually possible for a reptile to get too warm. In fact, it’s far easier to kill a reptile with heat than it is with cold. A cold reptile stops eating or simply hibernates; it would take freezing temperatures to be fatal. But it’s embarrassingly easy to kill a captive reptile with heat: a glass cage in direct sunlight is all it takes.

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Pretzel puts herself through it again


Say hello, again, to Pretzel, our oldest female corn snake and the first snake I bought when I got back into snake-keeping in 1999. (She was at least a young adult back then, so she’s at least 13 or 14 now, and probably older than that.)

You may remember that we stopped breeding Pretzel a few years ago because she was putting everything into egg production. After she laid her clutch, she’d be extremely gaunt, and needed lots of feeding up before she looked normal again. This is one thing when baby snakes are part of the bargain, quite another when some or all of the eggs fail to hatch. She was putting her body through all that for nothing, so we got her away from her mate, Trouser, and kept her by herself (or, as now, with another female corn snake).

Anyway, after a few years of feeding her up and keeping her away from any and all corn snake males, she seems to have gone and ovulated again: she’s fat and squishy at the back end and has been refusing meals. The eggs are almost certainly not fertile, unless her cagemate is a secret male or she’s been retaining sperm for three years, which means she’s putting her body through all this for nothing. Again.

In the wild, snakes only reproduce during good years: if times are lean and the hunting is poor, females simply don’t ovulate; they retain the sperm until the following year, if necessary. It seems that, beyond a certain point, excess nutrition is put into egg production regardless of whether the snake has mated. Not every snake in my care has done this, but a few have: Big Momma, my original female red-sided garter snake, dropped slugs in her first year with us, and Lucy the bullsnake once dropped infertile eggs before being introduced to a male.

But it’s really annoying when Pretzel does it, because she leaves nothing behind for herself — and if you feed her up too much afterward, she’ll simply put it back into egg production. No wonder she’s as small as she is, even at her age.

Previously: Pretzel’s bad eggs; Pretzel lays 17 eggs; More evidence of an early mating season; Snakes in autumn; Mites, eggs and hibernation plans.

Our female red-sided garter has died

Remember the female Red-sided Garter Snake that gave us such a scare last October? We found her dead in her cage this afternoon, after we came back from a walk. No idea how it happened. This is a little on the premature side: she would have been eight years old in June.

We’re fond of our snakes, but she was a little bit special. She was the last female in our possession from that 2002 litter of 42 produced by Big Momma (died 2002) and Piss-Boy (died 2008). She was a stunner, the spitting image of her mother; unfortunately I don’t have any good pictures of her. (She shared a cage with our female blue-striped garter, and they made a pretty pair.) Like her father, she was extremely alert, gregarious and inquisitive; like her mother, she was extremely tame; she was probably the tamest garter snake in our collection — and that’s saying something. (Her two brothers — the last of that litter in our care — are merely voracious: they don’t mean you any harm, they’re just trying to eat you.)

When it comes to snakes in our collection dying on us, it’s never the ones we expect. There are at least four garter snakes in our care that I would have predicted to die before her: Extrovert, the female wandering garter, is 11 years old this year; Monster, the male flame garter, will be 10; the Butler’s garter, who I believe holds the captive longevity record, will also be 10 — and George, the broken plains garter, is still not dead.

Actually, sometimes they do bite


So last night, our male Okeetee corn snake decided, while being handled as his cage was being changed, that Jennifer’s hand looked awfully delicious …

What you see above is a feeding bite: he clamped on and did not let go. (Not voluntarily, anyway — it took some doing.) A defensive bite would have been a quick jab-and-release.

He did manage to draw blood, but as wounds go, this was pretty superficial — to the point where my first response to Jen’s announcement that he was biting her was to run and grab the camera. I know: I’m a real sweetheart. But if that doesn’t put a bite from a nonvenomous snake into perspective, I don’t know what will.

A small snake scare

Those of you who follow me on Twitter or Facebook will know that we had a bit of a scare last week with one of our snakes: our female Red-sided Garter Snake — one of the litter of 42 born in June 2002 — threw up her meal on Wednesday night and was looking very poorly on Thursday: limp, listless and very unresponsive when handled. We separated her from her cagemate (a female Blue-striped Garter Snake) and waited to see what would happen. (Frankly, we had no idea what, if anything, was wrong with her. Throw-ups happen, but we’d never seen a snake go downhill like that after one.) Fortunately, she looked much better on Friday, and by the time we got back from our weekend trip to Toronto earlier this evening, she was back to her old self — which is to say, like her siblings (we still have two of her brothers), very active and very curious.

Same snake, different lid

Shot while trying to escape

My Baird’s rat snake is apparently something of an escape artist. On October 12, 2002, I found him in my bathroom; he’d managed to muscle his way out of his cage thanks to loose knobs on the lid. And now he’s done it again: this morning, right in front of me, he managed to find a weakness in his lid and very nearly got out of his cage — as you can see in the poor shot I took above (I was working fast for obvious reasons). Now, I’m not entirely sure how he did this: I thought those snap-on grille lids were escape-proof, but clearly there was a weak point somewhere (possibly in the middle). I’ve weighted the lid down for now, but a more secure solution is no doubt required.

I’ve had a few snakes escape on me before, but not very often — the last time was, in fact, the October 2002 incident with this very snake. And I’ve never had an escape where I’ve lost the snake; I’ve always caught the snake in the act, or found the snake hanging around where it shouldn’t be. In other words, I’ve been a lucky bastard.

Anyone make diapers for garter snakes?

George George is still not dead, but he’s getting increasingly, well, incontinent. You will recall that our male Plains Garter Snake (Thamnophis radix) was rather floppy; in fact, he seemed to be using his front half to drag his back half along like a wagon, as though he’d suffered some nerve damage that prevented the full use of his muscles back there. It seems to be getting worse: now his poop is having trouble clearing the vent, and he’s usually so twisted around back there that he, um, shits himself and needs to be cleaned up. George apparently needs some Depends, though I don’t think they come in his size.

He still eats well and has a good disposition. Go figure.

Bullsnake eggs

Our female bullsnake, Lucy, laid four eggs yesterday, but I do not have high hopes for them: they look rather yellowish and are probably not fertile. (Par for the course.) I expect they’ll collapse fairly soon, but we’ll keep them in the incubator for a while, in case I’m wrong.

The youngest snake in the collection

New acquisition

I expected that the size of our reptile collection would shrink through attrition, but I expected it to be a result of snakes succumbing to old age (some of the garter snakes are starting to get up there, for example). I did not expect to find the male Cape Gopher Snake (Pituophis catenifer vertebralis) dead in his cage this morning, from unknown causes. He was the youngest snake in our collection and our most recent acquisition; we acquired him in November 2007 (the picture above dates from that time).

This isn’t just an unexpected shock; it’s annoying. Pituophis are so robust, you don’t expect anything like this to happen: we’ve kept four pairs of them and raised an additional five babies, and this is the first loss we’ve had of this genus, ever.

Meanwhile, George is still not dead (previously).

Back to their respective cages

It’s been about a month, so we’ve separated our breeding pair of checkered garter snakes. The albino male is now back in his old cage. If they were going to breed this year, they would have done so by now; most of the tell-tale mating behaviour occurred in the first week or so. There is now no longer any point in risking a cannibalism incident, though they do seem to have been getting along rather well. For all I know they’ve already mated — they may just have been more subtle than some garter snakes I’ve known.

An update on the trinket snake

The trinket snake died this afternoon. You may recall my entry last February in which I described how she was bleeding and shedding her skin at the same time. Despite our attempts at treatment, an eventual second shed was just as bloody as the first; by that time, it was almost certainly too late to do anything else.

