1. SNAKE EMPATHY and the Art of Handling Pythons
...... by Doc Rock
I caught my first wild herps about 45 years ago. Since then the addiction to reptiles (and especially snakes) never completely left me. Today my interest is greater than it has ever been and occupies a major share of my wife’s and my time.
It is remarkable to see how the hobby has grown for thousands of Australians over the last 10 years in particular. The variety of species and forms of pythons available for the enthusiast, together with husbandry equipment, has grown exponentially. In addition, the Internet has been added to the tools of the modern hobbiest, so that now the amount of information internationally available is staggering.
However, I have found that there is still not a lot of reliable information available for many Australians who want to develop their keeping expertise. Today, I am continually asked about breeding techniques for species such as carpets, childrens, black-headed and woma pythons. While I look forward to writing about my experiences and understanding of breeding the various types of Australian pythons, I felt it was best to start with the basics such as handling, housing, feeding, health and cleaning - and then to build from there. Successful keeping (and breeding if you are so inclined) requires the keeper to master and integrate all these skills. Few books and magazines deal with these topics in any real detail, so that most of us have to learn by trial and error, which can be challenging to both the keeper and the kept!
It is certainly important to have a sound knowledge of the biology of this fascinating group of animals, but the more I learn the more I realise that snake keeping is as much an art as a science. This is why there are so many opinions on the subject and why the hobby can become a lifetime challenge.
The first step is to understand how a snake lives and thinks – to develop snake empathy. Too many keepers tend to interpret snake behaviour in terms of human experience (called anthropomorphising), or think of them like mammals such as dogs and cats. But, snakes are very different and see the world very differently.
If you were to examine the brain of a human, you would find that the part of the brain that computes sight is very large when compared to the part that analyses smell. Humans rely heavily on sight, then sound and finally smell. A close examination of the brain of a python shows that the portion of the brain allocated to smell is far larger than for sight. In addition, a snake smells through a two-pronged tongue and so smells in stereo (photo 4). Pythons such as carpets and olives have pits around their mouths that sense heat (photo 5). These sensors are connected to the part of the brain that is also connected to the eyes. So, snakes can “see” changes in temperature of as little as 0.5 oC.
Snakes have no external ears, but are very sensitive to touch and vibration. I remember a case where a person bought a snake that stopped feeding once they took it home. After much frustration and fending off accusations, it finally dawned that they kept the snake in a room where head-banging music was regularly played. Once the snake was moved away from the source of vibration, it started feeding straight away.
Snakes also have remarkable 3-dimensional skills, which is just as well for an animal that could literally tie itself in knots if it wasn’t paying attention. Research has shown that they can move from one established hiding spot to another, across kilometres of dense bush without deviating. Not bad when your perspective of the world is only a few inches above the ground, at best! Their ability to learn should not be underestimated particularly when it comes to feeding and handling. Some people train their snakes to be fed from one side of the cage and to be cleaned and handled from the other. I firmly believe pythons can learn the difference between their various handlers and strangers.
Anyone that keeps a number of snakes will tell you that they can be quite moody creatures and that there is a lot of variation between the temperament of individuals, even within the same species. They experience pain, hunger, feeling “off-colour” and stress like most animals. This needs to be kept in mind when handling them. If they are milky (prior to shedding), they are particularly touchy (photo 6). At this time, they can’t see properly, their skin is easily damaged and all they usually want to do is hide from the world.
Temperature has a significant effect on temperament. As a rule, the warmer the temperature the more alert and active the animal. Some get touchy when cold, probably because they are aware they are slow and vulnerable. If temperatures are too high, they can become stressed and bad tempered too.
A hungry python is usually an alert snake and easily prone to mistaking a moving hand as a potential meal. A python with a full belly is usually far more docile and is likely to curl up in a warm spot to digest its food. Pythons appear to sleep and so are largely unaware of what is going on around them. However, touch some pythons in this state and watch out. They can wake up with a start, panic and bite whatever is interrupting their peaceful state of mind.
One other major factor to bear in mind when handling a python is the stress, or anxiety level of the animal. A sick snake can be a stressed snake and prone to defending itself savagely. Also, a python that is being placed in new surroundings with new owners that can’t wait to handle their latest acquisition is bound to be suffering increased stress. Often it is best for the keeper to exercise self-control and let the animal settle into its new home first.
