Keeping Hot Herps – Is It Right for You?
R. D. and Patti Bartlett
Should venomous reptiles (especially snakes) be kept by private hobbyists? The general consensus seems to be no. Does this mean that private hobbyists do not keep venomous reptiles? The answer to this question is an unequivocal no.
In fact, the sale of venomous snakes to hobbyists by reptile dealers accounts for a considerable percentage of reptile sales, and there are herp clubs dedicated primarily to enthusiasts who do keep venomous species.
Before you actually acquire a venomous reptile, you should become as familiar as possible with the proper way to handle all reptiles – with special emphasis on the venomous species. Learn techniques from an experienced keeper. Have suitable cages and snakehooks available, and learn where the nearest stock of antivenin for the species you intend to keep is located. Find out which physician in your area is best versed in current snakebite techniques and at which hospital(s) they practice. No matter how safe you are, snakebites are always a potential occupational hazard.
In other words, prepare yourself for the worst case scenario, all the while striving for the best.
What Are the Best Species to Start With?
Not all venomous species are equally toxic. Nor are all equally "handled" or maintained. We urge that you initially choose a species that is not especially nervous, that is fairly easy to "handle," and that has a relatively mild venom. These criteria are not easily met.
For example, although copperheads are beautiful, usually not overly nervous, and have a fairly mild venom, many refuse to balance quietly on a snakehook to be moved. Many tree, sedge, and bamboo vipers are thought to have fairly mild venoms (research is sparse on many species), usually hook well, are not overly nervous (if given suitable cover in their cage) but specific antivenins are not readily available. Rattlesnakes can be nervous, some have very complex and dangerous venoms, but most will sit quietly on a hook and readily allow themselves to be moved. Cobras are alert, nervous, fast, often defensive, and many species are very toxic. Additionally, besides biting, some species are capable of "spitting" their venom, usually aiming at an adversaries eyes.
Despite formidably strong jaws, when compared to venomous snakes, the two species of beaded lizard (the Mexican beaded lizard and the Gila monster) are easy to work with. But you cannot move these lizards by hooking them. USE CARE!
What are Hot Herps?
Venomous reptiles are colloquially referred to as "hot reptiles." More precisely defined, they include (but are not necessarily limited to) the two species of beaded lizards, the front-fanged snakes, and by definition, the rear-fanged snakes (although some of these latter are not particularly dangerous to humans). In addition to these readily recognized venomous species, some common "harmless" snakes – hog-noses, garter snakes, and keelbacks, among them – produce toxins in their saliva, and a few human deaths have been attributed to the bites of some.
Among the more commonly kept venomous herps are Gila monsters, rattlesnakes, copperheads, tree vipers, Old World vipers, and cobras.
Many have the potential of killing you if you make a mistake, and an envenomation from even the most benign among them would soon have you wondering why you were careless enough to get bitten.
Why Own a Venomous Reptile?
Most people keep venomous snakes to observe, to learn, and to appreciate, and because of their remarkable beauty and interesting habits. The colors of many (such as the brilliant yellow of some eyelash and Philippine pit vipers or the intricate milk chocolate, cream, and russet tapestry pattern of a Gaboon viper) are unparalleled in the herpetological world. Nor are there nonvenomous snakes with tail-rattles, with the impressive stance of a defensive cobra, or with the curious sideways locomotion of a sidewinder or desert viper.
Venomous reptiles should not be kept just for appearance and social status, however. These are living creatures that deserve respect and admiration.
If You Decide to Keep Venomous Reptiles
In today's world, before you actually begin keeping venomous reptiles, you should research several areas. Not only should you learn everything possible about the species in question, but you must look carefully at the legalities of maintaining these reptiles as well. Research state laws and local restrictions that may prohibit owning of venomous reptiles. In some states (such as Florida) you must be licensed by the State Fish and Wildlife Commission to keep venomous reptiles, but even with such licensing some municipalities prohibit the keeping of these reptiles. In other states (Arizona and California, for example) you can keep only indigenous venomous species of non-protected types.
Realize that these are potentially dangerous reptiles that cannot only pose a threat to you, but if they escape, can endanger friends, family, and neighbors, as well. What would happen if your facilities were destroyed by a hurricane, tornado or other weather related phenomenon? No matter how or why your venomous reptile escapes, you are legally liable.
Understand, too, that venomous snakes can never be safely handled in the same way that non-venomous species can. They must be "hooked," not grasped by hand or "pinned" (see the above comment on handling venomous lizards).
Venoms, Venomous, Venomoid
It is generally believed that reptile venoms are primarily for the procurement of food. Venoms contain polypeptides, enzymes, and proteins that rather quickly immobilize prey and also promote bleeding and muscle breakdown. The oft-used terms of hemotoxic and neurotoxic, once thought to be descriptive of the venom properties of entire snake genera, can actually be misleading when applied generally.
You may hear it stated that by partially "predigesting" the prey, venom is integral to the well being of venomous reptiles. That this is not necessarily true can be demonstrated by the ease with which pre-killed prey (through which venom does not circulate) is digested by venomous snakes and by the fact that venomoid snakes (snakes with venom-dispensing capabilities surgically decommissioned) continue to digest prey items and hardier species to live long lives.
Although venomoid surgery seems to be becoming more common, most hobbyists and researchers decry its use. The surgery, which renders a venomous snake non-venomous takes at least two forms. The complete removal of the venom producing gland or a "ductectomy." In the latter, the duct leading between venom gland and fang is severed and closed.
How to Cage a Venomous Reptile
How should one cage a venomous reptile? One word says it all – securely! In some cases caging guidelines for venomous reptiles have been developed by a state commission and must be complied with. Florida is one such state. Snakes in general are escape artists. This is no less true with venomous species than with harmless forms. Viperine snakes seem less adept (or at least more reluctant) at pushing cages open than elapines. Glass panes, when used, should be strong and uncracked. Tops, or other movable parts, should be very tightly secured and locked. Cages should be placed where they cannot be toppled or bumped and broken. The room in which they are kept should also be locked. Although the comfort of the snake must be taken into consideration, the absolute safety of humans must be paramount.