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Complex Habitats or Rack Systems for Captive Snakes?

Posted by on February 1, 2022 at 4:55 PM

Complex Habitats or Rack Systems for Captive Snakes?


Reptile owners and breeders engage in an on-going debate as to whether snakes should be kept in environmentally complex enclosures or racks. My opinion, based on information in the scientific literature, on personal observations of snakes at our facility when given preference tests, and considering anecdotal stories and observations from caretakers is that keeping snakes in tubs with no access to natural (or simulated natural) light and heat, without the ability to fully stretch out or move rectilinearly, and without access to opportunities to express natural behaviors is not optimal welfare. Consider both sides and let me know in the comments what your thoughts are.

Breeders and keepers who maintain snakes in tubs state that it makes it easier to care for large numbers of animals, it is easier to maintain sanitized conditions, it is easier to monitor body functions such as food and water intake and elimination behavior, that it is easier to notice issues such as mites, it is easier to maintain uniform heat, and that snakes in the wild prefer to hide in tight, dark spaces and don’t require UVB or natural light as many are nocturnal.

I find flaws in each of these premises except the ability to maintain cleanliness and notice mites. That is true. When snakes are kept in a plastic container with paper for substrate and just a water dish, keeping it very clean and noticing the presence of mites or other parasites will be very easy. The cons of keeping this way are numerous. The snakes have no access to light or heat from above as they would in nature, they have no access to climbing or burrowing opportunities as they would in nature, they usually have no ability to observe the external environment (some tubs have small windows in them) which prevents them from passively habituating to human behavior and activities going on outside, unless the tub is very long the snakes cannot fully stretch out or move in a fully rectilinear manner, they have no exposure to novelty, and some keepers do not provide hides as they say the tub itself is “like a hide”. Some species of snakes do like to hide in tight, dark spaces when they are sleeping; however, when observed during periods when they are naturally awake and active, they engage in activities out in the open, fully stretched out, and travel distances longer than the length of a tub or most enclosures. Some species of snakes (i.e., Morelia bredli, Morelia carinata, Python reticulatus) sleep or rest while partially visible in trees, rock crevices, or on ledges. The bottom line with tubs is that while they are an easy way to provide excellent cleanliness, the snakes have no ability to exercise choice and control, access natural or naturalistic stimuli, passively habituate to living under human care through observation, and lack opportunities to express most natural behaviors.

Numerous studies which I will post below support that snakes will choose larger enclosures over smaller ones when given the choice and that snakes who live in enclosures with the ability to express species-typical behaviors and who are exposed to environmental complexity are better at problem-solving tasks, grow larger and develop more muscle tone, have increased cognitive abilities, and are able to discriminate between known caretakers and strangers.

Keeping in tubs satisfies the aspects of effective husbandry such as cleanliness and easily observing the physical condition of the animal and anything that comes off or out of the animal such as feces, urates, regurgitation, parasites, etc. Uniform temperatures are typically able to be maintained via ambient room heat or under tub heating across all units. Keeping in tubs does not satisfy aspects of husbandry such as the ability to express natural behaviors (climbing, burrowing, swimming hiding, basking, moving long distances during awake periods, etc.), the ability to get physical exercise, opportunities for cognitive stimulation, or other aspects of optimal welfare outlined in the Five Domains. Here are a list of papers that delve into both styles of keeping and how they impact welfare. Some of these are open access and others are not. I have all these full papers and am happy to share if anyone has an interest, just ask and I will send them to you.


Almli, L. M., & Burghardt, G. M. (2006). Environmental enrichment alters the behavioral profile of ratsnakes (Elaphe). Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 9(2), 85-109.

Cargill, B., Benato, L., & Rooney, N. J. (2021). A survey exploring the impact of housing and husbandry on pet snake welfare. Animal Welfare, 10-7120.

Emer, S. A., Mora, C. V., Harvey, M. T., & Grace, M. S. (2015). Predators in training: operant conditioning of novel behavior in wild Burmese pythons (Python molurus bivitattus). Animal cognition, 18(1), 269-278.

Hoehfurtner, T., Wilkinson, A., Walker, M., & Burman, O. H. (2021). Does enclosure size influence the behaviour & welfare of captive snakes (Pantherophis guttatus)? Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 243, 105435.

Hoehfurtner, T., Wilkinson, A., Nagabaskaran, G., & Burman, O. H. (2021). Does the provision of environmental enrichment affect the behaviour and welfare of captive snakes? Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 239, 105324.

Hollandt, T., Baur, M., & Wöhr, A. C. (2021). Animal-appropriate housing of ball pythons (Python regius)—Behavior-based evaluation of two types of housing systems. Plos one, 16(5), e0247082.

Loughman, Z. J. (2020). Utilization of Natural History Information in Evidence based Herpetoculture: A Proposed Protocol and Case Study with Hydrodynastes gigas (False Water Cobra). Animals, 10(11), 2021.

Mellor, D. J., Beausoleil, N. J., Littlewood, K. E., McLean, A. N., McGreevy, P. D., Jones, B., & Wilkins, C. (2020). The 2020 five domains model: including human–animal interactions in assessments of animal welfare. Animals, 10(10), 1870.

Ledger, R. A., & Mellor, D. J. (2018). Forensic use of the Five Domains Model for assessing suffering in cases of animal cruelty. Animals, 8(7), 101.

Mellor, D. J. (2017). Operational details of the five domains model and its key applications to the assessment and management of animal welfare. Animals, 7(8), 60.

Mellor, D. J., & Beausoleil, N. J. (2015). Extending the ‘Five Domains’ model for animal welfare assessment to incorporate positive welfare states. Anim. Welf, 24(3), 241.

Nagabaskaran, G., Burman, O. H., Hoehfurtner, T., & Wilkinson, A. (2021). Environmental enrichment impacts discrimination between familiar and unfamiliar human odours in snakes (Pantherophis guttata). Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 237, 105278.

Spain, M. S., Fuller, G., & Allard, S. M. (2020). Effects of habitat modifications on behavioral indicators of welfare for Madagascar giant hognose snakes (Leioheterodon madagascariensis). Anim. Behav. Cogn, 7, 70-81.

Warwick, C., Arena, P., & Steedman, C. (2019). Spatial considerations for captive snakes. Journal of veterinary behavior, 30, 37-48.


Things that Stress Snake: Myth or Fact?

