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Venomous Snake Handling Heresies

Table of Contents

Disclaimer
Heresy I: Handling Hots Is Easy
Heresy II: It's Safe To Be Around Venomous Snakes
Heresy III: You Can Get Away With Stupid Handling Tricks (for awhile)
Heresy IV: Snakes Have Mood Swings
Heresy V: All Snakes Are Not Created Equal
Heresy VI: There Are Six Kinds Of Venomous Snakes
Heresy VII: How To Not Handle Your Venomous Snake - safer daily cleaning and feeding routines
Heresy VIII: How Definitely Not To Handle Your Venomous Snake (humor)
Heresy IX: Heresies and Holy Commandments of Herpetoculture
Helpful Links

Disclaimer: Handling venomous snakes is a high risk activity, and a mistake can maim you for life or kill you. It should best be left to professionals and very serious private collectors who are willing to devote a significant percentage of their time, energy and money to the safe maintenance of their collections. This is not a hobby to dabble in casually or lightly, but one that many of us are committed to because of our fascination for these beautiful and highly evolved creatures. It is a serious committment and a major responsibility, because of the very real danger involved not only for the keeper, but those around him or her.

Heresy I: Handling Hots Is Easy

You've already read the disclaimer. Now here's the heresy, which also happens to be the truth. Handling many kinds of venomous snakes is actually very easy if you have good tools. Anyone can do it, and most people will get away with it for quite awhile even if they do stupid things. Snakes are basically good natured creatures and much more interested in running away if they get upset than in biting. Even if you pluck them up by the tail or mess about with them on hooks, most snakes aren't prone to biting except as a last resort. There are a few exceptions by individual and by species, but this is a basic truth.

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Heresy II: It's Safe To Be Around Venomous Snakes

Evolution did not design small, elongated, fragile-boned creatures to voluntarily tangle with larger animals that can kill them with a moderately hard stomp. Biting a larger, nonprey animal may cost a snake dearly. It can get stepped on and fatally injured. A snake's teeth are easily damaged, and its precious venom supply is needed to obtain food. It will risk a bite to save its life, but it would rather not. A bite does not necessarily save the snake's life in any case. Venom takes time to act, and in that time, the intruding animal is likely to have succeeded in killing the snake anyway.

One of the most venomous snakes in Asia, the black and yellow banded krait (Bungarus fasciatus) has a deadly but painless neurotoxin. Its bite will paralyze and kill its food (smaller snakes), but it is not an effective deterrent to mammalian predators because it is a painless bite. By the time the neurotoxin has any effect on the bigger predator, the snake will already have been eaten. This snake reacts to handling by hiding its head and waving its tail as a decoy. It does not threaten to bite because biting is not its most effective defensive reflex. Snakes with more cytotoxic venoms that do have an immediately painful, deterring effect on a predator seem more behaviorally inclined to use their fangs to defend themselves, but for the most part this is still a lose-lose fight because the angry predator is still likely to retaliate in a way that is fatal to the snake before the venom can take full effect. The only situation in which the snake ever really wins a confrontation with a larger animal is when it successfully escapes without biting.

Snakes don't want to bite people; they want you to go away and leave them alone. That's why they hiss, puff, rattle, hood or stridulate. They are advertising that attacking them is a no-win scenario, rather like mutually assured destruction in nuclear war, and they have the weapons to back up their bluff if necessary. But they would really rather not use them at all. Unless you force a snake into that no-win scenario on purpose or by accident, you are generally quite safe even if you are in close proximity to a venomous snake.

There are a few notable exceptions. Cottonmouths may approach humans willingly out of curiosity or just plain poor eyesight, mistaking a pair of moving shoes for a tasty rat. A few snakes may be partially or seasonally territorial or defensive of their young, although this is quite rare - only a few instances of nest brooding and defense have been reported in venomous snakes. But as a rule, it's actually safe to be around venomous snakes as long as they aren't cornered, blundered into, grabbed or otherwise threatened. Stay alert and keep your distance, and chances are excellent that they will keep theirs.

If you were to walk into a room where some unwise person had dumped a dozen assorted free-roaming cobras and rattlesnakes, you could relax, put your feet up and read a novel, and watch them all try to hide miserably in the corners. If they get to feeling really confident after a few hours, they might start to feed on one another. It is doubtful that they would much bother you as long as you didn't do too much stomping around to upset them. Just don't relax too much and go to sleep, or some might snuggle up to you for warmth and comfort, and then you are in their immediate strike range with no good way out of it in a hurry. Here's why this can be a problem, even if the snake really doesn't want to bite you.

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Heresy III: You Can Get Away With Stupid Handling Tricks (for awhile)

For the reasons detailed above in Heresy II, you can quite often get away with taking some pretty extreme liberties with a venomous snake. You can get inside its strike range where it is physically capable of biting you, and nothing may happen. This fact often encourages people who have gotten away with this a few times to continue doing it, confident that nothing will ever happen. Maybe you will get away with it a hundred times. The tragedy happens when the odds catch up to you the hundred and first time, and the snake that never bit you before reacts unpredictably and does what it was perfectly capable of doing all along. If you are physically within its strike range and something unexpectedly triggers a defensive or feeding reaction, you will be bitten.

A lot of things can trigger a defensive or feeding strike. Your body heat can do the trick for a pit viper. The scent of anything resembling food can also do it, even if that scent is just wafting along on the breeze. If you move "wrong", either like prey or like a predator looming over the snake, you may be bitten. You really don't know what the snake might suddenly decide to do, or what kind of behavior some unknown stimulus might trigger. So it's much smarter not to give a snake the physical ability to bite you in the first place, even if you believe that it is unlikely to try to bite. There is no such thing as a "tame" venomous snake in the sense of being completely trustworthy. Even a captive bred, hand raised corn snake might have a bad scale day while you are handling it. Most keepers don't mind taking that small risk, because a corn snake bite can be fixed up with a Band-aid.