I think I’m going about this snake-breeding thing all wrong

Don’t get your hopes up: we haven’t had snakes breed successfully since 2005. But this afternoon we introduced our albino male checkered garter snake to the larger of our two females, in hopes of some ophidian bouncy-bouncy. So far there is no bad news: his flick rate went through the roof and he began courtship behaviour; she, for her part, has not yet killed and eaten him. Garter snake courtship can take a while — weeks, even — so it’s too early to tell if it’s successful. And even post-copulation, it will depend on the viability of his sperm, whether she’s ovulating, and so forth. If all goes well, we should have a small litter of albino and normal checkered garters some time in the summer; the trick is that a lot of things have to go well for that to happen. Cross your fingers.

One of our snakes is bleeding

Injured trinket snake Jennifer discovered something freakish with our trinket snake last night: as she was shedding her skin, she was bleeding, at the midsection and further down the tail. Closer examination revealed a sizeable wound along the midsection, but I’m unable to figure out what caused it; we went over her cage very carefully and found nothing she scraped against. The blood is light in colour, suggesting that it’s capillary blood.

More perplexingly, the bleeding seems to have occurred between the two layers of skin. (When snakes shed, they secrete a fluid to separate the old layer of skin from the new layer; that’s why their skin seems so dull and their eyes go milky white during this process.) Her tail remains unshed; there’s blood underneath the unshed skin (you’ll see it in the larger versions of this photo).

Jennifer examined a skin-and-blood sample under the microscope but couldn’t find any evidence of microbial infection. We’ve got her in a different, clean cage and we’re applying antibiotic ointment; if this isn’t an injury, it may well be a bacterial or fungal infection. The snake is still ambulatory and alert, but without as much muscle tension as she used to have; she’s probably quite sore, if nothing else.

All in all, we’re a bit perplexed, and wondering what will happen next.

A month without eating

Soaking snake

Every winter, there’s always a chance that one or more snakes will decide it’s hibernation time and that refusing to eat would be an awfully good idea. (This can be triggered by less ambient light and cooler temperatures, even if their cages are heated.) This year, it was the turn of our 8½-year-old male Baird’s Rat Snake, who skipped two successive feedings. Normally, skipping a meal every now and then isn’t a big deal for a snake, even when they only get fed every week or two, so we weren’t overly concerned. Since his cage is in my office, he’s been easy to keep an eye on. He was probably in hibernation mode, since we often saw him soaking in his water dish (as he was in the above picture, taken on December 15), which is something snakes trying to hibernate tend to do. Anyway, he ate again today, so he really didn’t give us much of a chance to start worrying.

(What’s more worrisome is that even though I got him in June 2000, when he was all of a month old, I still haven’t gotten around to naming him yet — “the Baird’s” is usually enough when you’ve only got one of that species. One thought was to call him “Spencer,” after Spencer Fullerton Baird, after whom the species was named, but I didn’t convince myself.)

George the garter snake, plus some gopher snake news


I’ve been tinkering with my home page today, taking care of little things that have lain fallow for too long. In doing so, I’ve noticed that I haven’t said anything about our snake collection since July. High time I rectified that. Let me tell you about George.

George, you may remember, is our male Plains Garter Snake (Thamnophis radix). We got him in February 2004, which means that we’ve had him for nearly five years. Frankly, I didn’t expect him to last this long: I mentioned two years ago this month that he had a subcutaneous lump that I assumed was a roundworm infestation, and he’s had a big lump just past his vent for years. To be honest, I’ve been expecting him to drop dead any day now for the past two years. If I’d had anything to say about him, it would go something like this: “George: still not dead.”

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Our home is not a zoo

So one of Jennifer’s co-workers gave our phone number to one of her friends, who just called to ask if he could bring his granddaughter to visit the snakes.

I don’t know what gave her co-worker the right to do such a thing. It’s as if she had a swimming pool, and I invited my friends to swim in it.

I mention this in my reptile FAQ, and it seems I’m going to have to be more explicit about this from now on: we’re not a zoo. You don’t have the right to so much as ask to see our reptile collection, because you’re essentially trying to invite yourself into our private home. It’s especially inappropriate if, as is often the case, we haven’t met — or you’re calling us because a friend, or a friend of a friend, gave you our number.

If you’re a friend of ours and have a nephew or granddaughter who’s interested in snakes, we’ll probably give you an invitation. But it has to come from us, and be on our terms. If friends start passing out our number without our permission, they won’t be friends for much longer. And if co-workers start doing it, there will be consequences in that arena, I promise you.

We do not let strangers into our home — and for good reason: we’ve even been robbed by a delivery guy. And while we’re happy to teach people about snakes, we draw the line at letting strangers into our home to do it.

Especially when it’s clear that what people really want is a free one-on-one tour. Little Ray’s costs $10, and if you want that level of one-on-one attention, pony up for a birthday party or something. I’m sorry, but our time is valuable — we each bill at around $30 an hour — and it belongs to us.

Caturday: kittens and snakes

Cat and snake

When people find out we have both cats and snakes, they ask whether the two kinds of animals get along. If the snakes ever got out — and I haven’t had an escape in almost six years — the cats would almost certainly make quick work of them. But through the glass, it’s a little different.

Kittens are extremely interested in snakes, and will examine them at close range. Goober, when young, sat on a lot of cage lids, which required us to upgrade them to something stronger (he broke the 50-gallon tank lid, which is now held together with fishing line; fortunately, the box turtle it now houses is not much of an escape risk). And snakes that have never once bitten a human being, such as Trouser (our male anerythristic Corn Snake) and the Baird’s Rat Snake, were striking at him as he watched. After a while, though, he grew out of it; adult cats (at least the ones we’ve had) aren’t as interested.

But now it’s Doofus’s turn to harass and bother the snakes, who are now freaking out at him


Since we last talked, our reptile collection has shrunk by 20 percent.

A few weeks ago, Jennifer and I bundled up seven snakes and delivered them to their new homes. Jeff and Jenny took our pair of Great Basin Gopher Snakes, the female Western Hognose Snake, Snuggles the Boa Constrictor, the Rosy Boa, and Sam the Ball Python; Stewart got one of our Red Milk Snakes (which promptly turned into a biting machine). With Piss-Boy’s death last month, that brings us down to 32 snakes; further downsizing and expected mortality (I have some old snakes) will take that number down even more in the coming months.

We decided to do this after a lot of careful soul-searching on my part after the embarrassing town council meeting. While we were never ordered to give up any animals, much less the boas and python, it forced me to think a lot harder about what we were keeping, and why. This is what I came up with:

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A snake named Piss-Boy

Piss-Boy I named him “Piss-Boy,” awkwardly, after a character in History of the World, Part I: one day shortly after I got him, I noticed he’d soiled his cage four times in the six hours since I had last cleaned it. It always made it problematic to use him in reptile shows, when kids would ask what his name was.

He was an adult male Red-sided Garter Snake, one of four Jeff brought in for me in early 2000, along with two Wandering Garter Snakes (one of which, Extrovert, I still have) and a Checkered Garter Snake that died later the same year from an internal parasitic infection. May 12, 2000: that’s when I took possession. He was at least three years old at the time; fully grown. I don’t think he’s done any growing since then: his metabolism was geared for activity and reproduction.

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Another by-law update

My presentation in front of the town council tonight might have gone better if I had known beforehand the origins of the list of banned animals — and if I’d known that the current (circa 2005) by-law also prohibits boas and pythons. Oh, hell. I still think I did all right in front of somewhat skeptical councillors, but I would have liked to have done better.

