Caring For Hot Herps: Everyday Routines With Venomous Snakes

Caring For Hot Herps: Everyday Tools and Techniques
Capture Tubes
Using Tongs For Daily Maintenance
Safe and Unsafe Places to Handle
Securing a snake in a hide box (photos and text)
Photo: Reaching into cage with hemostats
Photo: spot the hidden Gaboon viper
Photo: Cleaning Gaboon poop with hemostats
Photo: using a plastic shield inside the cage
Safely Closing A Cage (photo and text
Picking Up Hide Boxes (photos and text)
Photo: securing a lid on Rubbermaid container
Back to the Handling Heresies page

Caring For Hot Herps

Disclaimer: I do not recommend that anyone start keeping venomous snakes based on reading this web page. If you are seriously interested in this exotic hobby, please take the time to learn directly, under proper professional supervision. Contact a herpetological society, a zoo or your local Fish and Game office to find out about accredited keepers near you, and about the legality of keeping hot herps in your area.

Probably the most important thing to remember is that there is very rarely a good reason for you to put your hands on a venomous snake. Professional tools such as tongs, snake hooks, hemostats, securable hide boxes, capture tubes and plastic shields will serve you very well in handling these animals inside their cages or during their transfer to temporary secure containers for transport or cage cleaning. You can keep a hot snake in captivity for many years, assuming all goes well, without ever having to lay a finger on it. Safety tools such as trap boxes, hooks, tongs, bagsticks and tubes are essential to the venomous keeper. Some of these tools can be easily and inexpensively improvised at home. Click here to read more about the basic handling tools and techniques you will need to safely work with venomous snakes.

Good safe handling techniques will protect both you and the snake from unnecessary risk and stress. Pinning and grabbing a snake behind the head should generally be avoided whenever possible because of the health risk to the animal. Vipers in particular have very fragile necks and weak supporting muscles, and are at high risk of injuring themselves when forcibly restrained. Sliding a snake's head into a tube is a much gentler and safer way of restraining the animal for examination. If you don't need to perform scientific or veterinary procedures on an animal, just lifting it unrestrained from one cage to another on a hook or in a secured hide box is much easier and less stressful to the snake.

Patience is a good rule of thumb. If that bad tempered cobra is agitated and particularly aggressive today, wait for a few hours or until another day to clean that cage. It's not good for the snake or for you to stress an animal beyond its temper and tolerance. You can always put a hide box in the cage and wait until the animal goes inside. Eventually you will catch it in there. Keep checking every hour or so, and chances are good you'll find the snake waiting for you in the box. If your makeshift trap box doesn't have a door, you can bag the entire box by pushing it into a pillowcase on a bagstick or a Pro Bagger with a hook.

Capture Tubes

I keep a few herps with notably poor tempers that are difficult to pin and grasp safely, like the shieldnose cobra (Aspidelaps scututatus). Such animals are best examined up close in a capture tube when they have veterinary needs.

A capture tube is a clear plastic tube just large enough to accommodate the snake without its being able to turn around. It is open at one end and firmly sealed shut at the other. Once the snake's front third is solidly in the tube, you can grasp its body just below the tube to stop it from backing out, and do things like take fecal swabs, administer medication, palp the snake, etc. Normally, you can just poke the open end of a capture tube over a snake's head, and it won't give you too much trouble about climbing inside, especially if he is in an unfamilar environment and is looking for a safer place to hide. But there are always exceptions. Really obstreporous snakes can be tubed most easily with the help of a Pro Bagger or a gentle pinning of the upper body.

It is critical to support the entire length of the snake's body in or out of the tube, as otherwise it may thrash and injure itself. Injections may be given or blood samples taken through the tube if you have perforated it in advance, or if the tube is just a short "mask" over the head and neck that leaves the rest of the body exposed in your hands. You can administer feedings or oral medication to a snake in a short tube. Click here for more detailed articles and photo tutorials on tubing snakes.

Using Tongs And Hemostats For Daily Maintenance

Here's how I cope with a terrible tempered little burrowing cobra. He's cute and almost comical looking, but I don't like putting my hands in that cage, especially since he is a burrower and it's hard to tell exactly where that pudgy little orange and black sandworm is at any given time beneath the substrate. So he gets a disposable deli cup waterbowl that I can move in and out reliably with long hemostats. These useful tools are available at medical supply houses and also sold by Midwest. For a larger waterbowl or cage furniture setup you can use Pilstrom style tongs to move these items in and out for cleaning. I don't recommend using Pilstrom style tongs on live snakes as they are a bit of a snake chiropracter's nightmare, but they are indispensable for cage cleaning tasks. Click here to read an overview of the different tong styles.

Safe and Unsafe Places to Handle

Clutter and carelessness is the enemy of the hot herp keeper. If you lose control of a snake, your snake room should be safely enclosed and uncluttered so that you can easily regain control of the animal. If you handle your snakes while you are distracted, distressed or worst of all under the influence of any amount of drugs or alcohol (including prescription or drugstore medication), you are a good candidate for winning the next Darwin award and getting your name put up on the Web for millions of people to laugh at. Don't be stupid and don't be macho; the consequences are really not worth it.