The consequences of a venomous snakebite are absolutely horrible. Huge hospital bills, agonizingly painful loss of a hand or finger as your flesh slowly melts off the bone in necrosis, long term health impairment, loss of renal functions, dialysis, internal hemorrhaging and of course death. These are the things you are risking when you put your hands in a position where a venomous snake is physically capable of biting them. This is really a very poor risk, so it's a good idea to take the extra minute to take more stringent safety precautions than you might think you need. A truly determined and motivated snake can accomplish some amazingly acrobatic feats, and you don't really know what might suddenly motivate it.

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Heresy IV: Snakes Have Mood Swings

Experienced keepers can mitigate the risk by being very aware of the behavior and habits of the species of snake they are handling, or of the individual snake they are handling. A "good" snake shows its nervousness and stress clearly in its body language, with signals that you can read. A "bad" snake may appear calm, but then strike hard and fast and repeatedly without warning. It is actually easier to deal with a cobra that is hooding and telling you clearly that it wants to bite, and where it plans to strike, than a Gaboon viper that sits motionless like a fat rock until it explodes into a powerful and deadly strike that it can launch anywhere around its body.

We can make very good guesses, but the fact is that we don't know why a snake might suddenly decide to bite. A snake's perception is different from a human's. They "hear" and smell things that we may not be aware of. Is there a mouse nesting in the wall that might trigger a feeding response? Did the vibrations of a jackhammer from a nearby construction site stress out this animal last night? Is it in pain from internal or external parasites or disease you haven't detected yet? Is this snake just plain having a "bad scale day", did it get up on the wrong side of its hide box this morning? The fact is that you don't know; there may always be behavioral factors outside your knowledge or control.

You can't really apply human standards to your snake, of course, but you should be aware that there are factors you might not be aware of that can affect its behavior. When the consequences of unpredictable behavior in your snake can mean hospitalization or death for you, it's a good idea to stay alert - and not to give a snake a chance to bite, even if you think it won't.

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Heresy V: All Snakes Are Not Created Equal

Many types of venomous snakes are easy to handle. You can get away with doing all kinds of things to them and not get bitten. If you try those same handling techniques on some types of venomous snakes, you will be bitten faster than you can say, "Expensive hospital bills".

Great prowess in handling rattlesnakes will actually land you in trouble with cobras, because those good instincts you have developed with rattlers will be telling you where this new snake's strike range and physical limitations are, and you will be dead wrong. The same applies the other way around; cobras telegraph a strike fairly well and rattlesnakes do not, so even though their physical abilities are more limited in many ways, their strikes can be less predictable and just as fast.

Other species present their own problems. Aussie elapids and arboreal elapids can fly off a hook and squirt around a room like greased spaghetti, Gaboon vipers explode into somersaulting strikes over their own tails and cottonmouths can wind up on you for sideways snaps that are hard to see coming. Individual snakes also have their quirks and surprises.

Temperature matters. A lot. A snake at 90 degrees is literally not the same snake that you knew at a comfortable 82. They can get faster, more nervous and defensive at an exponential rate with every degree the temperature goes up. If you try to assess and predict a snake's behavior at a higher temperature based on its known reactions to you at a lower temperature, you can get into deep and serious trouble.

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Heresy VI: There Are Six Kinds Of Venomous Snakes (as far as a handler is concerned)

There are six basic handling categories that most venomous snakes fit into. Don't take these as absolute gospel or a snake in one category will surprise you by doing something completely different, but these are good general guidelines.

1. Small to midrange ground vipers and small ground elapids

Examples: Agkistrodon (cottons and coppers), most rattlesnakes, shieldnose cobras, coral snakes, Cerastes and Pseudocerastes

These are the snakes most likely to be predictable in their habits and reasonably docile or at least manageable because of their size and limited physical abilities. Useful handling tools are hook and bucket, hemostats and restraint/examination tubes. Handle them over a bucket or the bathtub, and if you lose control and drop them, there is no disaster if your container is tall enough that they cannot climb out. Keep alert and focused, but there is no need to panic. If you need breathing room to think and plan, that is what the tall bucket is for. These are good snakes to learn on.

The bigger ones (4' plus) can be tailed, but it's wise to also keep a hook laid around the head and over the neck to keep them from striking back at your hand, which they are all fully capable of doing. Keep the tail elevated and at an angle and the head close to the ground, so they are slowed down by gravity from reaching your hand on their tail. A lot of these snakes (especially the ground viperids) are paranoid about being lifted, and they must be firmly supported or they may panic and thrash. If they do panic, drop them in the bucket and try again. Many of these snakes will accept a ride on one or two hooks with minimal fuss, so you never actually have to lay hands on them.

There are exceptions, but these snakes are not usually too bad about being tubed. Stick the open end on the snake's face, and usually it won't give you too much hassle about crawling on inside. Tongs and long hemostats can be used to move things around in their cage, offer food items, etc, but are not really recommended to use directly on the snake because of the risk of injury. A hook climber can be discouraged by a gentle hook and pull around the neck from a second hook, or a gentle tap on the nose. Either technique may cause the snake to fall back into the bucket, which isn't a bad thing if you've kept it low to the ground.

Another good technique for small (under 5') snakes in this category is the plastic bowl. Attach a long handle to the bottom or side of a plastic bowl, and use it to simply cover the snake while you are working around it in its cage. You can also slip a flat sheet of plastic or metal under the lip of the bowl and lift the contained snake out. This is basically a mobile shift box or trap box, a handling tool that is optional for snakes in this cateory but absolutely essential when you get into the more nervous and fast moving venomous snakes. A standard shift box is a solid construction of plastic or wood with a sliding door that you can trip shut with hook or tongs from outside the cage. Left inside the cage, a snake will tend to spend a lot of time inside where he feels secure. A shift box can be constructed that is transparent on the inside on one or more walls, with an opaque covering that lets the snake feel safe in a small, dark place.