The bottom line is that there will not be any limits on animals other than dogs and cats, but they’ll think over my proposal to use the provincial restrictions instead of the municipal list. About which I’m not optimistic. We may have to divest ourselves of our two boas and one python, which, all things considered, I can manage. Could have been a lot worse — as I said, we won’t have to move.

It may well have been better not to have addressed council tonight, but what’s done is done.

Previously: A brief by-law update; My response to the Pontiac MRC animal control by-law.

A collection update: dying, moving, freaking out

We lost another snake last week, which was unexpected: Jennifer found the male hognose snake dead in his cage. He’d been an inconsistent eater, and had been moved into a separate cage to see if that would help his appetite; he had, however, been eating again. Not sure what got him — clearly the inappetance was a symptom of something — but we discovered it too late to do a necroscopy.

On a happier note, almost every snake (and turtle) that was going to be moved into a new cage is now in their new digs; they all seem to be enjoying the additional room. It took some doing to get enough locks, but, as promised, the boa constrictor, bullsnakes and black pine snakes are now in their new enormous cages. The box turtle is now in the pine snakes’ old cage; the gray rat snake is in the female bullsnake’s cage; and the ball python is in the boa constrictor’s old cage. The male bullsnake’s old cage is now being shared by the male Okeetee corn snake and the Great Plains rat snake; meanwhile, the female blue-striped garter snake has moved in with the female red-sided garter snake. They’re getting along so far. Pretzel, my original female corn snake, is now on her own, away from Trouser’s wayward hemipenes, and the remaining garter snakes previously inhabiting five-gallon tanks are now in larger digs. And the female Cape gopher is now in the gray rat’s old cage. (I think that’s it.)

Moonlight, my male California kingsnake, is even more psycho lately: at his last feeding time, he refused his meal, preferring instead to strike at us through the glass. In the more than eight years I’ve had him, he’s never been this belligerent. (Nibbly, yes, but not angry.) Gonna have to keep an eye on him, in case this is symptomatic of something.

Snake room update

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “Never mind all this telescope shit, Jon — what about your damn snake collection? Tell us something new about that!”

Well, all right then.

New cage unit

Here’s our new — and fricking heavy — cage unit. This has been planned for years, and was ordered months ago. Little Ray’s built it; custom cage construction is one of their side gigs.

Once the paint fumes dissipate a bit, and we install the locks on the sliding glass doors, the unit’s new tenants will be as follows: one boa constrictor, two black pine snakes, and two bullsnakes, all of whom could stand bigger digs than they currently have. Once they’re in their new cages, other snakes will move into their old digs, and so on, and so on, so that even the small snakes who’ve outgrown their small cages will get an upgrade. All part of the plan I made a couple of years ago. It’ll probably take the rest of the month to get everybody moved, though.

And then there’s this, also from Little Ray’s:

New acquisition

We don’t buy very many snakes nowadays, but we made an exception for this young male Cape Gopher Snake (Pituophis catenifer vertebralis), born earlier this year. We have an older female that we bought last year, and have foolish breeding plans for the two of them. (Foolish in that expecting any success in snake breeding, given our luck lately, is rather foolhardy.)

Pretzel’s bad eggs

You may recall that Pretzel, one of my corn snakes, laid 17 eggs back in May. If they were going to hatch, they would have hatched by now. But they haven’t: they all went bad, one by one, over the course of their incubation.

Fortunately, Pretzel is showing no signs of laying a second clutch, so at least she won’t be wasting all that energy and body mass again — at least not this year. I must remember to get her away from Trouser before the next mating season: I meant to this year, but Trouser took advantage of my procrastination. With two years of nothing but bad eggs, and poor fertility the year before, it’s clearly time to give this pairing a rest.

Why I like boa constrictors

I’d be hard-pressed to pick a favourite snake from my collection, but it’s not hard at all to figure out which snake is the most popular with our guests. It’s Snuggles, our four-year-old male boa constrictor.

Deb and Snuggles I’ve always been leery about giant snakes, but I’ve been very satisfied with Snuggles so far. Four years ago, when we got him, we figured that if we were going to start doing reptile shows, we needed to have a large boa or python. Burmese pythons are tame but huge (full-grown pythons can weigh as much as a person), and other giant species, such as anacondas or reticulated pythons, have quantifiably evil temperaments. Boa constrictors are a lot smaller than the others, but they’re also a lot tamer and a lot safer. Bottom line, I wanted a snake I could lift; I once had to do a show with a forty-pound, nine-foot Burmese who was sweet enough, but a bit much to pick up and maneuver with. (Yes, I’m weak.)

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Worst case of blue balls ever seen on a garter snake

When dealing with snakes, you tend to assume that there is only one prickly end. But I had a bit of a surprise this afternoon when we were changing the cage of Piss-Boy, my male red-sided garter snake. While handling him, I experience a sharp prick came from the other end: the little bugger was everting his hemipenes — the ends of which are rather knobby, it would appear. Pricked by his prick, as it were — or at least one of them: snakes (and lizards) have two.

Poor guy: while he’s sired 92 baby garter snakes in his time with me, he hasn’t had any since July 2001. And when he’s in the mood to mate, he makes quite a spectacle of it: courtship takes weeks, and he doesn’t eat for months; he gives constant attention. I presume that a couple of the female garter snakes in the snake room are madly exuding pheromones, which is what has set him off. Unfortunately, the only female garter snake of the same subspecies in our collection is his daughter (from the 2002 litter). So he will have to, um, deal with it somehow.

Pretzel lays 17 eggs

17! I’ve been breeding snakes since 2001, and though I’ve managed to see a live birth, I’ve never once been able to catch an egg-laying snake in the act of, well, laying eggs. Today that changed: we came downstairs this morning and caught Pretzel in the act of laying eggs in her nesting box, which was a clear plastic deli container (so we could see in). We could see how long it took an egg to pass the cloaca, and how long it took the next egg to pass down from its oviduct. I didn’t time it, but it takes a long time. In fact, the whole process took most of the day. A short while ago, we took her out, palpated her to make sure she was done, and counted the eggs.

She laid 17 of them. That’s a record. Normally, her first clutch, which is usually laid some time in May, is around 13 eggs. Why so many this time?

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A quick snake update

Pretzel has had her pre-egglaying shed, so we should have corn snake eggs by the end of the month.

Extrovert ate normally last night. Apparently last week’s nightcrawlers were just the thing to kick-start her appetite.

The gopher snakes are off their feed, but it’s been cold lately, and they’re notorious for losing their appetite in response to temperature changes. The female has a better excuse: we found an infertile egg in their cage yesterday. A nesting box was quickly added in case more are forthcoming.

Female snakes, off their feed

Pretzel, my female corn snake, is visibly pregnant. She’s also in shed, and she refused to eat last night. She usually eats during shed (unlike some other snakes), but she goes off her food just before egg-laying, so I guess we’re probably a couple of weeks away from her first clutch. Right on time: she usually lays in mid-May. Time to stock up on vermiculite and get the incubator ready.

Extrovert, my female wandering garter snake, has skipped her last few meals. That’s atypical — for a non-gravid female garter outside of hibernation, it’s almost unheard of. So I’m starting to get a bit concerned. She’s definitely not gravid: she hasn’t seen a male in five years. We’ll try fish, but I wonder whether she’s about to suffer the same problem that killed one of my Butler’s garters last year. I should palpate her. She’s eight years old, which is not ancient for her species.

Previously: More evidence of an early mating season; A garter snake update.

Update, 4:45 PM: We just offered Extro three nightcrawlers, which she just snarfed right down. Possibly the garter snake reset button in action again.