Posted by on May 12, 2021 at 1:15 AM

I have answered several questions about the myths common in snake keeping about "handling before and after feeding" and this or that "stressing the snake so not to do it" such as feeding out of the enclosure, giving them too large an enclosure, or things like "it stresses snake to be out of their cage", etc. These are not based on behavior science or what we know about stress and how it works. These may be true for specific individuals; however, they cannot be applied to all snakes across the board.

Every animal is an individual with various temperaments, personalities, and preferences. What is distressful for one may not bother another at all. Get to know your individual animal, with regard to snakes, learn the body language to watch for indicating comfort and relaxation versus distress.

I sometimes handle before, after, and during feeding depending on the individual snake. That rule of thumb to "never handle snakes after they eat" is based on the premise, or the assumption, that handling will distress the snake and cause regurgitation. This is possible anytime the snake is distressed. There is good stress which challenges organisms, tolerable stress which organisms are able to cope with and recover from, and toxic stress which organisms cannot cope with and can have long-term consequences. If an individual snake is moderately stressed (good to tolerable stress) by something and they have recently eaten they may or may not regurgitate. If they are distressed it will likely cause regurgitation or digestive issues. I feed the snakes all over the place depending on if I am using food as a training reinforcer or just feeding them. Sometimes they eat inside their habitats, sometimes out, sometimes on a scale, or in a transport tub. I do have one snake who is highly distressed by prey items inside his habitat and always comes out to eat where he is relaxed and comfortable. If handling, exercise, or other activities are not stressful to a snake then they are unlikely to regurgitate.

If a snake is relaxed and comfortable with an activity, if it does not stress them, then there is no reason to alter their routine around feeding. For example, if climbing onto a ledge, coming out of their habitat, or being picked up does not cause them distress in general, they will not suddenly be distressed by those things just because they ate. This is based on these behaviors being the snake's choice and that they are not being forced on them. If they are normally not comfortable with those things then feeding is not a good time to start working on those behaviors. I do have some videos about habituating new snakes to handling, choice-based handling, and am starting a new series about stress and building resiliency over the next several weeks. If you're interested to learn more before my videos or out I suggest recent papers by Bruce McEwen in regard to stress and allostatic loads.


Helping Horses say Goodbye

Posted by on November 21, 2020 at 12:40 AM

Animal Behavior: Helping Horses say Goodbye

Lori A. Torrini, Director

Spirit Keeper Equine Sanctuary 501c3


We all have a story. Our horses have stories. There is a beginning of the story when they are born and experience safety and security with their mothers, the joy of play with other foals, and learning how to interact with conspecifics. There is the middle of the story when they leave their mother or original herd mates to live a life at the whim of humans. This may be to do a job, be a companion, a pet, a family member, an athlete; or, as a tool, commodity, or money maker for people who view them as property. There is always an end to their story and that is what I want to talk about here.

Many people share their lives with horses in some way and for various amounts of time. When asked “whatever happened to that horse you had?” people may respond by saying things like “oh, he went to a retirement home”, “he’s living his life out at a sanctuary”, or “she went to a really nice family to be a kid’s horse” and for you, that’s the end of the story. In your mind, a happy ending; your horse living out their life in a nice place. That may be the end of the story for you but its not for your horse. They end up someplace and ultimately they die, and that is the end of their story. Hopefully, they live out their final days in a safe place where they are loved and cared for and where the end of their life is comfortable and easy.

For the horses’ final caretakers, the end of the story is not until after emotionally letting go, dealing with the psychological loss, the burial or cremation and settling up any outstanding veterinary or end of life finances for the horse. For the conspecifics, herd mates, and companions of the horse now gone, the story is not over until they reach their own end. There will always be an emptiness there for horses left behind because while social interactions may be taken up with others, it can never be quite the same since each horse is an individual.

Horses form strong social bonds. It is an innate trait of their species to live in groups called herds, even if that is a herd of two. The relationships they form are strong and contribute to their psychological and physical well-being. They stand watch over each other as they sleep, stand together for security and warmth, groom each other (called allogrooming), and engage in play behavior with one another. So, what happens to the one left behind when one half of that bond is gone? How does the horse cope with the loss of their companion and all of the important social interactions they shared?

It can be traumatic, especially if the herd was only two. If the horses lived in a group of three or more some of the social dynamics may change and shift; however, the availability to socially interact is at least still there and, it is with horses they already know. If the group is only two horses or there are two in a larger group with a particularly strong bond, the loss of one can be devastating. The remaining horse may become lethargic, be uninterested in normal activities, experience a reduced appetite or start to exhibit stereotypies (aberrant, maladaptive behaviors).

The following is a case example of how we at Spirit Keeper Equine Sanctuary did our best to make the end of life transition as smooth as possible for a strongly bonded pair of mares. They had lived together for many years prior to arriving here, came here together with a group of 11 horses, and remained together for four years here until the death of the older mare.

Summer and Flower (2020)

Summer, age 17, was extremely attached to Flower, age 28. If Summer could not see Flower, even for a second, she would pace, run, whinny, and display general anxiety. They were pastured together and when it became necessary to place Summer on a special diet they were separated but in adjacent spaces so that they could still see each other and interact with one another through the fence. When they were not eating they were turned out together. When Flower began to slow down and take longer to eat her special senior diet, they were pretty much separated all the time; however, still adjacent so that they could interact.

Their pens were in the middle of other corrals with many other horses all around them that they could have physical, auditory, and visual contact with. Summer had horses next to her that she and Flower had lived with prior to coming to the sanctuary, including her 6-year-old foal. We made sure to arrange the horses this way as we observed Flower’s declining health and strategized as to how to best prepare and transition Summer to be without her.

Flower was experiencing kidney failure and remained in the stall and run adjacent to Summer during her treatment, palliative care, and eventual euthanasia. The panels were then opened so that Summer could access Flower’s body and be in her pen with her for about 24 hours prior to her burial on site at the sanctuary. Summer was then moved into Flower’s stall and paddock for several weeks before being moved out to a larger paddock next to the other horses she came to Spirit Keeper with.

Surprisingly, Summer handled the loss of Flower very well. Despite the drama of loud and over-the-top behaviors she would exhibit anytime Flower was out of sight during their four years in our care together, we did not see this behavior from Summer during Flower’s end of life transition. Summer stood by her companion when the veterinarian was here caring for her and during the euthanasia. She watched over her body until it was moved to the burial site and barely offered a whinny when that happened.

