By Robert Applegate
P.O. Box 338
Campo, CA 91906
In the dairy business the number of cows one man can adequately care for has been pretty well established. If a one man operation has exactly that number of cows, and works at maximum efficiency, he will realize the maximum profit potential of his herd. Any less cows and his time will not be fully utilized, and his potential income will suffer. Any more and he will have to hire help, but unless the numbers of cows were doubled, the larger herd wouldn't provide maximum income for two people. If one man tried to take care of the larger herd, the entire operation would suffer and the health, productivity, and profit potential of the herd would suffer.
How many snakes can a one man operation properly take care of? That depends on many variables. Some are: How much time can you devote to the care and maintenance of a snake collection? What species do you want to work with? How well do you organize your time, and what results or goals do you intend to realize with your collection? At this time each is dependent on the other and there are no established and proven answers to all.
CHOOSING SPECIES TO WORK WITH
I have chosen to work with some of the Colubrids, mostly albinos and what are known in the trade as "tri-colors." These species were chosen because the known feeding and care requirements are similar and the same size cages can be used. Some of my goals are to provide a pleasurable activity for my spare time, to provide pride and satisfaction in hatching out many healthy beautiful babies, and to enjoy a hobby which can not only pay for itself, but also the house and provide enough extra money to do some related traveling. Also I would like to contribute something to herpetology that would benefit captive reptile breeding programs.
One of the problems in getting started is the choosing of what you want to work with. If you don't have much experience in raising snakes, pick some that aren't real expensive. if you make mistakes, the lessons are cheaper. Once you are confident in your ability to raise and breed, pick which ever your interests and pocket book dictate. Where do you get these snakes? If you choose a species already being bred in captivity, you will have an easier path. You can be assured enough is known about the species to breed them, and relatively parasite-free young can be purchased. There are many breeders and/or dealers making a market out of captive born or hatched species. A problem here is that most dealers will not sell established adult breeding snaked, so be prepared to raise baby snakes to "adulthood," taking one to four years, depending on species and individuals.
Another problem is getting the correct sex snake. It would be wise for you to become proficient in determining sexes. For instance I once had an advance reservation for two pairs of Pueblan milksnakes. When I had the snakes available, I wrote and asked for advance payment. After a lengthy silence, I received a call from the gentleman explaining that a Florida dealer had made a better price offer, so he bought two "pair" from that dealer. no hard feelings on my part, but this type of this is why I refuse to hold animals for people unless I have an advance deposit. To end the story, about a year and a half later I received another call from this same gentleman asking about "extra" female Pueblan Milksnakes. he explained that he had four nice males that needed mates. Even if the dealer took back two males, and traded for two hatchling females, or refunded the money and took back all four, this gentleman would have been out the expected offspring and 1.5 years of work because he failed to verify the sexes of his new arrivals.
You can buy a large number of snakes at the beginning of your adventure, or, like me, start with a few, produce young, and use the proceeds to expand into other species. Wild caught adults can be obtained through many dealers. Some obvious additional problems present themselves, but you don't have to raise babies. Wild adults can be good for expanding bloodlines, colors, etc. I feel that if it is a new specie available for captive breeding, either size is acceptable. If I can't raise wild caught babies, how could I realistically expect to sell offspring of that species?
The anticipated goals and future size of your collection should influence your caging choices. For a small collection, almost any type of caging that will provide adequate security, heat, light, and ventilation will do. Various aquariums, commercially produced and home built cages are available or can be built. My collection is quite large for the time I want to devote to it, so I have gone "assembly line" as much as possible, to cut down individual cage maintenance times.
I start hatchlings out in plastic shoe boxes (3+" x 7" x 12") with a pine shaving substrate, a folded paper fir hiding, and a small "butter tub" with a 1" hole in its lid for an almost spill proof water container. A record acrd, which stays with the snake its entire life, is taped to the top. A few small holes are drilled in both ends of the shoebox. These boxes are inserted in a rack which secures the lid, and provides heat via a strip of heat tape under each shoebox. The heat tape is regulated by a light dimmer and a room temperature thermostat. The snake can lay above the heat tape and get 90°F or move forward in the box and choose a cooler temperature.
When the snakes out grow the shoeboxes I transfer them to either plastic sweater boxes kept in a rack similar, but larger than that described for the shoeboxes, with the same cage furnishings, or I put them directly into one of my "breeding" cages.