The water snake succumbs

Northern Water Snake (2003) Some of you may be aware that I used to keep a Northern Water Snake. (Yes, I had a licence for her.) She was born in captivity, and was astonishingly handleable and even ate mice, so she was a breeze to keep. She was also an amazing asset at educational displays: most people around here are deathly afraid of water snakes, which at their most basic are simply big garter snakes adapted to a diet of aquatic animals (if water snakes are feisty when caught, so too are large garter snakes). So a tame water snake was very, very useful.

When I moved to Quebec in 2003, I couldn’t keep the snake — provincial law does not allow for the keeping of protected species by private individuals — so I passed her over to a friend, who promptly got a licence for her.

You can see where this is going, can’t you? The owner wrote to say that the water snake was found dead last night. She would have been seven years old, which is kind of young for a water snake, but not excessively so. She almost certainly was carrying the same heavy parasite load in her lungs that, you may recall, killed so many of my other garter snakes. (The culprit, you may remember, was live — or at least whole — fish that carried those parasites.) That she held out as long as she did says something about her — or her species’ — resistance to big internal worms: she was almost certainly the last or next-to-last snake that was fed the contaminated batch.

Cats, snakes and emotional impact

In the comments on my last photo of Maya, Mike offered his condolences on our loss, to which he could relate, having had to put a cat down last year. But, he wrote,

It wasn’t quite the same when one of my corn snakes died after clutching though. How do you find it emotionally when one of the garters kicks off, or have you been fortunate enough to avoid that?

Regular readers of this blog — all six of you — will know, of course, that I’ve had more than a few garter snakes expire on me. Here’s what I wrote back:

I agree that it’s not quite the same (much as I’d like to pretend otherwise), but it was still a bit wrenching when a garter snake I’ve kept for years dies after a protracted illness, which has happened at least three times: to my female red-sided garter, who died of a liver tumour; to my male wandering garter, who died of a worm infestation; and to one of my Butler’s garters, who died from eggbinding.

I’m attached to all my animals, even the ones with little or no social interaction (i.e., the reptiles). But while I have to admit that there is a stronger emotional bond with a cat than, say, a corn snake, I’m still affected when I lose a reptile. Even if I’m not affected as much.

Either way, I feel a strong sense of responsibility: if I’m going to keep animals — especially exotic, wild animals — in captivity, I have a duty to ensure their health and, inasmuch as their little reptile brains can comprehend it, their happiness. When they die, I feel as though I’ve fucked up, even if they’re dead from natural causes or old age.

Bullsnake breeding

Bullsnake Both our bullsnakes are growing like mad and badly need new digs. The plan was to put them in a new cage together, because we were planning to breed them this year, but we haven’t gotten the new-cage project off the ground yet. But if the other critters are any indication, time’s a-wasting, so we introduced the male and female bullsnakes for the first time this afternoon. Only a little mating activity (some tail wagging, some male-on-female biting), but no hardcore action yet; we’ll give them more opportunities later.

More evidence of an early mating season

You may recall that I had decided to retire Pretzel as a breeder, and planned to move her to a separate cage before breeding season. Well, heh heh, you know, a funny thing happened: breeding season came about six weeks early, before I’d gotten around to moving her out. Trouser pounced on her on March 3. (Apologies for the late report: I’ve had a bit of a week.) I’ve never seen it earlier than April — but then I’ve never gone without hibernating them before. You’d think that not hibernating them might depress the libido, but apparently corn snakes have other ideas. Now what?

No pictures of the event; I’ve got enough photographic evidence of his (and other snakes’) prior copulatory shenanigans.

Previously: Black pine snakes, giving us something to talk about.

Black pine snakes, giving us something to talk about

Without question, the snakes in our collection that generate the most questions about potential offspring are the black pine snakes. I’m sure that if I kept better track I’d have quite the waiting list by now. If they produced lots of babies, I’d sell every last one, and at a healthy price, too. Unfortunately, they only produced a single viable clutch, and that was back in 2002; the clutch produced last year turned out not to be viable. I’ve always wondered why we haven’t been able to replicate our success.

Black pine snake mating activity Now yesterday we caught the two pine snakes in the throes of mating activity. I didn’t actually catch — or photograph — the actual act of intromission, but Lucifer certainly seemed to be trying, and was performing several stereotyped courtship behaviours as well. Fine and good — but it’s late February, which seems a little early. In past years, they were hibernating at this time, in separate containers. I wonder if our mistake — the reason why we’ve had such poor reproductive success — is because we’ve been hibernating them through their mating season?

Snakes, eating

Further to my previous report: the last two stubborn feeders, a male eastern garter snake and a male albino checkered garter snake, ate with relish this afternoon. Jennifer scented the fuzzies’ heads with worm goo, and the checkered garter had been given additional heat. Which means that every single snake that went off its feed in the fall is now eating again. (Only they didn’t go off all at once: in September it was the glossy, gopher and hognose snakes; by the time they started eating again in October, some of the male garter snakes stopped eating. As I said, all eating just fine now.)

Eat, snakes!

Good news on the snake feeding front tonight:

  • Recalcitrant garter snakes were offered fish fillet; all but one ate.
  • Newly acquired baby corn snake ate without having to be confined.
  • Longtime anorexic leucistic Texas rat snake ate a frozen/thawed mouse.

Virtually every snake that went off its feed earlier this fall is eating again. The garters are not back on mice, but that shouldn’t take long. Stinky poo in the meantime.

A garter snake update

Most of the recent news about our reptile collection revolves around garter snakes.

For the most part, the recalcitrant feeders are eating again, but most of the male garter snakes continue to be stubborn. I did not note differences in feeding enthusiasm in my article on the differences between male and female garter snakes, but I’m beginning to think that males might be more prone to go off their feed. Certainly there are Darwinian reasons for females to eat, eat, eat, eat; males can get by at a level much closer to subsistence. Piss-Boy, my male red-sided garter, went two months without eating in the fall of 2000 — he was too busy humping the female I’d just introduced him to. Priorities.

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More snakes are finding their appetite again (see previous entry). The female hognose snake and both Great Basin gopher snakes ate their mice like good little snakes last night.

Meanwhile, many of the garter snakes have been refusing meals here and there. This is a known issue, and I’m not overly worried about it.

Pinkies and acquisitions

After some tweaking of room temperatures and feeding methods, some of our recalcitrant feeders are starting to eat again: the leucistic Texas rat snake took its first mouse in two months, and the male hognose snake is back on his feed. (The others haven’t been tried yet; their next feeding is forthcoming.)

The new Okeetee corn snake was being stubborn about it too, but confinement — essentially, stuffing the little snake in a film canister with a pinky mouse — is working well: she’s eaten twice by that method. I’m confident she’ll be taking mice more enthusiastically, and without assistance, before long.

Acquisitions continue: yesterday we picked up a lovely juvenile female Cape Gopher Snake (Pituophis catenifer vertebralis), with plans to find a compatible male ASAP. She’s in quarantine with the Okeetee right now. I should take her picture or something; cape gophers, if you don’t already know, are stunning.

Other acquisitions are in the works, and will be announced once they’ve arrived.

Snakes in autumn

An update on our collection.

After four passes with Vapona (see previous entries), we’re tentatively declaring our collection mite-free.

I mentioned that we’ve been thinking of taking Pretzel off the breeding treadmill. Those plans are now more concrete: she’ll be put in a separate cage before mating season starts up again.