In Flower’s final days we interacted with her normally. We groomed her, scratching her in all her favorite spots, allowed her access to the places she normally liked to stand in or lie down in, fed her normally even when she wasn’t eating, and made everything as normal and routine as possible. The euthanasia was done where she had chosen to be that day, while being scratched in her favorite spots, Summer next to her, and surrounded by other horses.

I feel satisfied that we took every step possible to ease the transition for both mares and to ease Summer into a new social situation for what will likely be many, many more years here since she is so young. It has been our experience that gradual transitions for horses always go smoother and take less of a psychological toll on them than abrupt, sudden changes.

I want to thank Sara Pehrsson who fostered Summer and Flower for three years, and visited them often after they returned to the sanctuary. Sara visited Flower during her illness and assisted us in making the decision to euthanize her at the right time. It was at Sara’s suggestion that we publish this case as a resource for others managing horses in similar circumstances.


Notes and Peer Reviewed Resources on Snake Training, Brains, and Cognition

Posted by on August 30, 2020 at 4:45 AM

Notes and Resources on Snake (and other reptiles) Training, Brains and Cognition

When I decided to share my home with snakes again after more than twenty years without one I took on that responsibility with an understanding of animal behavior and training that I did not have the first time. From years of education in behavior science and the laws governing how animals learn to many years of hands-on experience training animals, I ventured into snake keeping with an interest in relationship building and communication I had ignorantly not thought possible before. I was still hearing the same narrative being spun by breeders and snake keepers that I had heard twenty years before, which was that snakes were not intelligent, that they were primitive and just functioned on instinct, that they weren’t very active and preferred small spaces, and that they could not be trained. This rhetoric was not what I was actually observing in my snakes’ behavior.

One of the snakes I added to my family was shy and fearful. I wanted us to develop a positive and trusting relationship and be able to communicate effectively since she would be with me for her lifetime. I told myself that I was an animal trainer and should be able to train her as I would any other animal. I asked myself how I would handle this situation if it was a horse or dog. From that moment on, I began working with her using passive habituation and gradual desensitization, along with training that combined classical and operant conditioning. This was tremendously successful and went so smoothly I began to research snake training, cognition, and learning to prove to myself that I was not imagining that the training and behavior modification I was doing with her was actually working.

What I learned was that there were people, mainly in the zoo world and scientific community, who had been training reptiles, including snakes for several years. I learned that snakes have the same basic brain plan as other vertebrates, and that scientific studies into reptile neuroanatomy, cognition, emotion, and brain chemistry support that reptiles have the same or homologous brain structures as mammals, produce dopamine, and have emotional lives.

Do not take my word for this. I encourage you to read the literature for yourselves and draw your own conclusions from what the researchers have documented. I spent a lot of time and effort searching for information about snake brain structure, cognition, and training. The following are some of the relevant papers I was able to find, there are more out there. Some of these are so amazing I cannot believe they are not well known in herpetoculture.

1. Using Operant Conditioning and Desensitization to Facilitate Veterinary Care with Captive Reptiles (Hellmuth, Heidi; Augustine, Lauren, et al., Veterinary Clinics: Exotic Animal Practice, Volume 15, Issue 3, 425 – 443)

Key Points listed in this paper are:

• In addition to being a large component of most zoological collections, reptile species are also becoming more and more popular as family pets.

• Reptiles have the cognitive ability to be trained in order to facilitate daily husbandry and veterinary care.

• Desensitization and operant conditioning can alleviate some of the behavioral and physiological challenges of treating these species.

• A survey of reptile training programs at zoos in the United States and worldwide reveals that there are many successful training programs being used in zoological settings to facilitate veterinary care and minimize stress to the animal.

• Many of the techniques being used to train reptiles in zoological settings are transferable to the exotic pet clinician.

• These techniques are useful for improving veterinary care in private herpetological collections and for the family pet.

2. Predators in Training: Operant Conditioning of Novel Behavior in Wild Burmese Pythons (Emer SA, Mora CV, Harvey MT, Grace MS. Predators in training: operant conditioning of novel behavior in wild Burmese pythons (Python molurus bivitattus). Anim Cogn. 2015;18(1):269‐278. doi:10.1007/s10071-014-0797-1)

Key Points listed in this paper are:

• Large pythons and boas comprise a group of animals whose anatomy and physiology are very different from traditional mammalian, avian and other reptilian models typically used in operant conditioning.

• Investigators used a modified shaping procedure involving successive approximations to train wild Burmese pythons to approach and depress an illuminated push button in order to gain access to a food reward.

• Results show that these large, wild snakes can be trained to accept extremely small food items, associate a stimulus with such rewards via operant conditioning and perform a contingent operant response to gain access to a food reward.

• The shaping procedure produced robust responses and provides a mechanism for investigating complex behavioral phenomena in massive snakes that are rarely studied in learning research.

3. Environmental Enrichment Alters the Behavioral Profile of Ratsnakes (Almli LM, Burghardt GM. Environmental enrichment alters the behavioral profile of ratsnakes (Elaphe). J Appl Anim Welf Sci. 2006;9(2):85‐109. doi:10.1207/s15327604jaws0902_1)

Key Points listed in this paper are:

• This study demonstrated that housing conditions can affect the behavior of captive snakes and produce improvements in behavior similar to those seen in mammalian enrichment studies.

• In a problem-solving task, snakes housed in enriched environments (EC) exhibited shorter latencies to the goal as compared to snakes housed in standard conditions (SC).

• In an open field task, EC snakes tended to habituate more quickly than SC snakes with repeated testing.

• A discriminant function analysis correctly assigned all snakes to their appropriate housing treatment groups, based on the responses in each of the behavioral tasks.

• EC snakes were more behaviorally adaptive than SC snakes.

4. The Reptilian Brain (Naumann RK, Ondracek JM, Reiter S, et al. The reptilian brain. Curr Biol. 2015;25(8):R317‐R321. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2015.02.049)

Key Points listed in this paper are:

• Identification of conserved brain subdivisions demonstrates that all of the general brain regions found in mammals, including the cerebral cortex, have homologies in reptiles.

