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Choosing a California Kingsnake

By: R.D. and Patti Bartlett

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The California kingsnake is an animal of fascinating contrasts. It is a powerful constrictor that will bite and, according to some, got its name because of a readiness to eat other snakes, including some venomous species. Kingsnakes have an amazing resistance to the debilitating effects of snake venom.

At the same time, California kingsnakes - known to hobbyists as Cal kings - are usually reasonably gentle, can be handled relatively easily and display a wide variety of "designer colors." The normally colored snakes are usually rather inexpensive - $20 for babies, $50 to $75 for adults. Designer colors are somewhat more expensive.

California kings are recommended for virtually anyone who wants a starter snake. They are an excellent beginner species.

Origin and Life Span

Known scientifically as Lampropeltis getula californiae, California kings range naturally from central Oregon and south central Utah to northern Sonora and much of the Baja Peninsula. Most in the pet trade are captive bred and hatched. This is especially true of the several hobbyist-devolved color and pattern variants now available. However, this snake is still collected from the wild for the pet trade. Its life span is upward of 20 years.

Appearance

At hatching, California kings are about a foot long. If properly cared for, they can attain 4 feet in length in the first two years of their life, but the usual adult size of this snake is 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 feet.

California kings have smooth (non-keeled) scales and a rather narrow head. They occur in several natural colors and patterns (all variations of black or brown and white). Although they may appear somewhat more translucent, the pattern and color of the hatchlings is much like those of the adults. Wild specimens have a ground color of black or brown and have white to cream bands of variable width. Other wild specimens may lack bands and bear a white vertebral stripe. An occasional wild specimen may be both banded and striped. Albinos of both phases are well documented in the wild. The non-natural color morphs that have now been developed by herpetoculturists include:

  • Half white and half brown Cal kings, either or both striped and banded.

  • Banana Cal kings, mostly yellow(ish) with variable brown markings.

  • Lavender Cal kings with yellowish stripes or bands.

    These snakes have now been so interbred that new colors and patterns often spontaneously appear.

    Behavior

    California kings are reasonably gentle. With gentle and frequent handling, this snake usually becomes entirely tractable.

    Although it can climb, the California king is essentially a terrestrial snake that remains on the ground. They are secretive, especially when preparing to shed their skin, but they may occasionally emerge from beneath boulders or surface debris to bask. They are often seen crossing roadways after nightfall. They are most active during the day, but may also be active at dusk and in the early evening as well. They generally remain quiet in a hidden spot until they are hungry. Then, they emerge to search for food. In the spring, males search for females for breeding. Because of their cannibalistic tendencies, California kings should be housed separately.

    Care and Feeding

    Captive California kings are usually fed a diet made up exclusively of rodents, but in the wild this snake has a varied diet. Besides rodents and insectivorous mammals, dietary items include ground-nesting birds and their eggs, turtle eggs and hatchlings, snake eggs and other snakes (including those of their own kind), frogs and lizards. The prey is killed by constriction, but kingsnakes may have trouble swallowing large prey items. We prefer to offer prey slightly smaller in diameter than that of the snake's head.

    Although many hobbyists believe it best to feed a snake live food, the bite of a live rodent, if it is not eaten immediately, or if it is gripped and constricted incorrectly by the snake, can cause injury to, or even the death of your snake. We suggest that only pre-killed prey be offered.

    Handling

    With gentle and frequent handling, this snake usually becomes entirely tractable. Hatchlings are often more apt to bite than adults, and even tame kingsnakes may bite at feeding time. Newly captured specimens, or those otherwise frightened, may defecate on their captor.

    Housing

    Since they are terrestrial, the minimum floor space for a 4-foot adult should be 12 by 30 inches (the size of a 20-gallon long aquarium). Cage furniture, such as cork bark or other commercial hides, should be provided. Be sure no furniture can shift or topple and injure your snake. Since kingsnakes will push at what they think to be a weak spot in their cage, the terrarium or cage must be tightly covered with a top that will lock in place.

    A substrate of newspaper, packing corrugate, paper towels, dry leaves or dry mulch can be used. Be sure that the snakes cannot come in contact with a bare bulb or ceramic heating unit. Under-cage heaters can also be used. A cage temperature of 72 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit at nights and 82 to 88 F days will suffice. If your snake is merely a pet it may be kept warm and active all winter. If you hope to breed your Cal king, you will have a better chance if the snake is cooled or hibernated.

    A shallow dish of fresh water must always be available.

    Common Diseases and Disorders

  • Thermal burns can occur from a malfunctioning hot rock or improperly baffled bulb or ceramic heater.

  • Rodent bites can be very serious. Feeding live prey is not recommended.

  • Mouth rot (infectious stomatitis) can occur if a snake's teeth are broken, the mouth lining is injured, or if a struggling rodent being constricted, bites the snake.

  • Respiratory distress can occur is the cage temperature changes radically, especially if humidity is high or the cage is damp.

  • Kingsnakes are quite susceptible to blister disease. This can occur if the cage is too wet, and especially if the cage is both wet and dirty.

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