One of the handiest ways to move around very small venomous snakes is with a modified dustpan. Sweep or hook them into it gently. Make sure your modified dustpan has a long handle and high walls on all sides but one, and wear heavy gloves or use some other form of additional hand protection. Dump the little ones directly into a tall bucket from the dustpan.

These snakes are easy to handle with the right equipment. Consequently, do not underestimate them. Even though a moment of inattention with these slower, less mobile snakes is less likely to result in a bite, make an effort to discipline yourself and to stay alert and focused. Overconfidence can literally kill you. Here's what a bite from a neonate copperhead can be like - painful and expensive.

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2. Arboreal viperids

Examples: eyelash vipers, Wagler's, Pope's, Atheris species

Some are docile, some are nasty little tree snappers, but what they all share in common is being harder to get off a hook than on one. Despite some elaborate husbandry necessities with these guys that can mean increased hands-on time for the keeper, these are relatively easy snakes to handle and some of them can be good for beginners. If you want to successfully keep arboreal hots, you should have husbandry experience (or a good source of advice) with other delicate, finicky arboreal snakes.

A bucket with a lid and a straight perch (like a bird perch) will keep these guys happy while you are cage cleaning. Getting them into a tube can be a pain as they knot themselves into pretzels on branches or on your hook, but some deft maneuvering with two hooks often does the trick. They are much happier about going in a tube if you can deposit them in a bare bucket or bathtub first. Often arboreals will climb hooks, but they are usually slow and deliberate enough about it that you can keep them under control with two hooks or by rotating one hook to keep them off balance and away from your fingers. There are some arboreals that can give you a real workout on a pair of hooks; learn to play cat's cradle with them and keep them wound up so they can't come up at you.

Arboreal vipers are beautiful but can be real stress puppies and husbandry nightmares, so handling them as little as possible is a good idea. These snakes can show dramatic changes in color when they are unhappy about something in their environment, so if you notice unusual darkening or dulling, it's time to figure out what is making them unhappy. It might be you; the less they see of their keepers, generally the better they do. Consider investing in one-way mirrored glass coating, and don't get too enthusiastic about playing with your arboreal hots, even if it is fun and relatively easy with a well behaved specimen.

Don't forget that many arboreal hots survive in the wild by catching birds on the wing. They can shoot out a surprisingly long ways from a tight coil with those venomous little fangs pointing at your tender flesh. Your reflexes are not faster than a hummingbird's, so have plenty of respect for your arboreal hots and keep your fingers at the long end of the hook. The strike range of a 3' arboreal viper coiled on top of a branch is very close to 3' - it only needs a few inches of its tail to cling to the branch while it throws its head at you fangs first.

Chris Jones' excellent testimony about the remarkable abilities of arboreal vipers to strike faster and farther than you might expect from their body length follows.

"My female chloroechis has always been very laid back. I have had her in with the male for a month (thanks for the great advice, Derek)and I think she's gravid. Anyway, I knew she had to use the bathroom so I drew some lukewarm water in one of those medium-sized tupperwares (the size just above the shoebox) and put her in it. The water was approx. the same temp as the air, so she went in with no hassles.

"I came to get her out several hours later (and yes, there WERE HOLES IN THE BOX)and after checking to see where she was, removed the top. As soon as I did, SHE LUNGED AT ME barely missing the palm of my right hand (which was slow anyway due to having the lid in that hand). I knew they had a long reach, but it truly took me by surprise.

"For all of you who have gotten a comfortable position with your arboreals, remember: they can strike farther than you could ever imagine. I'm not saying that everyone should get rid of their hots, but it was definitely the right decision for me." - Chris Jones, snakeman1@home.com

More good information about arboreal vipers can be found on the Wagler's Viper Care Page, the Atheris Page, the Bush Viper Page and the World of Atheris.

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3. Quirky Bastards

Examples: Baby Gaboons, rhino vhipers, Hoplocephalus and Tropidechis (small but aggressive Australian elapids), some large and bad tempered arboreals, Vipera nikolskii (by one keeper's account), coral cobras (A. lubricus), many individual snakes from listed species with particular temperments and athletic ability

Snakes can surprise you, but some snakes tend to suprise you more than others. There are a few species that appear to be small and manageable or even docile at first glance, but they are no fun at all to deal with. They may wiggle, squirm, fight, fly off hooks, climb the hooks, strike without warning, charge straight at you or have other nasty habits that cause their keepers to want to use strong tools and stronger language. Their only saving grace is that you can probably muster enough brute force to argue with them head-on and win. These fellows aren't nearly as dangerous as their bigger cousins, but they are very annoying.

Your very best friends in a situation like this are plexiglass shields, hoop nets, capture tubes, trap boxes and buckets taller than the snake is long. Hooks can be used, but these scaly little terrorists are just as likely to explode off of them without warning, so you might as well start by using less escape-prone tactics and save yourself the stress. There are better ways to get your exercise than chasing a psychotic little toe-nipper around the room, or running from it.

Some testimony from keepers regarding smaller snakes that can pack a bigger wallop:

"Maybe you need to add another category to your list. "Hops" (Hopocephalus species: Stephen's bandeds, pale headeds and Broad heads) and Rough Scaled Snakes Tropidechis carinatus are very snappy, a moderate size (about 2 ft) but they are absolute buggers to hook." - Scott Eipper, pailsei@hotmail.com

"One of my absolute most spastic animals is what you probably would put in the first category. whereas behavior-wise, I would create a whole new folder for "insane terrestrial viperids"..My 1.0 V. nikolskii is an absolute "Nightmare" (no kidding) he will try running up the hook, turn on you on the floor and advance, biting everything from carpet to hooks to whatever he can get his fangs on- and the only predictable thing about him is the fact that *He Will* behave in such a manner.

