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Choosing a Colombian Boa

By: R.D. and Patti Bartlett

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The Colombian boa constrictor is a beautiful and easily kept snake – if you can meet its housing and feeding needs. We consider a baby of the Colombian boa, Boa constrictor imperator, an excellent beginner's snake, but there is always the problem of what to do with the creature when it attains adulthood.

An adult boa can be a handling and caging problem, as well as a legal problem. Many municipalities now prohibit the keeping of snakes of more than 6 feet in length, and Colombian boas often exceed this length.

Origin and Life Span

When a boa is referred to as a "Colombian boa," the designation is more an indication of origin than of subspecies. As currently understood, this same subspecies can be found from Mexico to many non-rainforest areas of northern South America. Feral specimens have also bred in Miami, Florida for several decades.

Colombian boas have lived for more than 30 years in captivity.

Appearance

Some of these snakes are rather dark in color, but many have a good deal of red or maroon on the tail. The usual adult size of this pretty and powerful snake is about 8 feet, but some individuals may attain a length of 10 feet.

Colombian boas have myriad small, non-keeled, scales. The anterior body is tan to light brown with dark dorsal crossbands that may or may not have forward and rearward dorsolateral extensions. A series of lighter vertically elongated ocelli occur along each side. There is a dark marking between the eyes and another on each side of the face.

Near the tail, the tan of the body usually becomes lighter (whiter) and the dark dorsal blotches become ever redder and are usually outlined in black. Some of the most vividly colored boas (those from heavily forested areas) are dubbed red-tailed boas. Adults and babies are colored similarly. The eyes are quite similar to the body in coloration and have vertically elliptical pupils.

Boas have a pair of cloacal spurs – remaining vestiges of bygone days when snakes had legs. The spurs of the males are larger than those of the females.

Behavior

Colombian boas are slow-moving snakes and, for the most part, they are quiet, easily kept and easily handled.

In the wild, Colombian boas are encountered both in arboreal and terrestrial situations, and may be diurnally or nocturnally active. We have found them in villages and along remote rivers. They may enter deserted buildings in search of rodents.

Captives will often make use of elevated perches, will seclude themselves in substrate-level hides (curved corkbark or other commercial hideboxes) or at cagetop on a secured platform. Be aware of the distance across which a large specimen can strike, and always approach the snake cautiously.

A bowl of fresh water should be present at all times. If this is large enough for the snake to coil and fully submerge in, it will often do so.

Housing

Colombian boas start out as 15- or 16-inch-long babies, but, if properly cared for, can attain a full 6 feet in length in the first 2 years of their life, and will continue to grow beyond that.

The minimum floor space for one or two babies should be 12 by 30 inches. As the boa grows, progressively larger cages will be necessary. For one or a pair of six-footers, a floor space of 6 x 2.5 feet is suggested. The tank should have a substrate of newspaper, packing corrugate, paper towels, dry leaves or dry mulch. The substrate should be removed and replaced whenever the snake eliminates. It is a good idea to clean the entire tank at the same time, washing down with window cleaner.

These are secretive animals so the tank should also be furnished with corkbark or other commercial hides. Be sure no furniture can shift or topple and injure your snake. The terrarium or cage must also be tightly covered with a top that will lock in place.

You can heat one end of the tank by using a heating pad that sits beneath it or by using a bare light bulb or ceramic heating unit that sits above the snake. Temperatures should be between 82 and 88 degrees in the warm end of the tank and between 72 and 75 degrees on the cooler end. Be sure that the snakes cannot come in contact with a bare bulb or ceramic heating unit, lest they burn themselves.

Feeding

These powerful snakes eat all manner of rodents, marsupials and birds. They usually feed readily, especially if given hideboxes in which they can seclude themselves and feel secure. They are large enough at birth to accept small-adult mice. Adults will require large rats, rabbits or chickens.

Although boas can swallow comparatively large prey items, adverse temperature fluctuations, fright or even casual handling, are more apt to cause them to regurgitate a large meal than a small one. As a rule of thumb, the largest meal you feed your snake should not greatly exceed the diameter of your snake's head.

An adult Colombian boa will eat one rabbit or several rats once a week or every ten days. You can tell whether your snake is hungry by watching its movements. For the most part, a Colombian boa will lie still until it is ready to eat. Then it will emerge from its hiding spot to prowl for long periods. When you see your snake begin to move, it may well be time to offer it a meal. It is most likely to be active in the evening and early nighttime hours.

Boas are very powerful constrictors and are capable of overpowering and eating large prey items. However, it is always better to feed them pre-killed rodents of moderate size.

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

Although once accustomed to handling they make fine pets, wild Colombian boas can be formidably defensive and will strike and bite energetically. Newborns are often quite feisty, and even very tame boas may bite at feeding time. Approach the snakes carefully. Newly captured specimens, or those otherwise frightened, may void the contents of the cloaca on their captor.

Colombian boas with vision impaired by an impending shed of skin are also prone to bite. Boas typically respond defensively to fast movements, but are more tolerant of slow movements. Snakes typically shy away from movements above them, but are somewhat less wary of movements from the side. Thus, approaching your boa slowly from the side is less apt to result in a defensive strike by the animal than otherwise.

Do not grasp your snake by its neck. Rather, slide one hand under it about a third of the way back from the head, the other hand about a quarter of the way forward from the tail tip, and holding the snake loosely, lift it slowly. If not startled or frightened, the snake will probably hold you. Keep it away from your face.

Snakes handled soon after eating may regurgitate their meal. Do not lift them for a few days after they have eaten. Baby boas may be quick to bite.

Medical Concerns

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

  • 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 if the cage temperature changes radically, especially if humidity is high or the cage is damp.

  • Blister disease can occur if the cage is too wet, and especially if the cage is both wet and dirty.

  • Inclusion body disease (IBD) is a very communicable, insidious and eventually fatal affliction of boas and pythons with no known cure.

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