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Keeping Large Constricting Snakes: The Rewards and Responsibilities

By Ed Ferrer


As a "herp" hobbyist, I have kept a good number of large "constricting" snakes. Although the public often thinks of constricting snakes as huge pythons or boas, many snakes subdue their prey by constriction. That includes corn snakes, and other rat snakes, king snakes, milk snakes and many others. But the large snakes always capture the public's imagination. When I did educational programs for schools, libraries, and other groups the hands down favorites of my audiences were my large boa constrictors and Burmese pythons. Their beauty and size always left a lasting impression with them. But I always emphasize that these species do not make good candidates to be kept by beginning "herpers". Anyone thinking of keeping large snakes should do a lot of research about the possible consequences of handling these large serpents. Too often a novice pet owner brings a relatively small snake into the house only to be surprised to find in a couple of years the snake has grown too large for its enclosure and often the child has lost interest in his "pet" and the parents are faced with finding a solution to the problem. (Hint most all zoos cannot accept due to strict restrictions.)


Occasionally a snake may inflict a major injury and even more rarely a fatality. And then the media has a field day with volumes of negative publicity. So, what snakes can grow to a size that might make them potentially dangerous to humans? Only five species reach a size that might be considered a risk to humans. These are the:

  1. Indian python, python molurus, of which the Burmese python is a subspecies')

  2. Reticulated python, Python reticulatus

  3. African rock python, Python sebae

  4. Green anaconda, Eunectus murinus

  5. Amethystine python, Morelia amethistina.

Only two of these species are commonly found in the pet trade, the Burmese python and the reticulated python. These snakes are normally docile giants and are undemanding "pets" that adapt well to captivity. However, these snakes are deceptively strong and respond to primitive stimuli.



How can these snakes be kept safely? Let's examine what makes a snake bite. Snakes generally have poor eyesight. So, any rapid movement might provoke a defensive strike. Since snakes do not have legs to defend themselves, they are "head shy". Any movement toward the head might be perceived as a threat causing a strike. (This rule must be emphasized with children because kids often want to pet the snake on the head, like they would a dog or cat.) Also, always know where the head is. Sometimes when snake is coiled up it is difficult to see the head. Then you might mistakenly touch its head. In such a case, I would take a long item and gently touch the snake. It will normally move a little so the head will be revealed. Be sure to wash your hands and arms thoroughly before handling your snake. If you have touched a pet or and furry object that scent might be on you, and they may strike in a feeding response since the scent may be mistaken as a prey item. An enclosure is the snakes own territory so if you reach in to pick it up it might strike protecting it territory. Since snakes do not have eyelids, they don't technically sleep. But they sometimes seem to go into a trance like state when resting. So, being touched during this state might surprise it, just like if someone sneaked behind you and you jerked.


A few more rules regarding large snakes:

  1. Never handle a large snake alone! Since these large snakes are so surprisingly strong; I always encourage people to use the "eight-foot rule" when handling a large snake. That means if a snake is eight feet or longer have a second person should help you hold it. If it is twelve feet or longer a third person is always a good idea. Whenever I did programs, I always had one or two adult "Volunteers" help hold my Burmese pythons or large boa constrictors. (Since the children had already been involved during the program, normally the adults got a kick out of being part of the show also.

  2. Never allow a huge snake to roam around freely in a room occupied by other people. Sometimes a person might make a fast movement or trip over a snake or step on it leading to a dangerous situation.

  3. Do not rest a large snake on your shoulders. It might look cool, but a sudden move and the snake might end up around your neck. It is amazing how fast a person could be choked to death.

  4. Always keep your large snake in a secure locked, escape proof enclosure. Aquarium cages with screen tops are not safe no matter how many weights you put on top. They will always find a weak spot and push their way out!

  5. Never handle a large constricting snake while drinking alcohol or other drugs that might impair your judgment. DUH! These activities often make people take liberties which that they wouldn't normally try.

In all my research in Indiana I know of only two incidents that have resulted in a fatality. In both cases the accidents happened when the victim was trying to handle a huge python alone! Another fact to consider is that there has never been a case where a large serpent has escaped and caused a human fatality. Therefore, large constrictor snakes are not a danger to the general public. The danger is only to the owner who was aware of the risks. I don't go cliff diving because I don't think I can jump far enough to not end up crashing into side of the cliff. That risk I decide not to take. But after considerable research and taking reasonable precautions, I have decided to keep these large pythons and boas. Why should hundreds and perhaps thousands of responsible "herp" hobbyists be limited by one or two tragic accidents? Many people drown every year but there is no ban on swimming or boating. People should be held accountable for their actions. If they are found to be irresponsible, there may be some legal problems.


Clearly the best answer to response to animal issues is education all exotic animals. The issues should be decided by the experts and scientists in these fields and not some restrictive knee jerk reactions to misconceptions and rumors. The Hoosier Herpetological Society has always volunteered to assist in forming reasonable policies to protect both wildlife and the public.

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