If we’re going to breed snakes, we need to increase the pool of breeders; if we’re not going to breed snakes, we should really scale back from what we have. We’ve decided, therefore, to get a few more corn snakes, with the eventual goal of having several pairs breeding at any one time. That should take care of pet store demand, provide enough variety, and provide insurance if not every pair is fertile. Jennifer has started this process; last weekend she picked up a hatchling female Okeetee corn snake, to pair up — eventually — with our two-year-old male. But it’ll be at least three years before any offspring comes of that pairing. We’ll probably get three or four more corns; we haven’t figured out which varieties, yet.

Falling autumn temperaturers caught us off-guard a bit, and several snakes have entered hibernation mode: the glossy snake, the gopher snakes and the hognose snakes have all gone a month without eating. I expect they’ll restart at some point, and am not yet overly worried: these gophers and hognoses are notorious for going off their feed from time to time.

An egg update

No black pine snakes this year; all the eggs have collapsed. (Some looked fine until you turned them over.) Oh well.

Mites, eggs and hibernation plans

We’re just finishing up the second mite treatment for the collection: after four days, we’ve removed the dichlorvos and are putting the water dishes back in. We’ve found quite a few dead mites in some of the cages, plus, I’m afraid, one small live one, in the ball python’s cage. This means that we’ll almost certainly have to do a third treatment. I suspect that the first dose (see previous entry) wasn’t long enough (it was three days instead of four), and the gap between it and this, second treatment was too long as a result of the vacation in the middle of it (they should be two weeks apart; it was three). Note for future reference. But we are killing mites — hopefully faster than they’re breeding. Cross your fingers.

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Mites, cleaning cages, and a reptile keeper’s secret weapon

We spent today recovering from yesterday, when, as part of our collection-wide treatment for snake mites, we cleaned every reptile cage in the house — all 34 of them.

We’d been on guard for mites for a while, since a snake that had been passed between our collection and a friend’s turned up with mites a while back (it doesn’t really matter who gave who mites, and it’s impossible to tell in any event), but we were reluctant to begin the treatment until we had definite confirmation that mites were present at our end. We only confirmed mites — on three snakes — a week ago today, which set the treatment process in motion.

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Black pine snake eggs!

Black pine snake eggs I wasn’t sure whether Lilith, my female black pine snake, was going to lay eggs at all — she doesn’t every year, and she’s usually the last to do so — but she’s laying eggs right now. Look!

Of course, there’s no guarantee that the eggs will be fertile; she’s laid slugs before. Cross your fingers.

Infertile bullsnake eggs

Infertile bullsnake eggs I wasn’t planning to breed our bullsnakes before next year, but the female had other plans: she laid two infertile eggs in the water dish overnight. In the water dish, because snakes like to lay eggs in moist places, and snakes who aren’t given nesting boxes — e.g., snakes who’ve never mated — frequently pick the water dish to deposit their eggs. That, or they get egg-bound.

This bodes well for next year, but I was really hoping for some nice, fertile black pine snake eggs. (Cross your fingers: Lilith is looking squishy and has been given a nesting box.)

Corn snake eggs collapsing

Meanwhile, our corn snake eggs are collapsing. I’m not sure whether it’s simply because Pretzel is no longer very fertile, or because we’re doing something wrong in our incubator. We (by which I mean Jennifer and I) may well have to have Kim over here for a consultation!

Necroscopy report

Jennifer performed a necroscopy on the Butler’s garter snake last night to find out what killed her. From what I can tell, it’s something completely different from what I anticipated.

To be sure, the snake died from starvation. That was the direct cause. There was no fat and very little muscle left; the snake had metabolized it all. But the reason for starvation was that something was blocking her gastrointestinal tract: with a compressed stomach, she had no desire to eat. At first she stopped eating mice, but continued to accept earthworms. Then, at the last, she refused earthworms: the blockage was too large even for worms.

But what was the blockage? What was the cause of the hard lumps I felt along her abdomen? I suspected organ tumours, based on her advanced age. Alternatively, I worried that it might be fecoliths — hardened fecal matter in the intestinal tract — which, unlike tumours, were both preventable and treatable (so if she died from it, it would be my fault). It turned out to be neither.

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Another Butler’s garter update

The Butler’s garter I referred to in previous entries (here and here) has now died. She had refused to eat earthworms over the weekend, which just does not happen with this species, so we knew her time had run out.

We’ll do a necroscopy this evening and find out what killed her.

Overall, though, I’m neither disappointed nor embarrassed (unless the necroscopy shows that we fucked up somehow). Six years is an extremely good run for this species, three times as long as the record. And the remaining Butler’s garter is still going very strong — she’s the big, hungry one who likes to bite.

At some point I should write an article on the long-term care of this species.

Pretzel lays eggs

Thirteen of Pretzel’s eggs are now residing in our incubator; she is now her usual gaunt and hollow post-deposition self. For some reason, her first clutch is almost always 13 eggs.

The eggs should hatch in late July; assuming no complications, the babies will be available after they’ve eaten three consecutive meals of frozen/thawed pinky mice — probably no earlier than late August, unless they decide to be stubborn.

Butler’s garter update

Dept. of Not Dead Yet. The problematic Butler’s garter snake (see previous entry) still has a bit of life left to her: she ate two nightcrawlers last night. (Sometimes, snakes that do not normally eat mice but have been trained to do so will, at certain points, refuse to eat mice but will continue to eat their original food; more about that here.)

Geriatrics and Butler’s garter snakes

Butler's Garter SnakesI’ve had two female Butler’s garter snakes (Thamnophis butleri) in my care since October 2000. They were only a few months old at the time, which means they’re now approaching six years of age. That’s nearly three times the record of two years in Slavens (which is no longer being updated), and I’m quite proud of being able to keep them alive for this long.

I’ve been wondering when we might start running into geriatric health issues with these snakes. Larger garter snakes can easily pass 10 years (Piss-Boy is at least nine), but smaller natricines seem to have shorter lifespans — Storeria’s record, for example, is somewhere between four and seven years — so Butler’s garters might be similarly short-lived.

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Pretzel is definitely gravid

Pretzel, our breeder female corn snake, refused to eat last night, and she’s definitely carrying eggs. She usually lays in mid- to late May, so she’s right on schedule. She still looks a little thin, though; I wish we could have gotten more mice into her. I shudder to think how hollow she’s going to be after egg deposition.

Hognose snakes feeding again

For the first time since coming out of hibernation in early March, earlier this week both hognose snakes ate the food they were offered. The male had eaten once before; the female hadn’t. Neither was looking particularly gaunt or had anything else visibly wrong with them; I can only surmise that they simply weren’t ready to come out of hibernation yet. Both, however, had shed shortly either the night before or the day before they were offered food this time, so maybe they need a post-hibernation shed before they start eating. (Note for future reference.)

Now let’s see if they’ll breed!

Corn snake breeding activity

Our corn snakes tend to start with the courtship and the breeding and the carrying-on in mid-April, and this year is no exception: they were making a right spectacle of themselves last night. On schedule.

A post-hibernation update

Between the date you bring your snakes out of hibernation and the date your female snake lays its first clutch of eggs (or has its first litter, if it’s a live bearer), the challenge is to get as much food into that snake is possible. For most snakes with healthy appetites, that’s not a problem, but there are some exceptions.

For example, my female Great Basin gopher snake has gone off her feed for extended periods during the summer — she’s from a Canadian bloodline, so I think she’s aestivating when that happens. In her case, it seems that hibernation actually helps her appetite, though.

Continue reading this entry »

Out of hibernation

All of our breeding snakes — the corn snakes, the Great Basin gopher snakes, the black pine snakes and the western hognose snakes — are now out of hibernation. They were down for a little longer than usual — nearly four months — as an experiment to see whether it would help. On the other hand, we weren’t able to maintain low temperatures in our basement: I’d been hoping for 12-15°C, and got 17-18°C instead. We’ll see how it turns out.