Handling hots in your normal living space is a bad idea. It is critically important to keep enough square footage of open floor around yourself and any snake on a hook that you can be confident of regaining control faster than the snake can move to an inaccessible place, like under a sofa. I do keep one viper in a decorative waterfall terrarium in my living room, but I do not remove the animal from its cage in this area, as it is easy to isolate him behind a shield or in a secure box when cleaning the cage.

Handling is best done in a clear, uncluttered room with nothing for a panicked snake to run and hide under. Some snakes can easily be controlled in the bathtub, over a bucket or in a tall garbage can which they cannot easily climb out of. Others are too large or fast for these techniques to be helpful. More suggestions for safe handling can be found on the Handling Heresies page.

Isolating a snake in its hidebox for safe transport

You can temporarily block a snake off in a corner of its cage behind a shield if you need to reach in and move something. Some cage lids work well as a temporary shield. Plexiglass or plastic shields screwed to a wooden handle are also useful, and can be inexpensively made in a variety of different shapes. You can also use a sturdy plastic bowl, preferably a transparent one, to isolate a snake in a portion of its cage. Watch the substrate though, as some snakes might burrow underneath and give you an unwelcome surprise.

Before you reach into a cage, it's important to know exactly where the snake is. Is the snake in a hide box, under some moss, or lurking under the water bowl? Let's check and see. Hmm, there is somebody home in the hide box. I can see a bit of tail, so I can safely conclude that he's in there. Let's make sure he stays in his hide box by nestling it in another container that covers the hole. Voila - the snake is not stressed, and neither am I. The second container should be of identical size so that it will nestle securely. If it is slightly larger (pictured here), you can safely enclose the snake by sliding the lid underneath and snapping it shut once the exit hole is blocked.

Once the snake is secured in a container that it cannot quickly escape from or bite you through, you can further secure the animal and go about cleaning the cage. You may bag the entire hide box in a knotted pillowcase, or place the box in another secure cage or container. To keep the animal less stressed, I like to provide some cover inside the trap box such as moss or crumpled newspaper. Other keepers prefer to use a bare box for ease of handling. Pillowcases are good for longer term transport because they allow for plenty of air circulation, but you need to carry them carefully and secure them as soon as possible in a solid container as many of the longer-fanged species can "tag" you through a bag.

Note that this hands-on hide technique would require slightly sturdier equipment with any larger venomous snake that might have the physical strength to snap open a plastic Tupperware type lid or to dart out quickly and deliver a bite. If you are using a makeshift paper or plastic trap box with the larger, stronger species, it is safer to bag the box from a distance by pushing it inside a cloth bag with your hook. If you're looking for a trap box that you can just pick up with your hands once the snake is inside, you may want to build yourself something sturdier out of wood with sliding latches that you can secure from a distance with a hook.

When you are building a shift box, keep the following things in mind. You should be able to take it apart or open it up for easy cleaning, or to access the snake if you need to tube the animal for veterinary or scientific procedures. Ideally the box should be easy to close, bag or otherwise secure from a distance with a hook. It has to be tight enough that whatever species inside it can't pop right out. For many species opaque Tupperware will do just fine, or even a disposable paper box.

The last criteria is actually the easiest to manage. A hide box is as much a behavioral tool as a physical one, and it doesn't need to be made of locking titanium steel. The wonderful advantage of paper is that it is disposable, reducing the chances of passing around diseases if you have new animals in quarantine. I often do use the disposables, but of course if the snake has wet down the box with fecal matter or by swimming in the waterbowl, it is likely to fall apart when you try to pick it up. Consequently the safest protocol for paper hide boxes is to reach a Pro Bagger or a homemade bagstick tool in the cage and push the whole box inside with a hook.

While a snake in a dark box is not normally inclined to do anything other than hide, the odd snake may surprise you someday and decide to whip out of the hide box in response to your messing around with it. So keep your hands away from an open hide box. Secure it from a distance with a hook by whatever means are appropriate for the box design. If you decide to use the "bag the hide box" protocol you don't need to get fancy with sliding doors and latches. Tupperware with a hole cut in the side is fine.

The point of a trap box is not permanent secure containment. I would never leave a snake unattended for an hour (or even a minute) taped up in a cardboard box or a margarine tub. The point of a hide box is to contain the snake long enough for you to move it to a second secure container with minimum fuss. Even a paper box will fulfill that function behaviorally if not physically for long enough to allow you to push the box into a bag with a hook. Obviously you should not be reaching in to pick up the paper boxes because there is always the chance that the snake managed to wet the bottom and it will fall out on you. Nor should you trust the plastic Tupperware boxes to be fully secure containment. But the great advantage to paper and plastic is hygiene. Paper is disposable and plastic goes through the dishwasher. And both will do quite nicely to help you contain a snake inside a second secure container just by pushing the box with a hook.

