Snake Behavior and Handling Techniques

Snake behavior

Let’s take a moment to consider the difference between domesticated animals and habituated animals. 

Domesticated animals are those that have been bred and raised around humans for countless generations.  These are the more common pets we have like dogs, cats, and horses.  It takes 100’s of years for a type of animal to become domesticated and means that they have evolved to be co-dependent on humans for much of their life style. 

Habituated animals are those that have adapted and become accustomed to be around humans but are not dependent on them. 

Reptiles are habituated, NOT domesticated.  As more and more captive breeding happens we may begin to have reptiles that are gaining the domestication but we are not there yet.  This means that we need to respect and honor their natural behaviors from the wild in order to help them be comfortable around us.  Humans are predators in the wild and we must remember that when working with non-domesticated species.  They can learn to trust and co-habitate with people but it requires training and socialization.

Most snake behaviors will fall into 5 categories:
1) Hungry
2) Scared
3) Curious
4) Territorial
5) Physical comfort/discomfort

Understanding, and being able to recognize, these different behaviors is vital for helping your snakes acclimate to their captive environments and to people. 

The pathway from WILD to HABITUATED to DOMESTICATED . . .

. . . is a gradient that is not always one direction, nor simple.  Blood and Short tail pythons are a great example of this.  They have a bad reputation for being bitey and flighty.  This is due to a couple of different things.  First they are a naturally secretive animal.  They do not appreciate exposure and always prefer to hide.  Also they have not been bred in captivity for very long.  The first animals in the pet trade were wild caught specimens that had no habituation to humans.  As we get further generations out from the wild caught animals into captive bred individuals we find they are getting much calmer and easier to work with.  This is also true of the Dwarf and Superdwarf reticulated pythons.  They are quite rare in the wild and have only been bred consistently in captivity for the last 20 years or so.  We have two first generation Superdwarfs living here at Snake Haus (Lore and Realm) that are only one generation removed from wild caught.  They’re behavior is much different than that of our younger retics who come from a longer line of captive bred animals (Lilith and Legend).

Snakes have different personalities that are influenced by the type of animal it is and how it was raised.  For example carpet pythons and reticulated pythons tend to be very curious making them more likely to interact and explore their surroundings.  Boas and ball pythons are more comfort seeking and prefer to be left alone and hidden.  The blood and short-tail pythons are down right anti-social.

Hook Training vs Tap Training

Correct handling techniques are important when working with these animals.  The way we move and interact with them has a tremendous impact on their well being and health.  The primary reason to use hook or tap training is to break the feeding response.   When used on a scared animal and/or done incorrectly, tap training can back fire and make the animal’s behavior worse.  This technique must be used carefully and intentionally with full understanding of the animal’ state of mind. 

Tap training refers to “tapping” the snake with something other than your hand before reaching in.  This does not mean you should go in quickly and just start tapping your snake without any regard to it’s state of mind.  Vigorously tapping a scared snake can make them strike out in defense so this technique must be used carefully.  When working with a scared snake we prefer to gently touch or pet the snake either under it’s chin on along it’s back on the last half of it’s body.  Tapping a scared snake on top of the head will only make things worse. 

This photo shows Legend, a 1 year old reticulated python, in strike position.  He is ready to either defend himself or grab food.  Gentle petting with a hook lets him know he can relax and that it’s time to come out for handling.

Our goal in gently touching the snake is to give them a little bit of time to wake up, become accustomed to our presence, and to understand that we are not going to hurt them.  We continue to gently touch or pet the snake until it begins to move away from us.  Moving away is a sign the animal is no longer feeling the need to defend itself.  Once this happens you can slowly reach into the enclosure and gently pick them up.  For the more defensive snake we will even gently move their head away to point them in a direction away from us.  When working with really large animals it helps to also allow them a visual pathway to take away from you when doing this.  Handling a snake that is on the run is much safer than a snake in defense mode.  Although the next step of keeping up with them and calming them enough to be willing to stay with you once in hand is much different and is the next step in handling techniques after the initial step.

Hook training is essentially the same thing as tap training just with a different tool.  We prefer to use a hook for our animals that are scared, defensive, or territorial.  Using a hook to gently “tap” (pet or move) your snake before reaching in makes it a little bit easier to gently move them around in preparation for being picked up.  The hook can be used to gently scoop up the animal and pull them towards you or partially out of the enclosure.  This can really help in getting them to stop a territorial or feeding behavior.  

Either way, remember the goal is to communicate with the animal and not scare it.  Your movements must be slow and even.  Jerky or fast movements during handling/training sessions can cause more defensive behavior. 

These videos below show the use of a hook to initiate handling session with a very large defensive blood python. 

The first video shows us slowly taking apart her hide to allow us access to her and to give her to have an escape route so she doesn’t feel cornered.  Most snakes are not aggressive and when given the opportunity to escape they will choose that over striking out.

Posted by Sara Mayes on Friday, November 30, 2018

The second video specifically shows how to use a hook to gently communicate with the animal and maneuver them in a way that allows you to pick them up.  This particular snake will strike out readily if pressured or rushed.  However, you can see in this video that when handled correctly she remains calm.

Posted by Sara Mayes on Friday, November 30, 2018

Just say NO to the Snake Scarf!

Did you know? – Snakes can learn!

Not only that but they can, and should, be taught safe handling techniques along with you. We as the handlers are not the only ones that need to learn how to interact with them, but also them with us. It should be a partnership, and it is built on trust.

This topic is a really import part of safe handling techniques for large snakes. Other than hook or tap training which is essential, the Snake Scarf is the next most important thing you should UNlearn. We’ve all seen people wearing their snake around their neck like a scarf. This is something I strongly discourage and almost never allow the Snake Haus animals to do.

From day one I start training our snakes the one shoulder – belt position. This is very important for the largest of boas, and all burms and retics. You should never allow a large snake to wrap fully around your neck. They hold on when trying to prevent themselves from falling and you really don’t want your neck to be what they hold onto. 
For the record – they are NOT constricting you, rather they are holding onto you to keep from falling!

We all have the tendency to carry the weight of a large snake on our shoulder because that is where we are strongest. However, you should only use ONE shoulder, not both. By repeatedly placing your second arm over their coil each time they go to your other shoulder, they quickly learn to hang onto your armpit and waste, instead of your neck.

My preferred position for the really long snakes is to have their 1st 1/3 of length over one shoulder and the rest of them wrapped around my waist like a belt. I do this so consistently and repeatedly with all of my snakes that they learn to choose this position themselves.

This accomplishes TWO GOALS: 
1) Hands free I can completely let go of the animal to talk, gesture, and work on things while handling a snake that is more than 10 feet long. . . because they hold on and help support their own weight. 
2) Trust – this technique teaches the animal to stay with ME for safety and reassurance. When hanging onto me in this way they can feel my heart beat and breathing and will visible calm and settle when I take a deep breath and they feel my calmness.

Have a look through these pictures to see the repeated pattern of how I hold them.

So, what are we going to remember from this discussion?

The rule with large snakes is use only ONE shoulder.