A horny python can also be anxious and either a handful, or completely disinterested in everything else except its object of desire. If it is mating season (typically winter to spring) and the python is losing interest in food and pacing its cage a lot, chances are it is thinking of love. There is no need to worry, this will pass once the season is over and the animal will return to normal.
So, a python primarily senses the world in stereo “smellavision”, is sensitive to movement, but not that good at picking out detail. Some “see” heat and all are very sensitive to touch and vibration. It is typically an ambush predator that is triggered to strike by the right combination of sensory data. They are highly individualistic and can be damned moody. What then is the best way to approach and handle these fascinating animals?
As snake owners, we need to understand that snakes are not social creatures. They don’t form bonds with us like dogs or cats (as much as we like to imagine they do). A python will only react aggressively to us because they think we are either a threat or food. At best, we might become an object of complete indifference other than perhaps a source of warmth, a handy perch or a place to hide.
Firstly, it is important to prepare yourself before handling. Avoiding being mistaken for food is relatively easy. I always wash my hands with a mild smelling, antiseptic soap before I go near my pythons. This makes sure that I don’t smell of anything that approximates a tasty morsel, especially if I have just had chicken for lunch, recently patted the dog, or just got the snake’s dinner out of the fridge. My wife and I have also found that strong smelling perfumes can create a violent reaction with some of our herps.
Next you need to consider the history of the python. For example, is it due for a feed and is it near feeding time? Has it been pacing its cage and looking agitated? Is it milky and probably best left alone? Do we know how the animal normally reacts to handling? Does it look shiny and healthy?
It is also necessary to assess the physical position of the python. Is it wrapped around a branch that will make removal difficult and potentially excite the animal. Is it lying peacefully in the open where access is easy and uncomplicated? If the cage door is left open is it likely to come out of its own accord offering an opportunity to slip a hand underneath and pick it up?
Once these factors have been taken into account, it is time to study its body language and utilise your snake empathy skills.
When a python is hungry it will often assume an ambush position. This is particularly true of carpet pythons. They hold their head and neck in an “S” position, usually at a slight downward angle to the ground (photos 7-9). Remembering that they can see movement rather than detail and sense heat, it is hardly surprising that they will strike if you move your hand past them. Womas and black-headed pythons habitually lie on the floor of the cage in an “S” position aiming towards the door of the cage where they are usually fed. When womas get excited they vibrate their tail which in the wild acts as a lure for their prey. Beware the keeper that touches them in this state!
Hungry snakes also pace their cages. Generally, they are not as dangerous as when they are in their ambush position. I find the easiest way to pick up a pacing snake is to open the cage door and let it partially exit of its own accord. When it is half out and not holding onto any cage furniture with its tail, it is relatively easy to quickly put a hand under the belly and lift it up.
Muscle tension is a strong indicator of intent. If you can see that the neck and body muscles are taut, then chances are the python is ready for action. Conversely, if the muscle tension is low and the body is loosely coiled, even though it knows you are nearby, it is relaxed and less likely to react badly to being handled (photos 1 & 2).
Another key to the potential behaviour of a snake is its tongue. When a python is excited it rapidly flicks its tongue (photo 10). Smell being their key sense, it is a bit like us staring at an object to work out what it is. Snakes will do this when they are frightened or hungry. When a python is scared, it will also rear up and backwards to maximise its striking speed and distance (photo 11). Without taking precautionary action, it is almost impossible to touch a python that is facing towards you in this agitated state without getting bitten. A python that is in its hide box, with only the tip of its head showing and rapidly flicking its tongue is probably in fight or fright mode too. Putting hands close to the box in this situation is asking for trouble.
I find that a sure way to upset your favourite python is to try and pull it off a branch or object that it is firmly holding onto with its tail and body. Even the most docile of animals will bite under these circumstances. There are two methods that can be used to solve the problem. If you have no choice but to take the animal off its perch, it is best to get help. The person in control takes hold of the neck decisively just behind the head so that it can’t bite. The second person can then quickly unravel the body from the object without delay or fuss (photos 12 & 13). Once free and in the hands of the keeper, it will generally calm down quickly. The second method involves tickling the tail. Pythons don’t like their tails touched. If a snake is in a position you don’t like, a tickle to the tail will cause it to move. After doing this a couple of times, when the snake is then left it will tend to seek refuge in its hide box where it is more easily dealt with.