Even putting him in a garbage-pail is a nightmare as he'll on the way up there bounce off the hooks a number of times (and those who say Aspidelaps are runny have never met this guy- I've currently got 7 Aspidelaps in my care, & comparatively they are pussy-cats). When in the garbage pail, he Freaks totally out, somewhat resembling a "scared out of it's mind Sinaloan/Pueblan on speed" thrashing like nothing I've ever seen- thus making it that much more of a pleasure putting him back into the cage.

"May sound unintimidating as the animal is about 50-60 cm, but the fact still remains - an animal at this size purposely advancing on you is waay more scary than an animal 4 times the size which has no other desire than to run away..Job well done on classifying these by behavior, however be aware of the danger of this. As you know, all animals have their own personality- thereby making it hard to generalize.. As this is said- my previous male & my current female were/are not anywhere near as hard to deal with as this guy- both high-strung but reasonably... The snake in question is currently kept at 38-42 F, but will still hiss violently when taken out for a check-up...Now that's admirable! :-)" - Susan Hunter, vipera4@hotmail.com

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4. Midrange to large ground elapids, some particularly fast and aggressive viperids

Examples: Most true cobras, many Australian elapids, some of the more aggressive Vipera

What's long, strong, wiry, supple snappier than a rawhide bullwhip and slipperier than greased spaghetti? Oh, and it can kill you, and it probably has a nervous, high-strung temper. Welcome to the wonderful world of elapids, I hope your insurance is paid up and you know where the antivenom is stocked. Just as importantly, you should know the species' traits and preferably the individual quirks of the snake you're handling. They differ a lot, but here's a few good general guidelines.

Cobras like to telegraph their strikes, and throw a lot of bluff strikes at you even if you are well out of range. If you can keep their attention while they are angrily biting out at the air in your direction, at least you know where the danger zone is. Some cobras don't give you that courtesy, and will just go right for you and try to nail you. These are the "bad snakes" that nobody likes to handle. Treat these miserable bastards like category 6 elapids and leave them in their nice comfy trap boxes where they can't kill people. Keep in mind that on a bad scale day, any cobra can act like this. Some just do it more habitually than others.

Cobras often like to take a few bluff strikes, then turn around and fly right off the hook to go hide under your heaviest python cages, so it's almost a necessity to tail them. Some people use tongs, if they have a delicate enough touch and can maneuver them to prevent injury to the snake. Tongs can definitely reduce the likelihood of injury to you, but they are more hazardous for the snake. If you must use tongs, please use Midwest's Gentle Giants as they are the least likely to be harmful to the snake.

Essential tools for messing around with these guys include hooks, tongs, a bag net, shift boxes, restraint tubes and a large garbage can with a lid. If you lose control of one for a moment, there is no respite and no second chance unless you jump back into the fray immediately. You can dump them into a garbage can, but you should be ready to slam the lid on fast lest they come launching right back out like a SCUD missile. You will have more laundry to do but less garbage can escapees if you leave a bunch of crumpled up pillowcases on the bottom of the can. This provides an instant hiding zone that some nervous snakes will be attracted to, so they will burrow down rather than shoot back up.

It is critical to have a large, open and relatively empty space to be able to work with large, fast elapids. In a small space, you may not be able to move out of the way fast enough to avoid being bitten by one of these lunging, striking snakes. Clutter in your snake room is bad, since it blocks you off from maneuvering and gives the snake more places to hide or climb.

Here's Dr. Wolfgang Wuster's testimony on why it can be absolutely crucial to give yourself plenty of space to work with fast, aggressive elapids.

"One recommendation that I kind of missed was that of giving yourself plenty of SPACE for working with the larger, faster species, especially large elapids + Bothrops. I find Asiatic cobras pretty straightforward to deal with, PROVIDED I HAVE PLENTY OF SPACE to avoid or outmanoeuver the snake. One of my closer calls with a cobra occured in a Zoo in SE Asia, where the keeper wanted to show me an abnormally coloured N. kaouthia. The snake was housed in a row of cages along a fairly narrow corridor. The keeper pulled the snake out of its (small) cage and onto the floor, and, as it happens, it landed only about a foot from my feet. A postgraduate student of mine was standing directly behind me, looking over my shoulder. The wall of the corridor was behind her. As a result, I had nowhere to go when the cobra reared up and took a decidedly uncomfortable (to me) interest in my right kneecap, well within striking range. Since the only object at hand was my umbrella, I placed the handle thereof between my knee and the cobra, which promptly responded by biting the umbrella handle and covering it with venom. A lot of venom. Waaaaaaaay more venom than the estimated human lethal dose of 15-20 mg (Minton & Minton, Venomous Reptiles). Fortunately, my postgrad then realised that a rapid exit would be A Good Idea, and we beat a hasty retreat, before thanking the keeper for showing us this interesting specimen. The experience gave me a much more profound appreciation for the need for space when dealing with large venomous snakes. My postgrad decided that I must really be English rather than German, since only an Englishman would try to fend off a cobra with an umbrella..." - Wolfgang Wuster, w.wuster@bangor.ac.uk

These animals are not recommended for beginners. Please have some years of handling experience under your belt before you play with cobras, unless you really feel the need to put all four of your doctor's kids through college. They are fast, they are tricky, and they are not one bit forgiving of a moment's inattention or a mistake.

