A reader wrote today and asked about something I do often – handling snakes. Well, I’ll share his note with you below. I figured, this would be a good time to talk about some thoughts I have on this and a couple other subjects – keeping snakes, and selling snakes.
Hi, I really enjoy your page and my question today was not to be a troll but I honestly wonder why many snake enthusiasts handle the ones they find in the wild. I understand the necessity for scientific research but as yours is a educational website is this the best way to teach by example as I imagine you know what your doing and don’t harm the animals but also imagine it’s even better for them to let them be and only observer and photograph them.
I have many snakes on my property in Northern Thailand and my whole family loves watching them in their natural habitat. We even let nature take it’s course and let them as well as the other wildlife share what we grow even eat our domesticated farm birds. Look forward to hearing your take on this.
p.s. I am not a expert or even extremely well informed on this subject and hope you can shed some light on it for me, thanks.
Great question, and I’ve thought about the subject of handling snakes and how much to handle them, often. I have come to a couple conclusions about it and I’ll share them with you below.
I handle snakes as little as possible. That’s my mantra. I don’t tend to do something I don’t need to do. My two goals with finding snakes in Thailand is that I:
1. Learn something about their behavior, their location, their preferences for food, habitat, terrain, food, humidity in the air and ground, etc. Though I could never sit through a major in biology, I fancy myself an amateur biologist when I study snakes to whatever degree I do.
2. Shoot video and photos to capture their appearance and behavior as much as possible in as short a time as possible.
Ideally, and when I’m on my own I can usually do this, I find a snake, shoot photos and videos, and let it go in the same place I found it. Maximum time spent handling the snake is about twenty minutes I think at the high-end. Usually I’m done in 5-10 minutes because I’ve already found the snake previously. With new snakes, I like to examine them closely and get many photos and at least one video.
My agenda, my goal, is to document the snake and where I found it, when I found it. In order to do this I have to interact with the snake in some ways. I might encourage it onto my snake hook and bring it down to the ground. I might grab it gently in the snake tongs and pull it out of a tree. In the case of venomous species, I interact with them much less than non-venomous, for the simple fact that trading envenomation for some photos and videos is not ideal. I am much more fascinated by a snake that can kill me with one scrape of a fang against my skin though, and so I probably spend even more time with them than I would a non-venomous species. There is some thrill to finding and working with venomous and especially deadly snakes. This is part of the reason I find snakes fascinating.
That said, I don’t handle them any more than with the snake hook or tongs, for the most part. I’m not one of those guys that has to grab every snake by the head. I don’t understand people that do this, I can imagine why they do it, but I don’t approve of it. If someone with me does it, I don’t chastise them for it, I just don’t encourage it or enjoy it at all.
There are guys I’ve herped with that aren’t satisfied with finding a snake, they NEED to grab it by the head. You know who you are. Lol. I guess it’s a power thing, a control thing. When grasping a cobra, a krait, a viper, by the head, it is the absolute control over what could be imminent death. It’s a bit of a thrill for sure. Some kiss king cobras on the face, some touch them on the head. Some herpers aren’t happy until they’ve grabbed the snake by the head and are pulling the jaw open to see the fangs they know must be there.
So, people are different. I don’t see the point of grabbing snakes – venomous or non – by the head so I can see their fangs every time, or so I experience complete control over them. I understand the desire of some people for doing it, but I think overall it does no good for the snake or the person to risk a bite.
My own preference is to pick a venomous snake up by the tail somewhat as I’m moving it around for photos. I don’t touch vipers like this. With most other snakes, it’s not too much of a problem or risk. Some would say it is. Everyone is different.
On occasion I will hold a snake by the neck, the head, so I can examine it more closely. Sometimes I want to ensure identification and I’m looking for a loreal scale, or something else that would be impossible to see with a moving snake – especially a venomous one. Yesterday I turned a snake upside down to see the anal shield because one snake that is very similar in appearance has a split shield, one has a complete un-split shield. So, sometimes I examine a snake closer, but I am not in the habit of holding a snake by the head for the sheer joy of it.