• Although pallial structures exist in amphibians and fish, reptiles and mammals are the only vertebrates to have a cerebral cortex with a clear, three-layered structure, similar to that of mammalian allocortex.

• The reptilian ventral pallium gives rise to the dorsal ventricular ridge, a structure that dominates the bird pallium and contributes to the complex cognitive abilities of birds.

• Reptiles express a number of complex behaviors normally attributed to mammals. They can, for example, learn to navigate mazes as well as birds or mammals do and likely use a hippocampal structure to do so.

• Mammalian and reptilian brains share both ancestry and a large number of functional attributes.

5. Variation in Reptilian Brains and Cognition (Northcutt RG. Variation in reptilian brains and cognition. Brain Behav Evol. 2013;82(1):45‐54. doi:10.1159/000351996)

Key Points listed in this paper are:

• Studies of spatial and visual cognition in nonavian reptiles reveal that they learn mazes and make visual discriminations as rapidly as most birds and mammals.

• Studies of social cognition and novel behavior, including play, reveal levels of complexity not previously believed to exist among nonavian reptiles.

• Given this level of neural and cognitive complexity, it is possible that consciousness has evolved numerous times, independently, among reptiles.

6. Homology in the Evolution of the Cerebral Hemispheres. The Case of Reptilian Dorsal Ventricular Ridge and Its Possible Correspondence with Mammalian Neocortex (Aboitiz F. Homology in the evolution of the cerebral hemispheres. The case of reptilian dorsal ventricular ridge and its possible correspondence with mammalian neocortex. J Hirnforsch. 1995;36(4):461‐472.)

Key Points listed in this paper are:

• It is likely that the Dorsal Ventricular Ridge (DVR) is a derived character of reptiles while the neocortex is a derived character of mammals and that the two structures may originate from the same primordial anlage in the common ancestor.

• Lateral cortex is similarly localized in reptiles and mammals.

• Regardless of whether DVR and extrastriate neocortex can or cannot be considered phylogenetic homologues, some of the integrative functions performed by them might have a common evolutionary origin, that became localized in reptilian DVR and in mammalian extrastriate neocortex.

7. Neuroanatomy and Neurological Diseases of Reptiles (Seminars in Avian and Exotic Pet Medicine, Volume 5, Issue 3, July 1996, Pages 165-171)

Key Points listed in this paper are:

• Reptiles and mammals share structural similarities, including nervous systems with many common features.

• The brain of reptiles, like mammals, is divided into the forebrain, the midbrain, and the hindbrain.

• The forebrain of reptiles, like mammals, consists of the telencephalon and the diencephalon.

• The telencephalon includes the olfactory lobes, basal nuclei or corpus striatum, cerebral hemispheres, and the olfactory bulbs.

• The diencephalon includes the epithalamus, thalamus, and the hypothalamus. The telencephalon of reptiles includes an additional structure, the dorsal ventricular ridge (DVR).

• The nature of the pathways leading to and from the DVR suggest that it is functionally analogous to, and possibly homologous with, the neocortex of mammals.

8. Distribution of Dopamine Immunoreactivity in the Forebrain and Midbrain of the Snake Python Regius (Smeets WJ. Distribution of dopamine immunoreactivity in the forebrain and midbrain of the snake Python regius: a study with antibodies against dopamine. J Comp Neurol. 1988;271(1):115‐129. doi:10.1002/cne.902710112)

Key Points listed in this paper are:

• Dopamine-containing cell bodies were found around the glomeruli and in the external plexiform layer of both the main and accessory olfactory bulb.

• In the diencephalon, Dopamine (DA) cells were observed in several parts of the periventricular hypothalamic nucleus, in the periventricular organ, the ependymal wall of the infundibular recess, the lateral hypothalamic area, the magnocellular ventrolateral thalamic nucleus, and the pretectal posterodorsal nucleus.

• In the midbrain, DA cells were found in the ventral tegmental area, the substantia nigra, and the presumed reptilian homologue of the mammalian A8 cell group.

• Dopaminergic fibers and varicosities were observed throughout the whole brain, particularly in the telencephalon and diencephalon.

9. Phasic Dopamine Signals in the Nucleus Accumbens that Cause Active Avoidance Require Endocannabinoid Mobilization in the Midbrain (Jennifer M. Wenzel, Erik B. Oleson, Willard N. Gove, Anthony B. Cole, Utsav Gyawali, Hannah M. Dantrassy, Rebecca J. Bluett, Dilyan I. Dryanovski, Garret D. Stuber, Karl Deisseroth, Brian N. Mathur, Sachin Patel, Carl R. Lupica, Joseph F. Cheer. Current Biology, 2018; DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2018.03.037)

Key Points listed in this paper are:

• Dopamine is a neurotransmitter involved in actions associated with the pursuit of rewards.

• Dopamine plays a key role in driving behavior related to pleasurable goals, such as food, sex and social interaction.

• Increasing dopamine boosts the drive toward pleasurable stimuli; however, it also drives animals to avoid unpleasant or painful situations and stimuli.

• Using optogenetics, researchers controlled the amount of dopamine released by neurons in the nucleus accumbens.

• Animals with high levels of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens brain region learned to avoid aversive stimuli more quickly and more often than animals that had a lower level of dopamine in this region.

10. Spatial Learning of an Escape Task by Young Corn Snakes (Holtzman DA, Harris TW, Aranguren G, Bostock E. Spatial learning of an escape task by young corn snakes, Elaphe guttata guttata. Anim Behav. 1999;57(1):51-60. doi:10.1006/anbe.1998.0971)

Key Points listed in this paper are:

• Spatial learning is critical to most animals for many behaviors necessary to survival.

• 17 young corn snakes were trained to find one open shelter in an eight-hole arena with the entrance not visible from the arena surface.

• Over a 4-day training period of 16 trials the snakes showed a significant decrease in the mean latency to the goal hide.

• They showed a significant decrease in the mean total distance traveled.

• They showed a significant increase in the the percentage of the total distance traveled in the quadrant containing the goal hide.

• They showed a significant increase in movement in the goal quadrant above chance.

• Overall, this study shows that snakes can learn a spatial-escape task rapidly when it is relevant behaviorally and that attaining the goal reinforces learning.