Here's some more information on Australian snakes. Excellent information can be found here on Raymond Hoser's site Another fine source is Peter Mirtschin's Venom Supplies Ltd page. Also land a click on Brian Bush's homepage for excellent information on the comparative toxicity of Aussie snakes. Cobras.org is a fine information site about cobras in captivity, but appears to be down currently.

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5. Giant ground vipers

Examples: Adult gaboons, large Bothrops (terciopelo), bushmasters, some of the large, aggressive rattlesnakes (Eastern diamondback, Neotropical, Canebrake), extremely large cottonmouths (5')

Don't underestimate these guys. The combination of raw muscle power, short range speed, wide strike range, unpredictable strikes and massive venom delivery make them among the most lethal snakes on the planet. Tangling with one is a tough battle and you can lose, even if you have the right tools. They have a lot of muscle power to back up their arguments if they don't want to do whatever it is you want them to do. Physically handling or restraining one is definitely a two person job, both to protect you and the snake. They can easily injure or kill themselves if they are inadequately restrained and they are allowed to thrash.

Useful tools for these guys are long, heavy hooks, shift boxes, plexiglass shields, tongs, plexiglass or padded restraint boards, heavy duty bagging nets, and a lot of patience. They can usually be persuaded in a slow, comfortable manner to see things your way and urged to crawl into a latching shift box for transport or examination. Often they will take a ride on two hooks without much fuss.

A skilled keeper with good luck and good health may never need to argue directly with one or have to restrain it, and this is definitely for the better. Some of these large ground viperids can be tailed, but gaboons especially are stronger and faster than they look, and such a snake can certainly nail any target on or near its tail. They get even stronger and faster as the temperature rises, so it's really best not to lay hands on these snakes at all if you can help it.

If you must lay hands on one at all, it is best to do it quickly and decisively, and go for a really good pin with the help of an assistant or a padded board to restrain the body so the snake cannot thrash. At a minimum, you need two padded pinning hooks. Normal, unrestrained handling with these snakes can result in real disaster, as they are strong enough to physically overpower a casual, inattentive handler very quickly. They are frighteningly good at throwing off a neck pin, flying off the hook and in some cases bodily slamming their way out of less than perfectly sturdy enclosures when they are sufficiently upset. These large viperids can shatter glass with their strikes, or snap the plastic closure on a garbage can lid. They are the sumo wrestlers of the snake world - they may look fat and sluggish, but they are incredibly powerful, deceptively fast and capable of truly devastating moves.

Here's a testimony from handler Mardi Snipes about the physical capabilities of the Gaboon viper.

"Concerning tailing Gaboons and Rhinos, I have seen people get away with this before. I recently, however, witnessed a near bite by a large adult Gaboon when a friend tried to use the tail/hook method of moving this large snake. He thought this would be safer for the snake, as opposed to just lifting the snake with one hook. The snake, at first, seemed to cooperate, but suddenly lunged and came within an inch of his hand. Both of us were taken aback with this acrobatic feat performed by this heavybodied snake. The person handling this snake was not new to venomous and we both learned a lesson: Always expect the unexpected!! I hope this will remind all of the Bitis keepers that their "lazy" snakes can and will in fact do the unexpected." - Mardi Snipes, Coastal Reptiles (www.coastalreptiles.com)

It is clear that the Bitis species are physically capable of exerting sufficient strength and speed to pull up and bite any target on or near their tails, making any attempt at tailing them an extremely bad risk. Other very strong and muscular ground vipers include Bothrops atrox (tercipelo or fer-de-lance), some other large Bothrops (alternatus, jararasccu) and Russell's vipers. A few extremely large and aggressive cottonmouths can also demonstrate formidable musculature, particularly A. p. piscovorus and leucostoma. Respect their capabilities and don't underestimate the terrible power and speed of which they are capable.

Here's some good advice from Dr. Wolfgang Wuster about how some of these large terrestrial vipers can be genuinely nasty customers, some of them with the speed and aggression of a fast elapid.

"I would group the larger, slenderer species of Bothrops (large B. asper, B. atrox) with cobras for handling - they can chase you around the room pretty effectively on a bad day, and really act very differently from any large rattlers I have ever had anything to do with. The thicker Bothrops (eg., B. alternatus, B. jararacussu) tend to act slightly more like rattlers or Bitis. - Wolfgang Wuster, w.wuster@bangor.ac.uk
Some good information about gaboon vipers in captivity can be found here on Dexter's page. Learn about the rhino viper here.

If you're wondering how bad a fer-de-lance bite could be, here's a clinical account of bites by Bothrops species.

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6. Arboreal elapids and opistoglyphs, some large ground elapids

Examples: Mambas, tree cobras (Pseudohaje), boomslangs, adult forest cobras, O. hannah (king cobra), adult Pseudonaja, taipans

There is a reason that a black mamba's head looks like a coffin. It can easily put you in one. Arboreal elapids are fast, alert, nervous and a few can sometimes be dangerously aggressive. Critical tools for keeping these snakes include a shift box, long tongs and a long hook. Your setup should be designed in such a way that you can completely avoid having to hook out or handle the snake. Waiting until the animal is in the trap box and latching it shut with a hook should be sufficient to allow safe cage maintenance, transport and if necessary medical examination if your trap box has one or more internal transparent walls. A "habitrail" inspired setup that allows you to plug a tube into the trap box might be helpful if you need to medicate or examine the snake hands-on.

Boomslangs and twig snakes should also be put into this handling category. Although their individual temperment can vary widely, they have many of the same physical capabilities and similar behavior. If you are bitten, boomslangs require a specific monovalent antivenom that is not readily available, and the consequences of a bite can be fatal if you don't have immediate access to this antivenom. There is no antivenom available for the bite of a Twig snake. Even though these snakes are rear fanged and usually reluctant to bite, they should not be underestimated. A large, wild caught boomslang can be extremely challenging and dangerous to handle. Captive bred and long term acclimated specimens may be quite docile. Green mambas (angusticeps and viridis) tend to be calmer and easier to handle than blacks (polylepis). Jameson's mambas (jamesoni) are somewhere in between; these are nervous, high-strung snakes.