One thing I wonder a fair bit about, is the practice of using very bright lights on the snakes during night herping sessions. Some of the LED flashlights out now would blind a human being if held on their face and they couldn’t blink. What are we doing to wildlife? I think use of a flash is probably OK, but prolonged use of these flashlights that turn night into daylight – should be stopped. I have no data about it, but snakes cannot shut their eyes, some lizards too. Spiders? I don’t think can shut their eyes. I think we’re probably causing irreparable harm to some species by shining bright lights into their eyes as we try to examine them or take photos and videos of them. Anybody have any data on this subject?
So, that pretty much explains what I think about excessive handling of snakes. If there is a good reason to do so, if there is something that can be learned, something that needs to be seen first-hand, then I think it’s OK to handle a snake more thoroughly. If not, I just don’t see the point and I think people should stop doing it for the power trip or whatever it is in their case.
I was going to just make this one massively long article, but I just decided to break it up into 2 different articles. Here is the follow-up article in which I go over a couple of things I disagree with:
Jonathan was not satisfied with that, and accuses me of doing something other than what I say.
Jonathan wrote again, after seeing the above. His note is below, and I’ll comment within the body of it so I don’t miss anything, and so he doesn’t. Here’s his note:
J: Thanks for taking the time and me seriously. Honestly I think you don’t need to handle snakes at all unless say a dangerous one was in your home and it was to protect your child for example.
V: Sounds good for you. Are you saying you don’t think YOU need to, or you don’t think I, Vern, need to handle snakes at all unless a dangerous one was in my home? If you’re speaking for yourself – great. Don’t speak for me or try to imagine what I should do or need to do.
J: I imagine anything one wants to learn about snakes can be done with the internet.
V: I don’t imagine that way at all. Just for a simple example, as I said in the original post, I had to check the anal plate to see if it was split or not. Doesn’t matter how much I look at the internet, that isn’t going to tell me whether the plate on the snake I just found is split or not.
J: I guess if you see one your (sic) not familiar with and want to indentify (sic) it once perhaps. Again I’m not expert but I think not handling at all is best, my main point of my original message that you didn’t respond to.
V: Maybe I didn’t get what you were trying to say. Now I think you were saying that you think that I shouldn’t handle snakes at all. I think I understand what you’re saying now.
J: You say they don’t want to be grabbed by the head which seems to naturally progress to not at all. You even say “as short as time as possible” and as your (sic) not administering medical care wouldn’t that again be none. I love nature, and I’m not an environmental extremist, but honestly what you say seems to go against what you do. Let me quote you once again with your first words, “I handle snakes as little as possible”. I think you mean as little as you want to. You did bring up your agenda is why you do this, which is to document them, why is your hobby more important then (sic) the animals well bieng (sic)?
V: As I read this, I thought – didn’t he read what I said? Then, reading the last bit, yep, you read it. You didn’t really get it though. Here, I’ll say it again in a different way…
My goal, my focus, my reason for handling snakes is that I’m learning something. I’m learning how they act. I’m learning how they strike. I’m learning how they like to be held. I’m learning whether ticks prefer them. I’m learning what age a snake is when they acquire ticks. I’m learning about color gradations. I’m learning about scale counts. I’m learning about the color of the tongue, how they hold the tongue when calm and when stressed. I’m examining the status of their anal scale. I’m learning about the patterns on their ventral side as well as the top, chin, neck, and inside of the mouth occasionally. I’m looking for new species sometimes. I’m looking for something different on the snake that I’ve seen before, or that I can confirm which I read previously online or in books, or heard from other snake enthusiasts. I’m looking for broken ribs. I’m looking for how pronounced the vertebral column is so it may help me identify two very similar snakes in the future. I’m getting to know the snake more. I’m then writing about the snake to share with others.
Sometimes I’m holding a snake for no other reason than the selfish pleasure and power-trip that comes with holding a species of snake that can kill me within a dozen minutes. I’m guilty of that, I admit it. Finding snakes in the wild that most people will never see alive – is something special to me, and I cherish it.
So I’m handling the snake with these goals as my justification for doing so. If you don’t like it, that’s your prerogative. I don’t necessarily care what others think of what I’m doing, but I do listen and respond as it makes sense to do so.
And to specifically address your point – when I say “I handle snakes as little as possible,” I should have kept going to make it crystal clear. I handle snakes as little as possible considering the goals I have for myself during the encounter. My goals need to be met, that won’t change. As I’ve said, I’ve given a decent amount of thought as to what I want to accomplish when I catch a snake and handle it in any way.