11. Conditioned Responses to Airborne Odorants by Garter Snakes (Begun D, Kubie JL, O'Keefe MP, Halpern M. Conditioned discrimination of airborne odorants by garter snakes (Thamnophis radix and T. sirtalis sirtalis). J Comp Psychol. 1988;102(1):35-43. doi:10.1037/0735-7036.102.1.35)

Key Points listed in this paper are:

• This study demonstrated snakes can learn a task with airborne odors as discriminative stimuli.

• This study was comprised of two experiments.

• Experiment one:

o 7 Plains Garter Snakes were trained in a 2-choice apparatus to move into a compartment containing lemon-scented chips to obtain a food reward.

o All snakes improved in performance when comparing the first ten tries to the final ten tries when 100 trials were compared.

o Upon completion of the initial part of the trial, 4 of the snakes were retrained to move away from the scented compartment and into the unscented compartment; these 4 snakes rapidly learned the new criteria and made the reversal.

• Experiment two:

o 7 Common Garter Snakes were trained to traverse a 2-choice maze with the presence or absence of amyl acetate odor as a conditioned stimulus.

o The snakes were initially tested for their odor preference and trained to go to their non-preferred odor.

o 5 of 7 snakes achieved criteria predetermined by the researchers.

12. Maze learning in water snakes (Kellogg, W. N., & Pomeroy, W. B. (1936). Maze learning in water snakes. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 21(3), 275 295.

Key Points listed in this paper are:

• 12 water snakes were trained to traverse a T-maze with two blind alleys.

• Warm water (versus cold water) was used as the discriminative stimulus.

• The water snakes learned to navigate the maze with heat being the positive reinforcer.

13. A learning experiment with snakes (Takemusa, T. and Nakamura, K., 1935; Kyoiku Shinri Kenkyu, 10, 575-581)

Key Points listed in this paper are:

• This study demonstrated snakes can learn to efficiently escape confinement in a box.

• Note this paper was not available in electronic format for further review.

14. Emotion and Phylogeny (Cabanac M. Emotion and phylogeny. Jpn J Physiol. 1999;49(1):1-10. doi:10.2170/jjphysiol.49.1)

Key Points listed in this paper are:

• Based on emotional fever and emotional tachycardia results during gentle handling of mammals, lizards, frogs, and fish; the results being that emotional fever and emotional tachycardia were produced by gentle handling of mammals and reptiles but not fish and amphibians, this research suggests that emotion emerged in the evolutionary lineage between amphibians and reptiles.

• This research suggests that reptiles possess consciousness along with its characteristic affective dimension of pleasure.

• The role of sensory pleasure in decision-making was verified in lizards placed in emotional conflict.

15. The Emergence of Consciousness in Phylogeny (Cabanac M, Cabanac AJ, Parent A. The emergence of consciousness in phylogeny. Behav Brain Res. 2009;198(2):267-272. doi: 10.1016/j.bbr.2008.11.028)

Key Points listed in this paper are:

• The brains of Amniota (reptiles, birds, and mammals) show chemical, anatomical, and functional differences from anamniotes (fishes and amphibians).

• Play behavior, capacity to acquire taste aversion, sensory pleasure in decision making, expression of emotional tachycardia and emotional fever evolutionarily began to be displayed by Amniota.

• Researchers concluded that emotion and consciousness evolutionarily emerged in early Amniota and that consciousness is characterized by a common mental pathway using pleasure and displeasure as a way to optimize behavior.



Are Snakes being Overlooked as the Perfect Pet?

Posted by on June 16, 2020 at 7:20 PM

Snakes as Family Part One:

Are Snakes being overlooked as the Perfect Pet Family Members?

As an animal trainer, director of an animal sanctuary, and someone who has shared a home with animals their whole life I am always surprised by people who do not share their life with at least one non-human animal. Common reasons that I hear from people regarding why they don’t share their home with a pet go something like this: “I really like animals but I just don’t have the time to spend with one”, “I would love to have a pet but I’m gone a lot”, “I don’t have the money to take care of one”, and “I have allergies to animals” or “I’m allergic”.

When I think about these reasons and then I think of snakes, I really believe that they are being overlooked for consideration as what could be the perfect pet family member for many people. Here is why:

Snakes do not need you to spend much time with them. Depending on the type of snake you share your home with, they may be perfectly content to remain in their habitat and be left alone much of the time. Snakes are not inherently social, although recent research indicates some species of snakes are social with each other, they do not typically seek social interaction with people, in fact, most of the time they prefer to avoid people.

For someone who would like to share their home with an animal but who has very little time to care for or interact with them, snakes are quite possibly perfect. Besides not demanding your constant affection and attention as a dog or cat might, snakes eat infrequently. Snakes may eat anywhere from once a week to one a month or more, depending on the species and their age. This equates to infrequent elimination, so enclosure cleaning does not have to be done very often. Making sure the animal has clean water and is being housed at the proper temperature are really the most involved things a pet parent would have to do.

People who would like to have a pet while at home but who are gone a lot or travel frequently may find that a snake is perfect for them. Why? They eat only once every 1-6 weeks and are content to remain quietly alone. Going on vacation, traveling for work, working long hours or working overtime would not really affect a snake. When traveling, the most you would need to do is have someone check periodically that your animal has water and that your environmental controls are working (i.e. lighting and/or heating which you can easily control with a timer and thermostat).

For those who say they would like to have a pet but cannot afford to take care of one, snakes are fairly inexpensive to keep. Once you invest in the initial enclosure set-up, which can be anywhere from simple to complex depending on your preference, the cost of maintenance is not that much. Most snakes eat a rodent per meal and those cost on average $1 - $4 each depending on the type and size. If your snake eats once a week, even with the largest size rodent, that is about $4 a week to feed your snake and if they eat once a month, like some of mine, that is $4 a month. I really do not know of a live pet that costs less to feed.

They can drink the same water consumed by humans in the home and the only other upkeep costs would be to replace bedding and light or heat bulbs if in use. As with any animal, including humans, there is always the potential for medical bills due to injury or illness; however, snakes do not rack up any annual medical costs for things like vaccinations or teeth cleaning. It is a good idea to have a fecal check done every now and then to check for internal parasites, but that would be optional unless a problem comes up.

That brings us to those irritating allergies. For those who love animals but are allergic to many of them, snakes could be the perfect solution. I did a little research (of course) and the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology actually recommends snakes as pets for people who are sensitive to allergens from animal dander. It is very rare for a human to be allergic to snakes and other reptiles because they have no hair or epidermal dander (Damien Campbell, 2019, Sciencing). Humans with allergy issues would just need to pick out bedding and enclosure furnishings for their snake that they are not allergic to.