Other arboreal rear-fanged snakes can be agile, particularly Boiga species (mangrove snakes), but do not present the same handling challenge or have a comparable venom. Some particularly aggressive or fast and nervous large ground elapids such as the king cobra, the inland taipan and the Australian Brown snake also belong in this category.

Arboreal elapids are horribly fast, and if they are removed from their cages, they are very difficult to control. They are fast, alert snakes that can fly with surprising speed up walls, over cages, up your hooks and all over you. Grabbing them by the tail is extremely dangerous because they are long, strong and fast enough to turn around and bite before you can adequately control their heads with a hook. If they are over 7' in length, even a long hook may not be adequate to keep them out of strike range. A garbage can is of some use, but they are more likely to seek escape out the top of it than go voluntarily down inside to hide as many snakes will. The best handling tool for these snakes is a Midwest Pro Bagger.

Handling these snakes should be left to the experts, and even the experts can get bitten. Keep plenty of antivenom in stock if you keep these species, and take the time to design an intelligent setup that minimizes or eliminates the necessity of handling them.

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Heresy VII: How Not To Handle Your Venomous Snake - safer daily maintenance routines

Self discipline is an important part of venomous snake keeping. Sure, it's fun to handle your hot herps - but you can have that fun spread out over a much longer and healthier period of time if you restrain yourself to the minimum amount of hands-on time necessary to maintain your collection. Most "handling" does not need to involve your hands at all. Don't forget that every time you put your tender body parts within reach of the sharp pointy end of a venomous snake, you are at risk of extremely severe consequences. Are they worth saving a little time? A good keeper has many specialized tools that help him or her minimize the risks and the stress, both to the keeper and to the snake. It's smart to use them. Anything that helps put distance between you and snake fangs is generally a good thing, even if it takes some extra time and patience to use.

Taking unneccessary risks is not the mark of a skilled handler. It more closely resembles the kind of careless, abusive and macho behavior seen at rattlesnake roundups. It might look exciting in front of your audience, but it does not do the snake's stress level any good. Or yours, either.

A skilled keeper will be able to set up his or her collection so that day to day maintenance routines such as feeding, cage cleaning and watering can be done with minimal risk and stress to either the keeper or the snake. Here are some good ideas for making your everyday maintenance routines a little safer.

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Heresy VIII: How Definitely Not To Handle Your Venomous Snake: Rastus Ledbetter's Venum Page

Click here to meet Rastus Ledbetter, a character originally created by an anonymous genius on the kingsnake.com venomous forum and brought back to life here to give would-be snake keepers some truly bad advice. Green mambos, anyone? A herp humor links section is included.

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Heresy IX: Heresies and Holy Commandments of Herpetoculture

In the great time honored tradition of the CYA (that's Cover Your Ass), most pages on keeping and handling venomous reptiles have a tendency to assume the reader is a layperson, a child or an idiot and issue strong parental warnings that this is an unsafe thing to be doing. This may in most cases be a correct assumption, but I would rather not proceed that way. I hereby assume that you, the reader, is a sane and mature adult who is competent to understand on your own that venomous snakes are in fact venomous and can hurt or kill you. Proceed with them at your own risk.

Here are a list of the standard Holy Commandments of herpetoculture, and my heretical revisions on them.

Holy Commandment: Venomous snakes are dangerous. We do not recommend than anyone handle them or keep them, especially laypeople.

Heresy: Venomous snakes are beautiful, fascinating and majestic creatures. Keeping them can be quite a challenge, requiring a significant investment of your time, money and emotional energy - but it can be done, and some species are actually fairly easy to maintain safely in captivity. No words of caution or carefully written disclaimers are going to stop anyone from keeping who is really determined to do so. While there will always be individuals who make the Darwin Awards by doing something foolish with their "pet" venomous snakes, the majority of venomous keepers are responsible and sober individuals who are successful with their hobby. Responsible private collectors and breeders have contributed significantly to science and to the conservation of rare species, and they should be encouraged.

Holy Commandment: Telling people how to handle venomous snakes properly would encourage them to try it, so we should restrict information to discourage them. Only The Sacred Priesthood of zoological professionals should have this information. Let's not talk about it in public.

Heresy: "Just say no" is not a good strategy. This is akin to suggesting that we should deny people information about birth control so they will stay celibate, or not to talk about drugs so people won't take them. It doesn't work. It is better to make clear and concise information freely available so that when people do have sex (or handle venomous snakes), they will be able to do so in a safer way. Adults must be allowed to freely assume their own risks, and should be clearly and truthfully informed of exactly what those risks are and how to mitigate them.

Feeding the public a simplistic party line about how terrible all drugs are, or how dangerous all venomous snakes are, eventually backfires in a big way when people do experiment and find out that the Establishment is not being completely honest. The fact is that there some kinds of venomous snakes and some kinds of drugs which are significantly more dangerous than others, and some which are much less harmful. If the community is not forthcoming with the true facts about which kinds are less dangerous than others and how to use them in a safer way, and instead tries to lay down a thick and uniform blanket of prohibition in the hopes that no one will take any of these risks at all, the results are not generally good.

The free spread of truthful information is a good thing, and it benefits all of us. There are plenty of dumb macho rednecks who are talking about how to handle venomous snakes, and most of what they say is dangerous misinformation. If that's all the information that people ever see, it's bad for the novice snake handler who might believe it, and it's bad for the experienced snake hander, surrounded by people who think all snake handlers are such dangerous idiots. For an extreme example of the kind of silliness that goes around under the guise of instruction about snake handling, take at look at Rastus Ledbetter's Venum Page. This is a parody page. Fortunately. But there are some folks out there who aren't that far off of his mark.