The "breeding" cages are glass front wooden frame, wood construction, with a double floor area including the drawer. I have two rooms of these. one room has 33 cages that have a floor space of approx. 2' x 1.5'. The drawer stops about 4" from the back, providing an air space. A length of heat tape goes through this space providing cage heat. For warmth the snake can lay against the back of the drawer while in the drawer, or above the heat tape in the rear 4" of the cage if out on the top floor. The lighting is provided by powertwist Vita-lights above the 1/8" mesh wire open tops. The lights are on timers, the heat tapes are on light dimmers, and all power goes through a master thermostat to prevent a room overheat. There is also an electric vent fan programmed to ventilate the room for a few hours in the afternoon, to reduce odors and "freshen" the air. These cages are stacked along the walls, like rows of apartments. The substrate is silica sand with a water crock and an abalone shell above, and a folded sheet of newspaper in the drawer. The other room has 48 similar drawer type cages with a floor area of 1' x 2'. This room is thermostatically controlled via 100 watt incandescent lights along the opposite wall (about 5' away). There are also 8' double bulb fluorescent lights on the ceiling that are switch operated and turned off and on at irregular and lengthy intervals. There is no direct light or heat in these cages. I have had good breeding success in both rooms.
I am not the originator of the drawer type cages. Many who built them before me gave my helpful information on desirable and undesirable features, which I incorporated with my own ideas. I may be the first one in this country to build wall units, such as mine are. I have read in Europe they even have double side by side drawers under each cage, one for a dry hide area, and one that is moist to wet.
What are you going to feed your snakes and where are you going to get it are questions that should have influenced your choices of species. All my species eat mice so the what was easy for me. I decided that buying was too expensive and couldn't provide the always needed smaller sizes for raising baby snakes. however I didn't want to raise enough mice to feed 150-200 snakes. I may seem like an insurmountable problem, but it wasn't. Using approx. 32 commercial plastic mouse cages (12" x 16" x 8"), I raise enough of the smaller sized mice to feed all of my smaller snakes and I sell the excess. I then purchase enough mice on a bi-weekly schedule to feed all of my larger snakes, and to resell some mice to local pet shops and friends. I purchase enough of a quantity to get a discount. I sell enough of the "extras" at wholesale prices, and pocket my discount, to pay for most of the mice I use. My mouse operation is almost self-supporting, almost feeding my snakes for free, if you don't figure the cost of my time involved.
Again, organization means efficiency and time savings. my mouse cages are in a line. When I see a pregnant female in a cage, a nail goes in front in the wire top. When babies are in a cage, that cage is moved to the head of the line. When I need newborn mice, I review the cages with the nails first. If a cage has a nail, but no babies show up, cannibalism is suspected and the nail is placed in the back of the top. any cage that stays at the end of the line, or gets two nails in the back is replaced with a younger colony of mice, selected from offspring of the good colonies, males from one group, females from another. There are probably more efficient ways to raise mice, but for my needs, and unwillingness to devote much time to mice this works out great. I clean cages and add food and water once per week. Except for an occasional empty water bottle, and adding food, that's it! The water and food are all external, so at a glance, while picking out feeder mice, I can check all 32 cages.
CARE OF HATCHLINGS
When a future breeder hatchling comes into my possession, it is weighed and sexed. This information, along with the source of the animal, who its parents are, hatching date, and any useful identifying markings are recorded on its record card. Then it is placed in a shoebox, kept warm the first year (except a few that refuse to eat in the winter, which are "hibernated") and fed all I can get it to eat. As long as the snake doesn't get "lumpy" and fat, I don't believe you can grow a snake too fast. most of my snakes reach breedable size in 14 months. I don't have a regular vitamin supplement program, believing (or hoping) that if the mice are healthy and breeding, the snakes should be able to do so also. I occasionally supplement "just in case" and am receptive to new and proven ideas in this area.
CONDITIONING FOR BREEDING
At the end of the warm season (Nov. 1) all the adult snakes should be in prime condition. I stop feeding the snakes, wait two weeks for digestive tracts to clear, weigh them, and turn off all heat and lights. I then hope that the temperature of the cages will gradually drop until they settle around 50°F. I leave them in the hands of Mother Nature (her El Cajon, CA. version), check on them and change water every 2 weeks, and raise babies and take a vacation until March 1. I then weigh each snake again to determine winter weight loss. I warm up the room temperatures to 80-85°F in the day, and 70-75°F at night and start feeding them small frequent meals. The breeding should follow soon. This has resulted in very dependable breeding success in most snakes. I have had a few snakes breed without "hibernation," but very few.
