Housing and Maintenance
BABY MILK SNAKES
Over the years I have tried many cage systems in which to raise baby snakes. A primary consideration should be to keep baby snakes singly in their own cages. Feeding "accidents" occur when one baby eats another cage mate. When they gain some size and "learn" how and when to eat, they can be kept together, except during the actual feeding and for a short time after. If you are going to work with large numbers of baby snakes, simple, easy-to-monitor and easy-to-maintain caging will be a must.
A rack of plastic shoe boxes has proven an efficient and widely used system for maintaining large numbers of baby snakes (see illustration). I use custom-built racks which each hold 160 plastic shoe boxes (clear plastic storage containers measuring 3.5" x 7" x 12"). I recommend the clear plastic boxes with clear lids. It is much nicer when you can see down through the top before you open it. Each rack is built so that, when a shoe box is put on a shelf, the shelf above holds the lid in place. Several 1/8" holds are drilled in the sides and ends of each shoe box for ventilation. For heat, grooves are cut lengthwise in the upper surface of each shelf that will be under a row of shoe boxes, about 4" from the rear of the 11" wide shelves, and about 1" wide. Heat tape is installed flush with the top in these channels. Holes are drilled in the rack's end pieces to allow the heat tape to drop down and heat a second shelf. Each heat tape covers two shelves (20 shoe boxes) and is wired to a light dimmer (rheostat), then through a master room temperature thermostat (set at 82ºF). The shelves are then covered with sheet metal for heat dispersal and fire safety. This setup gives you quite a bit of control, and gives the snakes quite a bit of choice. With the dimmer you can increase or decrease the temperature of the warm area above the heat tape. The snakes can move forward into the 1" area of the shoe box in front of the shelf for cooler temperatures, to the rear for warmth. It all the snakes are always in front, the cage is too hot and the dimmer should be turned down. In my system, boxes can be individually controlled in lots of 20, so some can be warmer or cooler, depending on the snakes' requirements. With the master thermostat, if the room heats up, the tapes will turn off, but not until the room reaches a nice sage 82ºF.
Inside each shoe box is a substrate of hardwood chips, walnut (crushed) or pine shavings. I have used all with success. A folded paper serves as a hiding place, and a small plastic container with a 1" hole cut in the top serves as the water dish. The water container is wider than the inside height of the shoe box, so it can't be overturned. The small hole in the top reduces the amount of evaporation and promotes a drier interior in the shoe box.
In addition to the shoe boxes, I also have a rack of 48 medium-sized storage boxes. These are larger versions of the shoe boxes (about twice the floor space) and can be used as an intermediate step after the shoe boxes, but before the cages for adult-sized snakes. They can also be used as quarantine enclosures. All new snakes should go through a quarantine of at least 30 days, until you are certain that they are healthy and it is safe to add them to an existing collection. This rack is set up like the shoe box rack, with thermostatically controlled heat tape. The shelves are wider and spaced further apart to accommodate the larger boxes.
HOUSING ADULT MILK SNAKES
There are several alternatives to the large-scale housing of breeding-age milk snakes. Many breeders use a variation of the previously mentioned shoe box and sweater box racks, using the larger plastic storage containers which have become available in recent years. With the larger storage units, some breeders opt to remove the lids and construct shelving that allows the top edge of a plastic storage box to rest flush against an upper shelf. Essentially, the storage boxes are used as drawers in a custom-built shelf unit where the upper shelves serve as lids.
What I use for housing adult milk snakes are the double-compartmented, drawer-type cages. They are glass-fronted, of wood construction with a double floor, including the inside of the drawer. The individual cage units measure 24" deep by 18" wide. The drawers are slightly narrower, about 3.5" in height and only 20" deep. The 4" space behind the drawer and under the rear floor of the upper-cage area provides an airspace through which a heat tape is passed. This allows for thermoregulation in the drawer and cage as described for the shoe boxes. Each row of cages has its own heat tape, and they are controlled essentially as described for the shoe boxes. The lights are fluorescent 4' power twist Vita-Lites® (the ballasts are removed and reinstalled remotely to avoid hot spots) set above the 1/8" mesh covered openings on the top of the cages. The lights are on timers and also connected to a room temperature thermostat.
The "hole" to the drawer is a raised 1.5" PVC pipe. It extends 1" above the floor to prevent the substrate from the upper level from dropping into the drawer. Coarse silica sand, #3 gravel, and various wood chip products can be used as a substrate with no problems. Avoid any chemically treated substrate like "kitty litter" and avoid the oily woods like cedar and redwood. A hide box and water crock are provided in the upper compartment. Normally there are two snakes kept per cage. During feeding a cap is placed over the PVC pipe and the snakes are segregated such that one snake is left in the drawer and the other in the upper compartment until each has completed feeding.
In addition to the above-mentioned setup, I have a second room with similar but smaller drawer-type cages. The room temperature is thermostatically controlled and heated by incandescent lights. The cages in this room, however, do not include any type of lighting. Whatever light is available originates from some natural light through the windows and fluorescent bulbs on the ceiling which are left on and off at random, sometimes for days at a time. I have had equally good results with breeding milk snakes in this setup as I have with the fancy ones with all the timers and special lights. Because of the successful breeding results over many years and other factors known to me, I don't believe that light cycles or special lights are needed to successfully raise, keep, and breed milk snakes. Full-spectrum lights will enhance the display appeal of milk snakes and their enclosures, but they are not required for their successful husbandry and propagation.
What has been presented so far in caging will allow you to accommodate large numbers of all ages and sizes of milk snakes and produce hundreds of babies of each year. It is by necessity an "assembly line" type operation where one can move rapidly from cage to cage and service the occupants. There are many good cages sold in shops that are perfectly adequate for housing a limited number of milk snakes. You could convert a TV cabinet into a living room showcase for snakes, or a small cage or aquarium with a locking lid will also work well. Just remember to supply the snake's basic needs: clean, dry cage, fresh water, a hiding place, a water bowl (only half filled to prevent overflow), good ventilation, and temperature gradient from approximately 75ºF to about 88ºF.
ON NATURALISTIC DISPLAYS
Although I have so far described simple, efficient systems for maintaining milk snakes, you should not imply that you can't build a large cage and design an elaborate "natural" interior with plants, rock piles, etc. Remember, however, that milk snakes are shy and will remain hidden most of the time. They also like to burrow and will constantly "redesign" your interior. A word of caution. Any heavy objects used in a vivarium, such as rock piles and water bowls, should rest directly on the cage floor. If milk snakes are allowed to burrow under heavy objects they may push the substrate from beneath and allow the heavy object to crush them to death.
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