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Confessions of an amateur herpetologist

March 16, 2012

Throughout my childhood, if someone asked me what I feared most I would always say ‘snakes’. Contrary to this professed phobia, which is believed to be an innate fear in humans, I was fascinated by the idea of finding snakes in the wild and would spend hours in the fields close to my parents’ home and alongside the railway line, where they were believed to bask, hoping to see them. Despite the efforts however, sightings were rare; a glimpse of a grass snake in a field of thick grass once; the discovery of a dead grass snake on the side of the road from which I cut off the tail as a trophy; and the even rarer sight of an adder swimming across a pond and slithering into the undergrowth very close to my feet. Beyond such fleeting encounters, my fascination and curiosity remained limited to studying them through the glass of zoo and reptile centre enclosures and watching documentaries.

I was in my late twenties and married before I took the opportunity to handle a snake for the first time. I still remember the occasion well as it was during a ‘reptile encounter’ session at a zoo local to my home to which we had taken some young relations on a day out.  Recollections of the snake itself are a bit fuzzy but I seem to remember it being a young python or boa constrictor about a metre long. What I remember more than anything is my heart pounding and my hands shaking as I took hold of the creature for the first time. Typical of such scenarios however, that initial fear turned quickly to wonder and also the realisation that the experience was very different from the one I had perhaps imagined.

From that point onwards, I have handled snakes whenever the opportunity arises and far from being horrified when my youngest daughter expressed an interest in reptiles and the desire to own one, I have encouraged her. So, for the last six months we have been joint owners and carers of a corn snake that she calls Sidney and I call Celeste. As yet the snake is unsexed but I somehow suspect we will reach a compromise on the name even if it turns out to be a female and call it Cyd.

So far, ‘Cyd’ has proved to be the most interesting pet either of us has cared for and for anyone considering owning a snake, I would summarise our findings from the last six months as follows …

  • Corn snakes are very docile, curious and friendly creatures. Cyd has been handled by many visitors, young and old, and has never shown any aggression. (Some good tips here on snake handling).
  • Cyd only needs feeding once a week and eats a single baby rat, about 1.5 times its own girth which we buy frozen from the reptile centre. You let the rat defrost in hot water for about 10 minutes and put the snake in a separate container from its main home to feed it. Personally I find the process much less distasteful than feeding the cat with his mucky, stinky pouches of food.
  • The relatively small quantity of food consumed one end means that very little waste is produced the other which means we only need to clean the enclosure once every 4-5 weeks
  • Cyd has been growing steadily on his weekly feed of rats and it is fascinating to watch the feeding process and also the periodic skin shedding as the snake grows. It’s all far more interesting than the average behaviour of creatures like gerbils and hamsters.
  • Corn snakes are fascinating creatures from a genetics perspective too as many years of selected breeding has created a wide array of colour and pattern variations, from the typical orange colouring of wild snakes to the black and grey markings of snakes like Cyd, which is described as ‘type A anerythristic’ or ‘black albino’
  • Some types of reptile can be difficult to look after however, the corn snake thrives in captivity. In the wild their average lifespan is 6-8 years but they have been known to live for over 20 years in captivity.

We’re guessing Cyd is about 10 months old now and is approaching a metre in length. If Cyd is female, she could grow up to about 1.8 metres long and need a 40 gallon vivarium or bigger. In the meantime, current lack of funds means we have used some old aquarium glass and bits of laminated chipboard I had left over from my kitchen redevelopment to build a better home for Cyd than the plastic starter tank.

To finish it off nicely and help keep Cyd interested in the new home, my daughter and I went hunting for driftwood and found a fantastic gnarled, hollow tree root. After sterilising it in the dishwasher and baking it in the oven to remove any contamination or parasites, we added it to our homemade vivarium and it has been very fulfilling watching all the different ways Cyd explores it, basks on it and hides inside it.

All in all, a very positive experience of amateur herpetology so far :)

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