Some of my snakes are kept as pairs, but many are not. I want to see an actual mating. I feel for follicles to determine the probability that a female is ready, I separate and reintroduce, I spray the cage with a warm water mist, I combat males, I introduce individuals after either has shed, I even deliberately disturb them (I have had many cage mates copulate directly after I moved them around while cleaning the cage!). If I see snakes copulating, I record the time of copulation. After they separate I obtain a semen sample, put it on a slide, and look at it under 200x on my microscope. If the sperm is rapidly swimming, and in good numbers, I consider this a "good" mating. If I can't see anything, I introduce a second male and start over. In any event I will try to get that female to breed the good male a few days later. I have had bad eggs result from a "good" mating, but I have never had good eggs result from a "bad" mating. I am convinced that I have gotten many good eggs that I would not have gotten if I didn't follow up a "bad" mating with a "good" mating. I try not to breed siblings if I have a choice.
Most of my snakes are kept two to a cage. Most of the species I work with are predictable in the time between the "pre-egg laying shed" and actual egg laying. When the egg carrying female sheds, she is isolated from her cage mate and given an appropriate sized "Tupperware type" container with an access hole cut into it, partially filled with wet sphagnum moss. She stays there until she lays her eggs. She and the egg clutch are weighed, and the information recorded on her card (when they catch the date and number of each sex of the hatchlings is recorded next to clutch size and weight). The eggs are transferred to a container with moist vermiculite and placed in the incubator. The female is evaluated for condition and is either fed and introduced to a male immediately or kept away from the males until she regains "prime" condition.
I hate to go back to the cows again, but it is a well established veterinary principle of her management that if you are treating sick animals, you are losing money. I feel the same way about my snake collection. Usually an animal that needs serious medical treatment is lost the the breeding season at best. I am fortunate to have a good veterinary friend, Dr. Winjum, who is helping me establish a preventative medicine program for my collection. she has convinced me by demonstrated results that a full flotation fecal examination in addition to a direct smear is a valuable diagnostic tool for parasite determination. We are still in the beginning stages of this, but have already eliminated Trichomonas and some worms from a few of my wild caught breeders. Except for Trichomonas in a few captive hatched that ate lizards ( I have found Trichomonas in the feces of wild lizards ), I am happy to report that we haven't found any internal parasites in any of my captive hatched, yet!, but we are still looking. I feel the elimination of parasites, proper nutrition, and good cage husbandry go along way in reducing disease in captive reptiles. Year after year, better information on how to do this becomes available. Not too long ago mites were considered a serious problem. Now they are easy to eliminate in a number of ways.
One of the biggest problems threatening out futures as captive breeders are local, state, and federal laws. using California as an example, years ago I was breeding Lampropeltis zonata, as well as capturing and selling wild caught individuals. I was trying to produce a zonata with lengthwise red stripes, and picked out the offspring with the most incomplete bands. Then a law was passed that you could only have one, so I got rid of most. Then you couldn't have any and the Federal Sting operation materialized. I got rid of the rest (I am well known by Fish and game and have a high visibility) and destroyed several years worth of "incriminating" data, just in case. Now you can have one again, but it can't some from one side of a certain freeway. The point is that the herpetological newsletters are full of examples of "can't own a non-domestic pet," "can't have snakes," etc., that are real or proposed laws. I wish I could say it's our fault and we should educate the lawmakers and convince them of out food intentions, but if you fail in this effort, years worth of developing and maintaining your collection are in jeopardy. I don't have a solution for this problem. These is something to be said for remaining "underground" if you have a small collection.
CONTRIBUTIONS TO THE STATE OF THE ART
Sharing information. Breeding reptiles in captivity would still be doubtful if it wasn't for the spirit of sharing that brings us all together here. All of us can think back to a word, hint, or direct instruction that has helped us, and most of us feel good when we can help another. I could tell you about all the countless (wishful thinking) eggs that I hatched this year, and try to be considered a snake guru of sorts. Or I can admit to a large number of bad eggs, and feel very incompetent. I am making a limited admission to both. I am doing something right, and I am doing something wrong. Maybe there are 10 important items involved, any combination of 4 will insure breeding success. I don't know yet, but I am keeping detailed records, and hoe by comparing my notes with other breeders notes, some solutions can be reached. I would like to end with a question and answer session, but you all probably have a little bit of the answer and I haven't figured out a way to ask the question that will put it all together.
Originally published in the Northern California Herpetological Society Symposium Proceedings, 1985,
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