J: I am challenging you, not publicly, and not for the sake of an argument, but I’m really intrigued why you, a snake lover, feel this way. You claim not power but your (sic) only able to as you are more powerful, esp in mind, then (sic) these poor creatures.
V: I don’t understand the previous paragraph. If you want to clarify, I’ll be glad to respond.
J: No need to put on your blog, but of course feel free, but if you do have a moment please reply. Thanks, Jonathan
V: I don’t mind bringing it up in public, I have no qualms about it. I am not sure why you’re writing me about this topic because I’m someone who handles snakes to a very small degree, and I feel for the animal tremendously. Maybe you have another unrelated axe to grind but you haven’t brought it up. If so, we can make that public too. lol.
Part III – and the final, I just don’t have time for more nonsense, and that’s what it is becoming…
Jonathan was even less satisfied with that exchange, and here’s his next note:
Found your response childish and here’s why. 1. “Need” does not mean “want”. 2. Read my comment you quoted about indentifying snakes right below where you take me task on exactly that. 3. I’ve never seen so many “I”s (20 in one paragraph alone) guess it’s not about the snakes 4. You put down others for holding dangerous snakes “I just don’t see the point and I think people should stop doing it for the power trip ” and then say “Sometimes I’m holding a snake for no other reason than the selfish pleasure and power-trip ” Your a hypocrite! To clarify my point you didn’t understand most humans are smarter then snakes but as you’ve now changed your story it’s a mute point.
To conclude (I’ll ignore your trying to put this on me by saying I have another ax to grind) you say “I feel for the animal tremendously” but still admit to cause them discomfort for your own thrill. I can only hope there are less kind souls in this world like yourself.
Somehow I knew it would reach this point…
I found your response ignorant. Here’s why…
1. I NEED to do what I WANT to do. You don’t get that for some reason. I dictate what I need. Not you. Not someone else. To you, need seems to be based on some external criteria. I’m using my criteria to judge what I need, what is necessary. I don’t know why that’s such a difficult thing to grasp.
If I don’t want to do anything with snakes, then I never need to do anything with them. I’d ignore them and never interact with them at all. Want dictates need.
2. Another one of those points where I’m lost as to what you’re saying.
3. I am talking entirely about ME here because you called ME into question. How can I do that without using “I”? Come on man, jesus…
4. I didn’t put anybody down. I don’t agree with holding a dangerous snake by the neck, the head, because it is dangerous to the PERSON DOING IT. And yes, it’s more intrusive to the snake. I don’t hold snakes by the head. I said I hold snakes sometimes just for the pleasure of doing it.
I think one of our primary differences in opinion is that you don’t think anyone should hold a snake for any reason – maybe not for research of any kind, not sure. I differ. I don’t think there is any problem holding any snake as long as no overall harm is done.
Honestly, I’m not even curious what you think at this point.
As to your last paragraph, where you say I “still admit to cause them discomfort for your own thrill.”
Again, we’re of a different opinion. To you, holding a snake is a crime itself. To you it must be causing the snake horrific discomfort? Come on.
To me, holding a snake is causing very little discomfort in the big picture. I’m not hurting it. I’m not holding it for an extended time period. I’m not holding it immovable, it has freedom to move a bit. I’m not teasing it. I’m not force-feeding it. I’m not causing it any permanent or even temporary harm. I think to some degree that handling a snake, grabbing the tail and holding it by the tail and supported with a snake hook can be an experience that prolongs the snake’s life because it knows to fear man more and will maybe avoid us more.
I hope you’re finished. I started out almost enjoying your questions. Then it became a chore to respond to you and even tolerate you. I won’t be responding any more to your messages – I’m done. I find it really strange that you’re writing me when there are millions of people across the globe that keep snakes in captivity, buy and sell them like property, force feed them, keep them in horribly small living spaces with inadequate water, food, humidity, temperature, social opps, etc.
My idea is that by interacting with the snakes at a very personal level, seeing many things first-hand, I’m stoking my interest in them and what I’ll do for them in the future. I’ll think about them more. Write about them more. Shoot more video and photos. Share more about them, and help others to see how important they are to us.