If all of those pros are not enough to make snakes attractive pets, consider that snakes are quiet, no barking or yowling to bother family members or neighbors. Quiet does not mean they are incapable of meaningful interactions though. They are beautiful to look at and enjoyable just to watch. Depending on the type of snake, they can range from mellow to outgoing. Snakes may climb, burrow, swim, and display other behaviors to captivate the attention. They can also be trained via classical and operant conditioning in a similar manner as other animals, and they can be socialized to handling for those who want some physical interaction with their pet.

Just to review, snakes do not demand much time to care for because they eat and eliminate infrequently, they do not demand physical attention, they can be left alone while away at work or traveling, and they are hypoallergenic. Their upkeep costs are very little and in return they provide the companionship of a beautiful living animal to share home and hearth with. I know that for me it is comforting and enjoyable to just sit and watch them whether they are resting in a tree or on a ledge, or actively moving around their habitat exercising. Snakes provide enjoyment and companionship while I am doing other things such as reading, working on the computer, doing household chores, etc.; and I am able to interact with them when I have time because they are trained and socialized. Their presence is tranquil and comforting and I would miss them in their absence.



Campbell, Damien. Sciencing. 22 November 2019. 16 June 2020.

Burghardt, GM. (2017) Keeping reptiles and amphibians as pets: challenges and rewards Veterinary Record 181, 447-449.

Using Operant Conditioning and Desensitization to Facilitate Veterinary Care with Captive Reptiles (Hellmuth, Heidi; Augustine, Lauren, et al., Veterinary Clinics: Exotic Animal Practice, Volume 15, Issue 3, 425 – 443)




Enclosures? Let the snake Choose

Posted by on March 12, 2020 at 6:20 PM


I have recently heard discussions on a few podcasts regarding enclosure types. Why debate this subject when we can turn to the animals to tell us what they want? We humans think we know what is best for our snake, sometimes we have valid reasons and other times we are making assumptions without empirical facts. What I am not hearing as part of these enclosure discussions is that it should come down to what the animals prefer. Watching their behavior when housed in different enclosures is a start. Recognizing that your snake exhibited stress behaviors (see the behavior guide provided below) in a glass front enclosure and that its behavior became relaxed when placed in a tub, or, that your snake behaved as if stressed in a tub and became content in a terrarium, are just a couple of examples of what we should be doing: observing behavior and accommodating the animal's preferences. I know that some in the hobby do this; however, where I see the hobby falling short is not doing preference testing to determine what individual animals prefer.

I cringe when I hear people make blanket statements such as: "snakes prefer small, dark, tight places", "snakes don't move around much so they don't need space", "ball pythons are happier in tubs", etc. you get the idea. Those generalities are not going to be factual for all species or even all individuals within a species. We have all said these or similar things, I have been guilty of it too. We like to think that we know what snakes want either based on their natural history (in the wild) or on preconceived notions we have developed for other reasons.

An example of a failure on my part was presuming that since Bullsnakes are local to Colorado (where I live) and its dry here that they wouldn't benefit from, or use a humid hide. I assumed the same of Morelia bredli because I imagined the area around Alice Springs, Australia to be dry. Wow, was I wrong! After making a video about how to provide humidity for species that need it, I had an extra moss box and just tossed it in with the nearest snake, a bredli, and was surprised to see him using it A LOT! Moss boxes are so easy to make, and it hurts nothing to put them inside the enclosures, I made one for every snake and figured they would use it or not. 22 out of 24 bredli in one of our studies used their humid hides on a regular basis and my Bullsnake and Gopher Snake both use theirs very frequently.

My point is this: just because we think we know what a particular species of snake needs based on their natural history does not equate to what they might prefer in captivity. Knowing their natural history is a start but if we offer them options under human care, they will tell us what they prefer and what they don't. Unless we do preference testing, we cannot truly say for example, "ball pythons are happy in tubs". They may be happy or content in tubs, or they may just appear that way because they have no other options; however, we cannot honestly know either way unless we offer them another option and let them choose. Ball Pythons may do adequately in a tub but if they have no other choices, then we don't know that is actually what they would prefer. Ideally, we would need to link the tub to an enclosure (cage) so that the snake was free to move between the two, and observe where they chose to spend most or all of their time. This is an example of preference testing, providing two or more options and observing the animal’s behavior choices.

We currently work with around 70 individual snakes solely studying their behavior. We do quite a lot of preference testing during which we offer choices in enclosure types, substrates, hides, perching, various enclosure furnishings, exercise and activity options, etc. to determine what individual snakes and species in general indicate preferences for. The truth is that I am surprised by some of the choices the snakes ultimately make. For example: a Western Hognose that spends more time in her humid hide than anywhere else, a Kenyan Sand Boa that spends a lot of time climbing (I know, crazy!), and pythons that spend more time in or on cardboard boxes than on branches and rocks are just a few examples.

We have a hodgepodge of habitats here from tubs to elaborate enclosures because we listen to the snakes and ultimately allow them to exercise choice and control over the enclosure type that they prefer to live in. I know keepers who like their reptile rooms to have all the same types of enclosures so it looks nice, but not 100% of every one of the snakes living in them would prefer that enclosure type if allowed to choose. Our keeping should be about the animal and not about us.

For keepers who prefer cage-type enclosures and may have a snake that prefers a tub or just isn't ready for that transition yet, there is nothing wrong with putting a tub/bin inside an enclosure and making a hole in it so the snake can choose to come out and explore the larger habitat when it wants. I have done this with a few snakes: their fully furnished tub is inside a fully furnished larger enclosure and I put a hole in the tub, the snake can then have choice and control over how it uses its options. I have also had several snakes demonstrate the opposite: they display stress behaviors and restlessness in their quarantine tub and when moved into a terrarium or PVC enclosure they behave contently, displaying relaxed behaviors.

We also need to realize that when snakes don't have to spend 100% of their energy budget on survival and reproduction (as they do in the wild), they will find other things to expend that (species dependent) energy on. While snakes will exhibit natural behaviors in captive settings when given the opportunity, they may also exhibit novel behaviors that we wouldn't see from them in the wild. Why? Because they can. We keep them safe, fed, and give them the ability to easily thermoregulate, so now they have free energy and time to do other things, including trying new things.

