Venomous snake handling: an overview of snake tongs

Tongs are a very useful tool for moving, capturing and restraining venomous snakes. Midwest's Gentle Giant tongs are the best on the market for gentle handling that is not stressful or harmful to the snake, because of their extremely wide grip. Even large bodied snakes can be lifted with the Gentle Giant tongs with minimal fuss or struggle.

The downside of the Gentle Giant tongs is that they are fairly heavy and can be difficult to maneuver into small spaces where a snake might be hiding. They aren't the best choice of field tongs for these reasons, but they are excellent in the snake room for safely and gently moving animals around.

There are two other styles of tongs on the market. The Pilstrom style tongs are narrow and scissorlike, with the top jaw fitting inside a deep groove in the bottom jaw. I refer to these as "a snake chiropracter's nightmare" and suggest that they are good mainly for moving waterbowls and heavy cage furniture. An experienced handler can use them safely on snakes and some people like them very much for this purpose. However it is much too easy for someone less experienced to squeeze down hard enough to put harmful pressure on a snake's spine, so I don't generally recommend their use on live animals. I have personally seen and treated an uncomfortably large number of injuries to venomous snakes caused by inexperienced and frightened handlers using Pilstrom tongs. These durable and useful tongs are still an excellent tool and it's a good idea to keep at least one set around for the heavy cage maintenance tasks that no other tong can perform.

If weight is a consideration in a field tong that will be carried on a hike, you can pad and widen the jaws of the Pilstrom tong with foam rubber and duct tape to make it a safer capture instrument, or use the much more humane WhitCo product. Whitney/WhitCo tongs are better adapted for the handling of live snakes than the Pilstrom model; they do not need to be padded and they are much less likely to cause injury to the animal. At one time this product was being manufactured by the owner of an exotic skin and leather shop who participates in rattlesnake roundups. However I recently received an email stating that WhitCo has ended its association with the skin shop and that they do not support rattlesnake roundups. The text of this email statement can be read here. I applaud this stance and can now review their product in good conscience.

Several companies out of Pakistan and at least one in the US are producing cheap knockoff tongs of very bad quality. The Pakistani producers seem to be using the other tong manufacturers' products to make their molds so the end result will look similar, but the quality of the metal and the fittings they are using is poor.

Be very careful of buying from the lesser known imitators as some of them offer extremely shoddy products that may break in your hand with an angry venomous snake on the other end, as depicted here on one of Midwest's t-shirts. Reputable companies manufacturing good quality snake handling equipment include Midwest, Furmont Diversified, WhitCo and Pilstrom. Beware of cheap imitators. There are some "homemade" products produced in small quantities by enthusiastic herpers with access to machining tools; some of these are quite good and some of them are best avoided. Please use your own good safety judgement when choosing your handling tools. Saving $15 or $20 by purchasing a less expensive tool is not much of a savings compared to a $15,000 hospital bill.

So of the three basic tong styles, which one should you choose? The answer for the serious handler is really "one of each". The Pilstrom tong excels in cage maintenance tasks; both of the other styles perform poorly when it's time to lift a brimming bowl full of cobra poop out of the cage without spilling any, or moving hide boxes and heavy branches around in a cage. The WhitCo is arguably the best field tong, lightweight and easy to carry. It's also quite maneuverable for duelling with the faster, lighter snakes in your collection. The Gentle Giant is unmatched for gentle, stress-free snake moving for everyday maintenance in your snake room, and can be used on large bodied snakes that none of the other tongs can handle safely. All three are durable tools that will give you many years of good use.

Two different ways of grasping a snake with tongs are illustrated here. In the first photo above, Buddy is handling an adult Florida cottonmouth by holding her lower body and keeping the animal's body mostly supported on the ground. In the second illustration, a very bad tempered blacktail rattlesnake (Crotalus molossus) is being grasped around the upper part of his body in order to limit his strike range. His body is also being supported on the ground, and he will be pushed and dragged across the floor rather than picked high up off the ground.

Ground support or the additional support of a hook is essential for heavy bodied pit vipers because their fragile spines can be dislocated or broken with their unsupported weight alone. Crotalids should never be picked up with tongs and allowed to dangle or struggle as serious injury can result. Elapids and colubrids have much more tolerance for being lifted entirely off the ground with tongs, but they don't seem to enjoy it and may struggle more under tong restraint than they would on a hook.

This image illustrates how a snake's body may be supported on a hook while the animal is being lifted with tongs. This decreases the pressure on the snake's spine. The lifting should still be as brief as possible.

Never grab a snake by the neck with tongs as this will cause pain, injury and increased struggling. Grasp a smaller snake or a harmless snake midbody or lower. Grasp a large snake about 1/3 of the way down from the head to limit the distance it can strike at you. You may also try to tong a snake on the lower third of its body to drag it, but make sure that the tong is longer than the remaining length of snake.

Regardless of which style tong you are using, try not to lift a snake fully off the ground with tongs for longer than a few seconds without some other form of body support. You can use the tongs most effectively to slowly drag a snake across the ground in a "come-along" hold, pushing the animal into the sturdy safety container you have ready for it. Try to bring the container to the snake rather than the other way around to keep your handling time and stress on the animal to a minimum.

You can read product reviews of tongs and other snake handling products, and post your own reviews at the Southeastern Hot Herp Society website.

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