The best way to pick up an adult snake is by placing a hand under the belly and a little behind the middle of the body. The second hand can then be used to support the front half of the snake (photo 14). Pythons do not like being held firmly. It is always best to let the animal move freely and to simply put one hand in front of the other so that it can keep crawling forward freely if it wants to. Never put your face (or anyone else’s) too close to its head in case it decides to strike at the eyes.
Many owners like to let their pets wrap around their necks. I used to do this, but have found that it can stimulate aggressive behaviour or constriction in even quite placid snakes. Pythons and boas have been shown to feel the heart beat of their prey and to constrict rhythmically to cause death through heart failure. Thinking like a snake, can you imagine what it would feel like to be surrounded by the smell of mammal, feeling all that warmth and the beat of a heart – more than a poor hungry snake could often bare.
The greatest skill comes with picking up and handling a hungry or stressed-out snake that you can tell will have a piece of you if given a chance. When you read this from the snake’s body language, or you know from history how badly it reacts to being touched, I have found that a very simple technique works. I always have a towel handy near my snakes. The trick is to put the towel over the snakes head and neck leaving the middle of the body exposed so you can pick it up (photos 15 & 17). I size up the situation, work out where I want to pick up the animal and then quickly execute the movement in a one-two action. This can be a particularly useful technique with womas and black-headed pythons that are voracious feeders and can bite first and ask questions later. With the exception of large, angry scrub and olive pythons, I have found no python with which this doesn’t work. With small snakes you can simply use the flat of your hand like a towel, because it offers nothing to bite (photo 16).
While talking about small snakes, it is worth mentioning that the best time to train a snake is when it is a baby. If you don’t mind the odd bite (don’t be a sook it doesn’t hurt) the animal will quickly learn that you are not a threat and settle into captivity well. When training any snake to be a safe pet, you need to do it regularly – no point doing it once a fortnight and expecting everyone to learn. Once every day or two, and not near feeding time, is usually best. However, if the snake gets stressed and stops its regular feeding you may have to reduce this until it relaxes with you more. A well-trained baby can then be a joy for the rest of its python life span of 20 to 30 years.
Despite the best of practices and a well-developed sense of snake empathy, even the most experienced of us can get “nailed” on occasion. The question is what to do next. Easier said than done, but the most important thing to remember is DO NOT PULL AWAY from the animal. Snake jaws are surprisingly fragile and easy to damage. I have seen beautiful animals destroyed this way. In fact, I saw an uncommon and lovely carpet python at an Australian zoo that had been permanently damaged by the keeper failing to control his reflexes.
If the snake is only defending itself, it will not hang on for long and will quickly release ready to strike again. If it is biting you because of a case of mistaken identity (i.e. dinner) and doesn’t want to let go, you have some choices. You can try and pry it off and risk hurting the snake and yourself more. You can wait until it realises its mistake, which can take quite a while for black-headed and water pythons. Or, you can dab a little bit of metholated spirits very close to the mouth (of the snake dummy) which makes most let go instantly and teaches them you taste like hell. I always keep a squeeze bottle of meths handy just is case. But don’t use too much, because smell and taste are their strongest senses. They hate it and will often vigorously throw their heads around.
In conclusion, the key to handling all pythons is to sum up the situation in its entirety, to have a deliberate plan on how you are going to approach the snake and then to act decisively. The majority of times when pythons get stressed and handlers get bitten is because they have not adhered to these basic principles. With practise and experience the whole process becomes second nature. I know some keepers with quite large collections who still use gloves because they say their snakes bite them. Or, they don’t have the confidence to handle some of their snakes at all. In my view, with a few tricks of the trade described here, this is totally unnecessary and is more a reflection of their handling skills than their herps unusual behaviour. Mind you, if you handle your snakes badly and teach them to be anxious around you, they can become pretty nasty. It has been said that you can learn a lot about a keeper from the way their snakes behave!