My point is that we cannot truly know what a species prefers, or what an individual snake prefers unless we test their preferences. We have to offer them options and the ability to make choices meaningful to them. We also cannot make blanket statements such as "snakes prefer small, dark places". Some do, and many don't. The largest group in our study (28 Morelia bredli and we are adding more) spend the MAJORITY of their time out in the open and when they do hide, more often than not they choose a humid hide or an opaque hide over a solid (black) hide. So, the statement that they “like small, dark places” wouldn't be accurate for this species. It may be accurate for others, our Rainbow Boas for example, we hardly ever see because they are choosing to hide in small dark places! These are just a couple of examples. Remember preferred behaviors will vary according to species and indiviudal.

We don’t have any Ball (Royal) Pythons here or I would set up some preference testing in regard to some of the common beliefs about them. With the thousands of them out there I wish a few breeders (or keepers) would just take one or two of their animals and set up a preference test for habitats. If several of you Royal Python enthusiasts and breeders did this, you could pool the results and have a larger sample size. Connecting a tub to an enclosure is easy to do, it just takes up a little extra space. I would be fascinated to see the results of doing this test to see where the Royal Pythons would choose to spend most of their time. We have done this test with other species and consequently, not all of our snakes are kept the same way. I would speculate that the choices we see are based on things such as natural history, the environment they were raised in under human care, individual temperaments, learned behaviors, individual genetics, prior history in captivity, and prior handling history.

For the sake of the animal, I would like to see humans get over their caging vs. tubs debate and allow the animals to choose. Preference testing is not difficult, and it is the only true way to know what the animal actually prefers. I would also point out that once health/stress issues are eliminated as the cause of a behavior, it really isn’t necessary for us to know “why” a snake is performing a behavior, we only have to recognize that it has chosen to do that behavior and provide it with opportunities to express its behavioral preferences.

“We can see brains, but cannot see minds; yet, we can see the workings of minds in the logic of behaviors” (Carl Safina 2016).

Follow-Up from the Morelia Python Radio Interview

Posted by on July 10, 2019 at 4:05 AM

I was fortunate to be able to share some of my training and behavior work with snakes on" target="_blank">Morelia Python Radio (MPR) Tuesday, July 9, 2019. Eric Burke sent me a list of EXCELLENT questions ahead of time and I knew there was no way we would make it through all of them in just 2 hours because there is just so much to cover in regards to snake cognition, behavior, welfare, and training. I will put together a blog post this week with important take aways from the interview and include some of the information we ran out of time to discuss. In the mean, time I wanted to provide some links to material related to things we did discuss. I strongly believe taking the time to educate yourself will lead you to a rewarding relationship with your snake and guide you to become a successful keeper." target="_blank">Using Operant Conditioning and Desensitization to Facilitate Veterinary Care with Captive Reptiles by Hellmuth, Augustine, Watkins, and Hope (2012)

Understanding Snake Body Language: An Introduction by Carrie Kish, Reptelligence (2018)" target="_blank">Training Snakes to Voluntarily Relocate by Lori Torrini (2019) IAABC Journal

Centralian Pythons (Morelia bredli) Care Sheet by Justin Julander

The Complete Carpet Python by Mutton and Julander (2011)

Emotion, Pleasure, and Displeasure in Reptiles contained in the book" target="_blank">Mental Health and Well-Being in Animals by McMillan (2005)" target="_blank">Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel by Carl Safina (2016)" target="_blank">Carl Safina Ted Talk TOPICS: Brains, evolution, behavior, and the animal mind

graphic/cheat sheet on snake body language below:

bredli behavior study update 6/30/2019

Posted by on June 30, 2019 at 6:25 PM


Update: Behavior study of Morelia bredli under human care

30 June 2019

The study currently involves 10 animals hatched in 2018 and 7 older animals hatched between 2014 – 2017. The most recent animals were added on 15 May 2019. I feel that 10 animals all the same age is a good sample size to start for comparison and cataloguing of behaviors. They, in addition to the 7 older animals, should give us an overall picture of what behaviors M. bredli spend most of their time doing under human care when given a variety of options for expressing natural behaviors in a captive setting. Ideally, we would like to add 2 additional older animals to have a sample size of 20 total. While the enclosures vary in size, appropriate for each animal, each habitat contains the same choices: perches and ledges, humidity hides and dry hides, opaque hides and solid black/brown hides, artificial foliage, toilet paper/paper towel roll or cardboard tube, water dish, and overhead heat lamp to provide a basking spot. The animals are fed based on the totality of behavior being exhibited to include not only physical activity and body language but also elimination behavior and ecdysis. This is looked at along with time since last meal to determine an appropriate time to feed. So far, we have had no animals refuse food when offered. The animals are being habituated to handling, weighing, and spending time in temporary holding. They are also all being target and/or station trained. Every other feeding each animal is weighed and moved to temporary holding where they are fed while their enclosures receive a deep cleaning. On the off (non-weighing, non-cleaning) week they are fed in their normal enclosure. Each of the 2018 babies had their first target training session during their most recent feeding within their enclosures on 28 June 2019. M. bredli seem naturally curious and 8/10 animals moved towards the target when presented it for the first time, tongue flicking at it and touching it with their nose. The target was then removed, and the animals were presented with their food item, which they took immediately. 2/10 animals struck once at the target upon being presented with it, reevaluated, then moved towards it tongue flicking and touching it with their nose. The target was then removed, and the food item presented, each one took their food immediately. The target training is useful to teach the animals to follow the target out of their enclosures for exercise or weighing without anyone having to reach in and pull them out, and, it teaches them to not assume that everything presented to them is food. This has worked very well with older animals and babies in training trials being conducted separately with Morelia spilota.

As an interesting aside, animal weights vary a great deal, with some of the 2018 babies even weighing more than some of the older animals. ALL animals are behaving normally, eating well, and shedding well with healthy body conditions.

