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Q & A
Snakes as Pets
Question
Some neighborhood kids in my complex found a snake. Kids will be kids, especially with snakes, so I "rescued" the poor thing from the curious kids. I took this snake to Super Pets and they told me it is a black rat snake. We are leaving him alone in a habitat container. He seems to be content (maybe she). What I would like to know is: 1) is it legal for me to keep this snake? 2) will this animal thrive in captivity (it's just a baby..and may become prey)? 3) IF it is a good decision to keep this snake, what should we feed it? Super pets said mice but this snake seems awful small to be eating mice so early, so I want to be sure. I understand this is a wild animal and if we keep it that it will need time to adjust, even at this young age. I AM concerned that if I do release it that it will become a tasty treat for another animal, and I have read that in captivity they can live beyond 20 years. Also, if we are to keep this animal, what is the best living arrangement, heat rock? What type of materials in it's habitat, etc.? Any information you can give me is greatly appreciated.
Answer
It is legal to catch and keep a black rat snake taken from the wild in Pennsylvania. However, as stewards of Pennsylvania's native reptiles and amphibians, the Commission does NOT encourage people to remove snakes and other herptiles from the wild for pets. They serve a valuable purpose as prey and predator in their natural habitat. You indicated a reason for keeping this animal was because you were concerned that since it was a baby it would become a meal for some other animal. That could very well be the case; or, it could grow up to become a very effective natural predator on rodents such as mice and rats thus serving one of the purposes for which it has evolved. Snakes of all sizes can become prey. Such a threat is not reserved only for juvenile snakes. Therefore, I wouldn't keep a healthy animal in captivity because I was concerned for its safety in the wild.

You also acknowledged that there are many things to be considered in order to keep a snake healthy in captivity such as feeding, housing and heat considerations. You are correct. When an animal is confined it has to rely on its keeper to provide all of the needed environmental and dietary requirements necessary for its survival. In the wild, the same snake would move around seeking out ideal conditions until it found them. Once again such a wild animal will do better in the wild on its own rather than in captivity.

Furthermore, you mentioned that this snake could live for up to 20 years. The next question is, what will you do with it when you no longer wish to buy mice every two weeks or your children grow up and move out of the house, or you just plain get tired of it. Unfortunately, release to the wild will no longer be an option. A snake kept in captivity for much longer than thirty days often begins to load up with various parasites which are easily able to infect and re-infect it due to the confined living conditions. Also, a snake which has not been forced to find and hunt its own food or select a proper over wintering location is unlikely to do well if released into the wild. While its out there trying to find a place to hide or food to eat, it will be more susceptible to predation than its wild raised cousins. That brings us right back around to the reason why you wanted to save the snake in the first place, to protect it from predation.

My recommendation is that you release the snake where you found and allow it to live out its life, however long that may be, in the wild. If you still wish to keep a snake as a pet, I would go back to the pet store and purchase a species recommended by the staff as an "easy keeper" which has been captive-bred and is already feeding well. They can also direct you to specific books and guides which will describe the requirements needed to successfully keep that species. There is literally a book on care already written for most of the more common captive bred snakes popular in the pet trade.

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