Holy Commandment: Only the Sacred Priesthood of professionals should aspire to handling or keeping venomous snakes. Amateurs and hobbyists should be discouraged or outlawed.

Heresy: Most people agree that there is a necessity for serious professionals (zookeepers, scientists, venom extractors, etc) to handle venomous reptiles. They are The Sacred Priesthood, and allowed to do things that mere mortals should never even aspire to or think about. What most people don't understand is that this priesthood is not immaculately concieved. They did not spring from Poseidon's brow or hatch from particularly weird snake eggs. We all started out as laypeople who were interested in venomous snakes. There is a clear process of learning and studying before "ordination", but it is an ongoing process, not a Secret Unfathomable Mystery. If you completely discourage all amateurs and laypeople from participating in the learning process, where do you expect the next generation of professionals to come from?

Holy Commandment: You must never sell a venomous snake to someone who is not a qualified keeper. You have a responsibility to know that someone is a qualified keeper before you sell to him or her.

Heresy: In the absence of malice or obvious negligence (selling to a 14 year old or a visibly drunk person, etc), a seller should not be responsible for a buyer's misuse of his product. Reasonable prudence should be exercised by a seller, but putting the burden on a seller to do more than believe in good faith he is making a legal sale to a sane adult is not reasonable. No one should be required to be another adult's Mommy and follow him around to make sure he is doing things safely and wearing his sweater when it gets cold. That is the responsibility of the adult.

To take away or strictly regulate all people's rights to purchase potentially dangerous things would put us in a kindergarten with padded walls. There are a great many things in this world that can be abused or misused with harmful or fatal results, and some of them are considerably more dangerous than a snake that is unlikely to harm anyone who is not directly threatening it. It is not possible and not desirable for any government to attempt to regulate its citizens to the extent of making life completely safe and foolproof.

Holy Commandment: Escaped venomous snakes are very dangerous. They could kill a whole school full of children or maybe a convent full of nuns. That's why we think it is justified to keep tight regulations on who may and may not keep venomous snakes.

Heresy: To the best of my knowledge, there have been zero fatalities in American history from a venomous snake that had escaped and bitten an unrelated person who was not handling or trying to capture the snake. An escaped snake is a scared, shy, nervous snake, and the chances that it will voluntarily approach a human being are slim to none. There is some danger than it might be accidentally stepped or sat upon if it takes refuge in an area commonly used by humans. However, if a scared snake has a choice, it will certainly not choose to remain in a high traffic area.

The primary reason to regulate the keeping of venomous snakes is to protect people from themselves. Governments do this; they pass laws about seatbelts and motorcycle helmets because they don't like to let their taxpayers kill themselves by doing risky things, so they put limits on people's rights to do risky things. The bugaboo of an escaped snake killing innocent bystanders has some basis in fact - certainly it MIGHT happen - but it is a lot less likely than people claim.

There are basically two kinds of climates: the kind where venomous snakes live, and the kind where venomous snakes die. In the former, e.g. Florida, native populations already exist, and a single escapee is likely to go off and join them with minimal impact on humans. (Impact on the snake population is a different story, and this is a very good reason to keep your cages secure). In the latter, e.g. Canada, your miserable escapee is going to curl up and die in short order. In either case, the myth that there are alligators in the sewers of New York is just that, a myth. Same goes for king cobras in your basement, unless you are keeping them there on purpose.

Holy Commandments We Can Live With

Holy Commandment: You should never handle a venomous snake if you have been drinking or are under the influence of drugs.

No Heresy Here: Nothing to disagree with, several things to add. If you handle a hot snake while you are under the influence of anything that impairs your reflexes, judgement or perception, you are bucking for a Darwin award and great posthumous embarrassment. "Anything" includes not only recreational substances, but lack of sleep, illness, emotional stress or personal trauma. Don't forget prescription and over the counter drugs can also cause impairment. If you are too impaired to drive, you are much too impaired to handle snakes.

Holy Commandment: Always house venomous snakes in secure cages and keep them under lock and key.

No Heresy Here: It's not good to let your hots escape, not only because it's dangerous and expensive, but because it is highly stressful to the snake and it may get injured or killed. You can invest a few extra bucks in a good solid cages with locks, or have a locking, escape-proofed snake room and use an inexpensive rack system with plastic shoeboxes.

Most hardware stores sell under-door guards, which are stiff black sheets of rubber that screw on solidly and press flush against the floor. These may be sold as insect guards or weatherstripping, so that's what to ask for. They are an essential piece of equipment for your snake room. Don't forget to pick up some metal screening mesh to install over any vents, and some caulking or expanding foam to close off cracks in the walls or under baseboards. It's a good idea to crawl your snake room on your belly, poking your littlest finger in every potential crack and crevice, until you are absolutely certain that there are no possible places for a snake to escape into.

Holy Commandment: Don't show your hot snakes off to friends, or let your friends in to play with your snakes.

No Heresy Here: Another fine way to rack up a Darwin Award is to be paying more attention to impressing somebody than to controlling a snake. Doing more risky things so that you can show off how skilled a handler you are is not only foolish and dangerous, but more stressful to the snake. Mostly you end up giving the impression that you aren't a very experienced or very smart keeper if you do too much risky showing off. This includes on-camera stunts, and this is the reason that certain well known television personalities attract some annoyance from the serious herpetological community.

