Snakes as Pets
by Thomas Eimermacher, September 1, 2000
Snakes do not fit into this scheme of a perfectly suitable 'pet'. Although there are some species that apparently are able to distinguish their owners, most snakes are not able to do so, or, if they are, appear to have no interest in doing so. They are also not social, and apart from the exercise do not appreciate being handled. As the keeping of reptiles in general becomes increasingly popular, people frequently inquire about keeping snakes as pets. Often either a media presentation such as a television show or a friend who is keeping snakes wakes the interest of the non-herper. Unfortunately, most people do not know much about reptiles, and simply believe what they are told by the media and pet stores. The result has been a drastic increase in impulse purchases, in which the buyer is excited by the sole view or presence of the animal, without having the necessary knowledge and experience that many snakes require to be kept responsibly. While in the past many boids have suffered from being acquired by the general public, with the increasing popularity of venomous snakes, impulse purchases have become a valid threat to the venomous community as well, as the common misconception of snakes as 'pets' by the general public continues.
The generally accepted definition of a pet is, an animal kept for companionship, interest, or amusement. While the interest towards reptiles surely feeds the herper's addiction to this great hobby, many people see in a pet more of a companion, similar to that of a man's best friend. This is easily illustrated, since this is part of the very reason that many others cannot even imagine keeping a reptile, as the pseudo-emotional bond that is sought appears to be absent. All of us have heard the question before, So what do you do with those snakes? The traditional view of a pet is therefore much more one that views the animal as companion, friend, and entertainer. Domesticated animals such as dogs, cats, and even some birds fit therefore perfectly in this common picture. These animals can become truly tame, and are able to distinguish their owner from other people in a way that makes them quite perfect as companions.
Snakes do not fit into this scheme of a perfectly suitable `pet'. Although there are some species that apparently are able to distinguish their owners, most snakes are not able to do so, or, if they are, appear to have no interest in doing so. They are also not social, and apart from the exercise do not appreciate being handled. The idea that snakes can be tamed in a way that would make them suitable to roam around freely is not uncommon, and has resulted in a number of accidents in the last few years. In addition, along with the personification of these animals comes the danger of letting down one's sense of safety and security manners when handling the snakes or doing maintenance in or around the enclosures. Especially keepers of large boids and venomous species can unintentionally place themselves in harm's way by getting too relaxed around their `pets'. Most experienced keepers know that the true danger lies not in the knowingly aggressive snake, but in the `almost tame' specimen, that is just having a bad-scale day. There is absolutely no room for error in these cases, and it just takes a split-second of not being concentrated for what can be a bitter price to pay. It is absolutely crucial for novices and entry-level keepers to understand that snakes are still wild animals, as precious and beautiful as they may be. Snakes are truly instinctive creatures, and never really lose this trait even after years in captivity. Although these facts are widely understood by the herping community, every once in a while the odds catch up, and someone is harmed or even killed by a so-called `pet' snake for this exact reason.
Unfortunately, every accident has potentially severe consequences, not only for the harmed individual, but also for the entire snake keeping community through legal bans and restrictions that are passed as a result of negative publicity. We must therefore be sure to help especially novice keepers, and promote a better understanding of snakes and reptiles in general. As much as we need the public's appreciation of these animals, it should be clear that this appreciation has to be based on knowledge as much as it is based on the simple fascination induced by their sole appearance to so many people.