We only wish to catch a fish, so juicy-sweet!

It’s the middle of winter and two of our garter snakes — the smaller of our two Butler’s garters and our male plains garter — are turning up their noses at mice. This sometimes happens during the winter. So we’re offering them fish fillet, for now. I imagine they’ll start eating something healthier in short order, but in the meantime the implications are … smelly. Or at least they will be in a day or two.

Bad eggs

The gopher snake eggs went bad some time ago, and now Pretzel’s second clutch isn’t looking viable: most of the eggs have collapsed.

I wonder if these girls are simply getting too old? Unfortunately, I didn’t get them as hatchlings, so I have no sure way of telling how old they are. I’ve had Tosh for four years and Pretzel for six.

Feeding time

I mentioned yesterday that the landlord’s daughter looked after our apartment when we were off in the Maritimes. She was basically housesitting for the cats, frog, turtle and fish; one of the advantages of snakes is that they can be left alone for a week or two with very little risk. She was a trooper, but a little ambivalent about the snakes. Not to worry, we said: just change their water if they foul it and make sure they have enough of it; she wouldn’t have to feed them or touch them.

But curiosity persisted, especially among those who visited with her, viz., her younger brother and her boyfriend. So on Wednesday night we invited them over to watch us feed the snakes.

Watching snakes eat is always popular, and inevitably draws crowds. It’s not just that they get a perverse thrill out of watching them snuff the life out of some inoffensive little animal, as a city official once declared to me during by-law negotiations. It’s the amazement that the snake can eat something that big, and can do it without chewing, biting off into pieces, or table manners. It’s one thing to explain how a snake’s skull is flexible and can disjoint itself in several places where a human skull is fused together, quite another to see it in action.

So of course they ate up seeing the snakes eat up, especially the rat eaters, who looked about ready to explode. The gopher snakes went off their feed again (sigh), so their adult mice were redistributed; the Baird’s rat snake got one, after his hopper mouse, and looked enormous thereafter.

But it wasn’t just the ability to eat something huge, either; it was the speed with which snakes attacked their meals. Many of these snakes don’t move around real fast otherwise, so it was a bit of an eye-opener to see them strike (and in some cases constrict) in an instant.

All in all, they were transfixed. This is the sort of thing that will make us very popular with the local kids, and quite possibly very unpopular with their mothers.

Feeding corn snake babies; more eggs

Enough time had passed since their hatching that it was time we tried to feed the corn snake hatchlings. We’ve had trouble getting Pretzel’s babies to eat at the outset before, but this time we were luckier: five out of six ate their first meal without difficulty. The severely kinked one — the one that Jen manually pipped — did not eat, but it had not yet shed; again, Jen had to help. It’s not unusual for snakes to refuse their meals the first few times; to have only one refuse is the best results we’ve had with corn snakes, ever.

Meanwhile, Pretzel laid another ten eggs, which look good and are now in the incubator. She looks as gaunt as she usually does immediately after deposition, but not emaciated. I was worried for a while that she hadn’t fed up enough between clutches. But all is well, I think. Now to fatten her up before hibernation.

You are number 6

It was a hot one around here today — the kind of day around here where mammals hide in the basement and snakes shit all over their cages and in their water dishes (an all-too-obvious byproduct of being fed last Friday). And one of the eggs that Jennifer manually pipped yesterday actually turned out to be viable: our sixth baby corn snake is emerging as I write. Unfortunately another kinked one, and damned if I can figure out why.

Corn snake hatching update

Two baby corn snakes have emerged from their eggs so far.

Update (12:30 PM): Two more have emerged, one of which appears kinked in two places (damn). One still hiding in its egg, one apparently viable egg not yet pipped, the rest questionable to no good. (Incidentally, this would normally be considered a crummy clutch — only five out of 13? — but my standards are lower lately.)

Pipping now

The corn snake eggs are beginning to hatch. Two have pipped so far; none have emerged yet. It can take a few days for every snake to pip their shell and crawl out. With any luck, those that made it to this point will all be out by the end of the weekend.

Update: As of 10:40 PM, a total of five have pipped; none of them have crawled out yet. Another two eggs look good but have not yet pipped; the remaining eggs have collapsed or gone mouldy.

More eggses

We discovered three eggs from the Great Basin gopher snake this morning; she’d skipped last year because she was eating poorly, but her appetite is back this year. We’ll see if any of them will be fertile.

Meanwhile, the first clutch of corn snake eggs (previous entry) is approaching its due date, but many of the eggs have collapsed or are otherwise not looking good. At this point I’ll be happy with any hatchings. Given the heat wave, I expect them to hatch a few days early.


As I mentioned previously, Pretzel has been camped out in her nesting box. She’s been there for more than a week (here she is last Tuesday). We checked on her tonight: once we got Trouser out of the way — male snakes invariably hog the nesting box for some reason — we discovered that she’d laid 13 eggs, which look really good. They’ll probably hatch around July 10 or so, give or take a few days.

Killer Butler’s garter snakes, part two, and other updates

Further to my post last July, Jennifer is now, as of 30 minutes ago, the only person on the planet ever to be bitten by a Butler’s garter snake. The larger, more aggressive one — how often has that adjective been used with Thamnophis butleri? — was the culprit. Cheeky, ravenous monkey.

Feeding time otherwise uneventful. The new checkered garter has a good appetite despite his propensity to flip out when we’re nearby. Pretzel had her pre-egg-laying shed a few days ago and is camped out in her humidity box. Eggs should follow in about a week. Time to dust off the incubator. Literally.

Breedable garter snakes and a gravid corn snake

Last Sunday’s trip to the reptile show resulted in this new acquisition. The upshot of which is that I’ll be able to breed Checkered Garter Snakes in a year or two. Which is good, because for all my garter snake wankery, I haven’t had a breedable pair of garters in nearly two years. So add albino and normal Checkered Garter Snakes to our future projects list, though given the size of my females, possibly not before 2007 unless I feed them up heavily.

Pretzel is definitely gravid; she refused her meal last night and is big and squishy in her back half. (I wasn’t able to palpate any eggs, though that might be due to my lack of skill rather than their lack of developement.) So it’s safe to say that eggs will follow her next shed. It’s also safe to say that she’ll be her usual emaciated self afterwards. (Feeding her up will simply make her double-clutch. Keeping weight on her is a challenge, to say the least.) This didn’t stop Trouser from pouncing on her again — it was Saturday, after all (see previous entries: 1, 2).

Saturday night animal fun

Saturday night: the corn snakes get busy; Jennifer comes home from an open house — well, an open barn — smelling like cow, at which point Goober, who must have spent some of his youth in a barn, immediately tries to eat her hair.

Gotta cut back on the mice

Snakes in captivity are invariably fed too much. Keepers, particularly novices used to mammalian metabolisms, have a hard time grasping the concept that even once a week may lead to obesity. I’ve seen some hideously overweight snakes, with a thick layer of fat outside their rib cages. Snakes have low metabolisms, and in captivity they don’t exactly exercise much.

Our snakes are not overfed. This is as much a function of weekly feedings being stretched out to every 10 to 14 days as a result of scheduling as it is by design, but either way it works. Overall, I’m pleased with our snakes’ condition: they’re mostly lean and muscular, with little or no fat.

Even so, our glossy snake is looking heftier than she should, and that’s probably a result of her diet — not the amount or the frequency, but the kind. Glossy snakes normally feed on lizards in the wild, though they’re not strict specialists; in captivity they can and will take rodents, and ours has eaten nothing but since I got her in September 2001 (see previous entry). Generally, she’s preferred mice on the small size, and I think that’s because she’s not keen on fur: she ends up eating multiple pinky mice rather than larger sizes, though she’s been eating fuzzy mice (the next step up) recently.