Reaching in the cage with hemostats

Here an assistant is lifting up some moss with forceps. ("And now my trusty assistant Jim will go and wrestle the maddened water buffalo, while I sit here in the helicopter. Oops. Sorry about that, Jim. Next week, my trusty assistant Bob will go and wrestle the maddened water buffalo...") It's safe now to remove and clean the waterbowl in here, since the snake is isolated and enclosed in its hide box. Mr. Tenere won't even know what happened. Since we never had to bother him, he won't get stressed or regurgitate. With this species, that's important, as corals are notorious for being exceptionally picky eaters.

Spot the Hidden Gaboon Viper

Sometimes a snake can be harder to spot. Hot herp habitats always have to be designed with two things in mind - a feeling of safety for the snake and a feeling of safety for the keeper. Snakes like things to hide under so they feel safe. Keepers like to know where the business end of a hot snake is so they feel safe. Can you spot the Gaboon? I knew you could.

Yep, there he is, under the moss. His head is just barely sticking out and pointing towards the waterbowl. So what do we do now? How about cleaning up the poop in the corner. He's been busy digesting a rat pup, and it shows.

Forceps work fine to pull out the solid bits. A plastic shield (acually the lid from a Rubbermaid box) is ready in case he gets snippy and needs to be confined to a corner.

Gaboons have the nasty ability to strike in more directions than you think they really should. Also, they can strike from any position with little or no warning. Don't trust these sluggish looking overstuffed sausages, not one inch. The shield is taller than the wee babe is long, so it is unlikely that the pudgy little venomous cuteness is going to be able to levitate itself far enough to nail my trusty assistant's fingertips. He can clean the waterbowl in peace.

Safely Closing A Cage

When we are done annoying the small but virulent beastie, the proper technique of sliding a lid back into place is used. Your fingers are shielded behind solid plastic at all times as you slide the lid back on at a slight angle. An important note on the cage depicted is that it is a temporary one, and it is being used in a locked snake room. Most of these inexpensive plastic terrariums are completely unsuitable for even a temporary holding cage for a snake, due to their flimsiness and the high risk of escape.

Picking Up Hide Boxes

The most common operations, refilling the waterbowls and misting water into the enclosures to keep humidity up, can be set up so that they do not necessarily require unlocking or opening the cages. One good design is a sturdy double mesh top that allows water to be poured or misted. Obviously water bowls must be removed and washed regularly for good hygiene, and immediately if the snake has defecated in the bowl.

The cage below houses a juvenile cottonmouth (agkistrodon piscivorus) whose waterbowl needs a good wash. This bowl is too heavy to pick up with forceps. But he does like his hide box, a Tupperware container stuffed with moss. This is a washable container that is light enough to handle with forceps. Let's pick up the box and take a careful look to make sure he is inside. We're careful to keep a safe distance away from the opening as we peek inside.

Snapping the lid onto this piece of Tupperware using forceps would have been a good idea, but this piece of plastic will serve. I'd insist on using the real snap-on lid if this snake had the physical ability to muster any effective pushing against the barrier, but this small juvenile does not. Now let's transfer him to a secure container. He'll be dumped out gently but quickly, and the lid is ready to be closed down on him. For a snake any bigger than this little neonate, it would be a much better idea to use a tall bucket or wastebasket. Medium to large snakes require a garbage can or similar tall container. This small Rubbermaid is good only for neonate containment.

Note the "sliding lid" technique below, protecting my brave assistant's fingers. Yes, theoretically the juvenile agkistrodon could come leaping out of the box while it's still open a crack, but I'm right there with snake hook in hand in case I see a small cute stripy nose poking out where it doesn't belong. Since we are not directly confronting or stressing the snake, and it is in its preferred resting place, the greater likelihood is that it will stay coiled in the bottom of the hide box until we dump it unceremoniously into the more secure container. Some even better techniques of safe restraint might have been to enclose the open hide box completely in a larger box, or to snap a secure lid onto the hide box.

And here we are with the lovely little toe-nipper secured in a Rubbermaid box. This is a safe temporary holding or transport container for a small snake as long as you keep your hands and your eyes on it. I wouldn't leave anything in here long term unless I had a better security system to keep the lid fastened inescapably down. I've left some moss in the container for the snake to hide in, so that it will not become unduly stressed.

To return a Rubbermaided snake to its cage, slide the lid open in the same way you closed it. Place the container mostly inside the secure cage, and gently dump out the occupant while holding onto the far side of the transport container. Quickly slide the lid closed. Secure and lock the cage.

Helpful Links And More Information

For information on how to actually handle (as opposed to avoid having to handle) your venomous snakes, see the Handling Heresies page. Here you will learn more about hooking, tailing and all those things an intelligent keeper actually doesn't have to do every day if your housing setup is well planned ahead of time. Here you'll find another page with articles and photo tutorials on specific handling techniques.

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