There is no material difference between showing off your venomous snakes to impress your friends, and showing off risky handling techniques in front of the media, except that you have the opportunity to make an ass of yourself in front of a great many more people. A skilled handler can get the same results and elicit the same desired behavior for the camera without taking unnecessary risks. There is a fine line between educating people and showing off, and it is mostly defined by whether or not you are cutting corners on safety proceedures in order to make it look more exciting or entertaining to your audience.

A snake room needs to be clear and uncluttered so that you can keep control of the snake. You don't want it to be able to hide under things and you don't want to be tripping over things if you have to move quickly to contain it. Clearing the room of clutter means clearing it of unnecessary people as well, even if they are also experienced handlers. Add inexperienced people into the equation, and it can cause even more trouble. Two people can work a snake together, but more than two people on the same snake are likely to run afoul of each other and cause accidents. Working more than one snake in the same physical space at the same time is also a potential disaster in the making, so a good general rule is two handlers in the snake room and no more.

Holy Commandment: Know what to do in case you are bitten. Stock antivenom or at least know where the nearest supply is, and have written snakebite protocols ready in your snake room. Keep a phone nearby so you can call for emergency help.

No Heresy Here: Some helpful snakebite protocols can be found just below in the Links section. Print them out and keep them in your snake room. Take them with you to the hospital. The Central Florida Zoo keeps tags on each snake cage, which a keeper must remove and pin to his or her pocket before opening the cage. In the case a keeper is found unconscious, the species of the snake that bit him or her can be immediately determined. This is a good protocol, but an even better one is not to work alone, and to make sure your partner knows what to do in the event of a bite.

It is very smart to do research the clinical effects and case histories of envenomations for every species of snake you keep. The accounts of badly botched bite treatments that keep coming across on the medical herpetology forums clearly indicate that you cannot trust a random doctor to treat you properly for snakebite. This goes double for exotic species. It is wise to go over these protocols with your doctor before an accident happens, and to be your own best advocate in insisting that you recieve proper treatment for your bite. If you are unconscious, there should be someone who can advocate for you.

Although antivenom is demonstrably the best treatment for envenomation, many doctors are reluctant to give it or to give it in sufficient quantities. Contributing factors include the early (in my belief, stupidly, unnecessarily, unjustifiable early) official expiration dates on antivenom and the possibility of anaphylactic or allergic reactions to the serum. Because there are rarely any official, "by the book" protocols for snakebite even in major hospitals, physicians are more reluctant to administer drugs they do not understand and have no experience with. Because of the lack of official protocols, they may feel that they are more likely to be liable in case of a lawsuit if they use this unfamiliar, unapproved drug. Imported antivenoms are not officially approved by the FDA, even though they are proven effective in their country of origin. This can cause you serious problems if you are bitten and the doctor in charge of your case does not wish to risk using antivenom.

I don't want to be sued either, so I won't tell you what to do - but I will tell you what I would do if I were bitten. If you agree that you will read this account as a personal narrative and not as a medical prescription or recommendation for what you should do, click here for what I would do in case of a bite.

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Helpful Links

General information and care
Species and locations of interest
Forums to ask questions
Venom and bites

General Information and Care

Our favorite links to articles about venomous and general reptile care.

Melissa Kaplan maintains an excellent site for herp resources.

Viper's Venomous Page offers some nice photos and good advice for keepers.

A fine collection of snake links, including many good venomous information pages, is maintained by B.J. Herbison.

Even if you don't live anywhere nearby, you will find the Southeastern Hot Herp Society page a valuable resource online, with a chart of the venoms of North American snakes and extensive snakebite information and photos.

Species and Locations of Interest

A really fine article about the Florida cottonmouth by Peter G. May and Terence M. Farrell can be found here.

The National Geographic online guide to the King Cobra is a fascinating interactive feature.

An online guide to the broad banded copperhead can be found here.

The American Rattlesnake Museum is located in Albequerque, New Mexico.

Crotalus atrox or the Western Diamondback is a snake to be reckoned with, the second largest rattlesnake in America.

The Herpetarium also features informational pages on the Midget Faded rattlesnake, the Prairie rattlesnake and the Western massasauga. Visit the main page of the Texas A&M University-Kingsville Serpentarium here.

Gerald Keown's Venomous Snakes of Texas is a good local guide.

Florida Museum of Natural History's Guide to Florida's Venomous Snakes Here's another guide to Florida's venomous snakes by the Florida Sportsmen's Conservation Association.

Learn about the Venomous snakes of Tasmania here.

For Acanthopis fans, here's Raymond Hoser's page about death adders.

Forums To Ask Questions

Kingsnake.com offers several chat rooms, some excellent venomous forums and venomous classifieds. This is a site worth exploring.

Venomous Mailing Lists

Melissa Kaplan has collected a great number of Herp email discussion lists on this page.

The Herpgrrls list is a forum for women in herpetology, focusing mainly on issues specific to women in the field and serving as a mentor group to share opinions and advice.

Venom-l is a list for venom research and medical professionals and those with a serious interest in biological toxins. Students and seriously interested parties are welcome to participate and ask questions, but this is definitely a professional forum that expects professional level conduct from its members.

The Southeastern Hot Herp Society maintains a mailing list for both members and interested hobbyists, researchers and conservationists. For more information on the SHHS, visit the SHHS web site.

Venom and Bites

HerpMed is Steve Grenard's excellent medical herpetology site, with links to the informative venom-l listserv, venom databases and snakebite information.

Steve Grenard's Snakebite Emergency Page. What to do if you are bitten. Print out this handy guide and the one below, and leave a copy in your snake room. You might be glad you did.

Snakebite Protocol is a collection of case histories and bite protocols written by Dr. Terence Davidson. Well worth a printout.

Good photos and case histories of bites are collected at the Southeastern Hot Herp Society snakebite page.

Here's a page detailing what I would do if I were bitten. This is not medical advice.


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