I seem to recall (but cannot find the reference to it) that gray-banded kingsnakes — another lizard-eating species — that are kept long-term on a mouse diet accumulate serious fatty deposits. I wonder if that’s akin to what’s happening here. It’s not an unreasonable guess that a mouse diet is too rich for the glossy snake (though it doesn’t seem to be a problem for garter snakes; then again, they’re more active), though I don’t yet know what to do about it. (Lizards are not an option!) For the moment, I’ll try cutting her back some more and see if that helps.

New(ish) reptile photos

I’ve been putting up some of my older snake photos — finally! — and putting them into albums on Flickr. First, our current reptile collection, one photo per critter, with some photos a few years old. (But they’re good photos.) Second, some feeding photos; I’ve got some more of these coming. And third and most spectacularly, photos of the Red-sided Garter Snakes being born back in June 2002 (see previous entry). Enjoy.

Out of hibernation

The snakes are now out of hibernation and back in their cages. Another of the baby corn snakes didn’t make it, so we’re down to one, which at least ate a few times before we cooled it down. Lilith was very happy to see us again (see previous entry); the gopher snakes were more phlegmatic. Looks like Trouser is already quite active; Pretzel will no doubt be pounced on shortly.

Healthy but grumpy

We checked up on our hibernating snakes tonight, making sure that they were still alive and had clean water. All was well, if not necessarily happy.

True to form, the female Pituophis were not pleased to be disturbed; they hissed constantly and struck occasionally. Of course I took the opportunity to get photos; it’s not every day you get confronted by an angry Pit. (And a good thing, too, because if they’re trying to intimidate, they’re really good at it.) See also this photo of Lilith in addition to the one at right.

Par for the course: the gopher snake was angry at Florence and me in December 2001, and Lilith was loud and aggressive when she was brought out of hibernation in early 2003.

Too bad it never occurs to me to record the sound.

Unpleasant surprises

The female Baird’s rat snake, about which much concern and a trip to the vet this week, has died. This we did not expect; in fact, we thought she’d be on the upswing soon.

Also, one of the baby corn snakes we put into hibernation has died — the kinked anerythristic one that never once ate in its five months of existence. We thought that hibernation would reset its internal clock and make it want to eat in the spring, but it was apparently too far gone. The other one, however, is still fine, and we’ve just put the third baby into hibernation today — it’s had a few meals, mostly live, but has also stopped.

It’s never comfortable to report on snake fatalities. On the one hand, it’s an unfortunate and inevitable aspect of working with delicate animals. Sometimes, like the baby corn, which suffered from a major birth defect, they’re essentially doomed from birth. And sometimes, as in the case of the Baird’s, they’re acquired already sick and the symptoms aren’t necessarily conclusive. The Baird’s and her siblings were tiny for snakes of their age — even newborns a year younger would have been larger. Snakes are very difficult to diagnose: the breeders didn’t check for Strongyloides, and my first reaction was that the snake had been underfed rather than infested with nematodes. It can take a long time to realize that the snake needs a trip to the vet — and sometimes they die before there’s any indication that something’s wrong. I just thought we’d caught it in time this time. Damn.

On the other hand, I worry that being this open about things is setting myself up for random drive-by criticism from animal-care absolutists. I think talking about these things honestly will be useful for other people who are raising snakes, but as subcultures go, reptile keepers can be quite paranoid — sometimes with reason.

Good news on the snake health front

The Baird’s rat snake had internal parasites — specifically, Strongyloides. Treated with Flagyl and Panacur; will repeat Panacur in a couple of weeks. Fortunately not transmissable except via fecal contact so the rest of the collection ought to be fine. And once she’s clear of the little worms, she should start putting on some weight. She’s been eating well, but — as I guessed — the Strongyloides, which can inhabit the entire GI tract, were skimming the nutrition off the top. No wonder she’s so teensy.

A snake health update

On a happier note, our recalcitrant checkered garter snake has just eaten a half-pinky. Jennifer hypothesized that all the guts and goo might stimulate the appetite. I’m not sure if that’s what did it, but, what the hell, she ate. And I was on the cusp of hibernating her.

Vet appointment for the Baird’s rat snake on Thursday, which is pretty quick, comparatively speaking.

Another sick snake

Our female Baird’s rat snake, which we picked up from John and Paula (via Kim) last September, isn’t looking so good. She was small and thin for her size when we got her; at the time we assumed that she just hadn’t been fed enough. But, three months later, she still looks small, even more gaunt than before, and listless. Now I’m beginning to think that it’s internal parasites — maybe a long-term infection that’s been siphoning off the nutrition and stunting her growth. Or something.

Time to call the vet and get a fecal sample done. If it is parasites, then treatment ought to be straightforward; with any luck she’ll start sprouting once she’s healthy again.

Knowing my luck, she’ll drop dead before we can get her to the vet, or it’ll be something much harder (and more expensive) to treat.

Hibernation and regurgitation

An update on my last post on this subject. Hibernation is now officially under way: the two black pines went down yesterday. Last Thursday I finally found some low and wide 28 L Rubbermaid containers that were perfect for the task. It remained to melt holes in the sides with a soldering iron, add aspen and a water dish, and clip the lid down (it has locking handles, but I take no chances: we used a dozen clips apiece). Right now it’s 14°C in the hibernation area (about four feet away from where I’m sitting), a good temperature. We’ll check on them periodically, but otherwise they’re out of sight, out of mind until early March or so.

Meanwhile, the recalcitrant checkered garter did eat strips of fish fillet — our usual standby, ocean perch — on Saturday, as expected (see my section on problem feeders). Only to puke them back up again yesterday. For a while it looked like she was about to die on the spot, but she’s still with us this morning. Regurgitation in and of itself is not necessarily a problem, nor is it necessarily symptomatic of something more serious, but we’ll definitely be keeping an eye on this one.

We’d gotten the two checkered garters as insurance: they looked awfully small when we got them, and I wasn’t sure they’d survive. I thought that a year later they’d be over the hump, and I actually seriously considered offering this one for sale. Good thing we waited.

Hibernation time

It’s snake hibernation time again, for the first time chez moi since the winter of 2001-2002. (Florence did the hibernating in 2002-2003; nobody was hibernated last winter.) As it turns out, the living room in our apartment is not well insulated — the floor is quite chilly — which makes the closet a great spot to stow chilling snakes.

So far, the adult corn snakes and gopher snakes have been put into hibernation. (For technical details, see my page about hibernation at Gartersnake.info, which describes what I do with all of my snakes.) The pine snakes will follow once I get large enough containers to hibernate them in.

We’ve also put the two non-feeding corn snake babies — one of which has never eaten in its 3½ months of existence — into hibernation, in the hope that their systems will be kick-started by the spring. (They’re even refusing live pinkies, so it’s this, force-feeding or letting them die.) Another possible candidate for hibernation is one of the two yearling checkered garters, which has refused her last two meals: first I’ll try kick-starting her appetite with fish fillet — sometimes offering a garter snake something other than mice can restore its urge to feed.

Between last month’s sales and the hibernators, feeding time will become quick and easy — for a while.

Eggs starting to hatch

Three corn snakes — a normal and two anerythristics — have hatched so far; we found them yesterday morning. There are still two or three apparently viable corn snake eggs that have yet to pip, as well as the black pine snake eggs. Anyone’s guess as to whether any more baby snakes are to come.

Meanwhile, Florence’s leucistic Texas rat snake has begun to lay eggs. There was breeding activity earlier this year, but it’s by no means certain that these eggs are fertile. And one of her corn snakes may yet double-clutch.

Fertility’s been lousy this year, but it doesn’t mean that egg-laying is over yet.

A snake update

  1. We sold the last of the 2002 corn snakes yesterday: a male who didn’t want to eat frozen/thawed mice for the first six months of his life, but has since come on like gangbusters; he’s small as a result of that, and the fact that Pretzel is his mother (she’s kind of small herself).
  2. It looks like the corn snake born earlier this year has a kink in his spine. Drat. I thought he looked a little misshapen at that. Anyone want a slightly deformed baby corn snake that is nevertheless eating just fine?
  3. Three clutches in the incubator that are due to hatch in the next couple of weeks, but none of them are looking good. At this stage I’ll be surprised if anything hatches at all (it’s always good to keep your expectations low, but still). Not a good year.

Feeding and egg issues

The gopher snakes, on the other hand, don’t seem to feel like eating at all. I was concerned that the male may not be eating because he’s stressed out by the presence of the female — they’re housed together — and she’s been known to nip at him every now and then. He’s finickier than she is — it’s a snake male thing — but now neither of them are eating. (Update: She ate eventually.)

My current working theory is that they’ve gone into aestivation. We’ve had them on extra heat because we were concerned about their digestion. They’re from B.C. stock, so they may not be as comfortable with the heat. We’ll see. Inappetance is one of the most common health issues with snakes, and there are about a zillion reasons why a snake won’t eat.

Meanwhile, I just had a quick look in the incubator. Little Guy’s eggs have collapsed a bit — at least the ones I can see — and there’s mould growing in there. A sign that at least some of the eggs are no good. Only one of Ruby’s four eggs looks good — it also looks huge. No change on Lilith’s eggs: two white eggs, a little dry and dimpled but reasonably good nonetheless, and one smaller egg going greyish-brown.

Not a fecund year by any stretch, but that was expected.

Killer Butler’s garter snakes

It’s now safe to say that after nearly four years, my two Butler’s garter snakes have overcome the shyness that is inherent to the species. The hungry little fuckers were trying to eat my fingers tonight — I narrowly avoided being the only person on the planet ever to be bitten by a Butler’s garter.

Snake egg update

Florence reports that Ruby, her snow corn snake, is laying eggs right now. Four have been laid so far as of this moment, with number five imminent. She got to see number three coming out — a fascinating process, according to Florence. Assuming all goes well, Ruby’s eggs will hatch into either amelanistic (red albino) corns or a 50-50 mix of amels and snows, depending on which male got to her first.

This is as good a place to reiterate the updates from the previous thread on this subject. Of Lilith’s (black pine snake) three eggs, two still look good; the smaller one is discoloured and is almost certainly not viable. Little Guy (anerythristic motley corn snake) laid at least 10 eggs — I can count 10, but am not certain if more are not hiding underneath. Some are dimpling, collapsing a bit already. We’ll find out about these eggs for certain around mid-August, when they’re due to hatch, more or less.

Finally, the single baby normal corn snake has eaten its second meal without incident tonight.

Iron Chef Chelonian

Worm Salad The Iron Chef is offering one dish. The bitterness of the organic mixed greens is gently scented by the slime of the chopped nightcrawler, while the grated carrot and chard add essential nutrients for a growing turtle.

Tasting: The turtle ate the nightcrawler pieces but ignored the veggies. A bitter defeat for the Iron Chef!

Epilogue: When the turtle was finished eating her worms, we added a chopped strawberry to her plate and put her in it. She turned to clomp away, stopped, did a double take, and went back to eat the new treats. Though this morning most of the strawberry pieces were still there. Box turtles are finicky beasts, even when you’re trying to convert them to a more vegetarian diet at the age of three.

Back to you, Fukui-san.

Egg problems (updated)

It has turned out that the one baby hatched so far from Pretzel’s clutch will be the only one from that clutch. No other eggs hatched, so Jen pipped the ones that were supposedly viable yesterday. Fully formed snakes, but definitely dead — and with enough yolk remaining in the egg that it cannot have been recently. Which means that pipping them earlier wouldn’t have made a difference.

Meanwhile, Lilith (female black pine snake) is looking positively pendulous. She’s past due and I hope she lays them very soon. A trip to the vet for a dose of vasotocin would be expensive. Since Lucifer (mate) was occupying the nesting box all the time, we’ve temporarily removed him from the cage. Crossing fingers.

Also, Florence reports that Little Guy (female anerythristic motley corn snake) is also hugely gravid, past due and not dropping eggs yet. Can we get vasotocin in bulk?

[Edit: Updates in the comments.]

Pretzel’s eggs hatching

It looks like some of Pretzel’s eggs were viable after all, because they’ve begun to hatch. One baby had pipped as of yesterday and as of now has hatched. More or less right on time, too — they were laid on April 16 and at the time I’d guessed at a hatch date around June 11 or so. These things are never exactly precise.

We’ll find out soon enough how many other eggs end up hatching. Once these are done, there won’t be anything else for a while, since no other snake has laid eggs yet. (Pretz was really early this year.) But Little Guy (normal and anerythristic corns) and Lilith (black pines) are probably gravid at the moment, and I suspect they’ll be producing eggs any day now. I’d dearly love to produce black pine snakes again this year.

Clutch viability

It looks like only four of Pretzel’s nine eggs have any hope of hatching; the rest are collapsing or going mouldy. (Fortunately mould does not affect adjacent good eggs.) I suspect this has something to do with the fact that they weren’t hibernated — it probably affected fertility on both sides — but then again, her second clutch last year didn’t turn out that well, either.

Breeding update

In related news, Pretzel surprised us with nine apparently viable eggs on Friday. Laid on the glass floor of her cage. Even though it’s early for her — breeding was early too because we didn’t hibernate anyone this year — we should still have seen it coming: she had stopped eating and was pacing her cage frantically, both of which are symptomatic of a snake about to lay eggs. Oh well: no harm, no foul. She’s fine and the eggs are now in the incubator. Expected hatch date: some time around June 11.

Meanwhile, the black pine snakes — which didn’t breed last year — were making whoopie in their cage on Monday. This is a good thing: unlike most of the snakes we breed, black pine snakes sell well for good prices. They’re great snakes, of course, which is the whole point. Crossing my fingers.

Frisky snakes

Amorous activity in the corn snake tank this morning. Trouser, as usual, is living up to his namesake, pestering poor Pretzel. He even shed his skin in the process — all that rubbing and moving around, I suppose. (Last year’s antics were recorded here: 1, 2, 3.)

I hibernated no snakes this winter, which should discourage breeding this year, but it still doesn’t surprise me that the corn snakes are going at it — it’s about a month earlier than it would have been had they been hibernated. I would be surprised — pleasantly — if the Pituophis did anything, though. (Black pine snakes are expensive and sell well, heh.)

Crested gecko dies

It’s not a reptilian Golgotha over here, though you might think otherwise given my propensity to report every damn casualty in our reptile collection here. (And when you remove parasite-infested and neonate garter snakes and high-risk ringnecks from the equation, we’re doing very well over here, thankyouverymuch.)

This time it was the crested gecko, which Jen picked up a bit more than 13 months ago. He had essentially stopped eating, though we don’t know yet whether that’s the cause of death or merely a symptom of the cause. We’ll look into it. Lizard-keeping is quite different from snake-keeping; it’s not as straightforward, frankly. For example, he died fast by my standards — quicker than I could figure out what was wrong. Sigh.

Note: Entries prior to November 2003 did not have categories assigned to them, and are not included in category archives; please consult the monthly archives.