For those interested the 6/29/18 weights on each animal are as follows for GROUP 2 (older animals):

Bennu hatched in 2014 = 1156 grams

Telemachus hatched in 2016 = 518 grams

Zalenka hatched in 2017 = 279 grams

Tenavik hatched in 2017 = 342 grams

Seefra hatched in 2017 = 254 grams

Gaheris hatched in 2017 = 129 grams

Captain Pike hatched in 2017 = 99 grams

For those interested the 6/20/18 weights on each animal are as follows for GROUP 1 (2018 babies):

Stamets = 42 grams

Lorca = 57 grams

L'Rell = 61 grams

Saru = 141 grams

Lyta = 57 grams

Tilly = 49 grams

Triangula = 45 grams

Andromeda = 36 grams

Mrs. Peel = 160 grams

X452 = 165 grams




Morelia bredli captive behavior study

Posted by on May 12, 2019 at 6:35 AM

Bredli Behavior Study: Update 1

I tracked the activity of 14 individual Morelia bredli, 8 females and 6 males, ages 8 months to nearly 5 years old over two 12-hour periods. The first was between 5:00 pm and 5:00 am (1700 – 0500 hours) on May 10, 2019 – May 11, 2019. The second was between 11:30 am and 11:30 pm (1130 – 2330 hours) on May 11, 2019. An ethogram was filled out for each animal at 30-minute intervals.

The purpose of this was to test the methodology for a long-term behavior study, the applicability of the behavior inventory, and the efficacy of the ethogram template prior to the start of a long-term behavior study. The goal of this study is to capture behaviors relevant to keeping Morelia bredli in conditions allowing them freedom to express natural behaviors under human care. For example, if upon completion of a long-term study a behavior budget indicates M. bredli spend 63% of their time arboreally versus 25% terrestrially then it would be advisable for keepers to make it a higher priority to provide adequate vertical enclosure space and make substrate type or swimming areas a lower priority.

During this short test study, 3 of the snakes were in pre-ecdysis or “blue” and were less active than normal and hiding more than normal. This illustrates the need for a full study to be over a long period of time so that seasonal behavior changes, and behavior differences due to breeding season or ecdysis are averaged into the overall time budget for this species. Activity and behavior also varies with time of day or night necessitating observations to be conducted over all 24 hours in a day to obtain an accurate picture of what the animals are doing overall. If an animal is only watched during the day, it may appear to hide a lot and be sedentary; however, if the same animal was observed overnight it may demonstrate a high activity level and spend most of the time out in the open.

The results of our short sample study and the definitions of the focal behaviors are shown below. Keep in mind that many of these behaviors may be occurring simultaneously. For example, a snake may be “coiled” and “exposed” at the same time or may be “draped” in an “arboreal” location or a “terrestrial” location. The occurrence percentage is based on the average number of times the behaviors were observed among all 14 focal animals. Each snake was observed 25 times (once every ½ hour during the 12-hour period). The ethogram results of all 14 snakes were added together and the behavior occurrences averaged to produce a sample time budget for M. bredli. The snakes on average spent most of their time exposed (out in the open), arboreally (in the top half of their enclosure), in either a coiled or draped position.


1. HIDING - Majority of body concealed.

2. EXPOSED - Majority of body visible.

3. TOP LEVEL - Majority of body in the top level of its vertical space; on perches, ledges, shelves, in vegetation, or on top of enclosure furnishings.

4. MIDDLE LEVEL – Majority of body off the ground, in the middle level of its vertical space.

5. GROUND - Majority of body on the ground, on or under substrate; ground level of its enclosure.

6. AQUATIC – Majority of body in water soaking or swimming.

7. HUMIDITY BOX – Majority of body inside humidity box.

8. LOCOMOTION – Movement; actively moving from one location to another.

9. CLIMBING – Movement; actively climbing (ascending or descending) on enclosure furnishings.

10. OUT OF VIEW – Animal not visible.

11. COILED – Majority of body arranged or wound in a spiral or sequence of concentric circles or rings.

12. RECTILINEAR – Majority of the body in a straight line, or, near straight line/stretched out positioning.

13. DRAPED – Majority of animal arranged loosely or casually on or around enclosure furnishings; resting atop something in a casual or relaxed way.




This test of the study methodology and tools has been useful, and there are minor changes to the ethogram and focal behaviors to make as we move forward. The data meant to be captured is how the snakes spend their time during a 24-hour day and (eventually) during a 365-day year under human care. This study is not capturing body language, body postures, fear or stress behaviors, defensive behaviors, feeding behavior, furnishing or hide type preferences, or stereotypies. These could easily be additional research areas; however, the focus of this study is a general time budget for M. bredli to better assist keepers with enclosure design and set-up to accommodate the animal’s natural behaviors.



Snake Cohabitation - Pilot Study UPDATE May 2019

Posted by on May 4, 2019 at 3:30 AM

Snake Cohabitation

May 2019 Pilot Study Update

Lori A. Torrini, CPDT-KA, A.A.S.



This seems to be a controversial subject among snake keepers, breeders, and hobbyists. Since I began to research this topic over a year ago, I have read and heard opinions from “never do it” to “I have done it for years with no problems” and everything in between. I have searched for scientific studies into the subject and been disappointed to find none, other than some on communal behavior of snakes in the wild and cohabitation of breeding pairs or groups in captivity.

Personally, I find it much easier as a keeper of multiple snakes to house them individually. This way I am dealing with just one animal at a time when I have the enclosure open, I know which one shed, drank water, eliminated, etc. I can feed it in the enclosure or out without having to worry about another snake nearby, and I can conduct training without another snake interfering. With that said, there are some keepers who, for their own reasons, would like to keep more than one snake together, maybe to observe behavior to maximize resources, etc. Either way, the most important thing should be what is best for the welfare of the animal. If, in fact, snakes prefer to be in the company of conspecifics or, to at least have that option available, then we should be providing them the opportunity.



The American Pet Products Association reported for 2017-2018 that 9.4 million reptiles are kept as pets in United States households. The American Veterinary Medical Association reported in 2012 that 555 snakes were being kept as pets per every 1000 households in the United States. These numbers do not include those snakes kept in zoos or those maintained in herpetoculture for breeding and sale into the pet trade. Despite large numbers of snakes under human care there is a lack of research regarding their social behavior and preferences. The question this study will endeavor to answer is whether snakes kept under human care prefer to be housed individually or in pairs/groups. Ask anyone in herpetoculture if pet snakes should be kept individually or together and responses will be from one extreme to the other.

While one snake owner, breeder, or pet shop clerk may make statements such as: “snakes are solitary animals”, “snakes prefer to be kept alone”, “snakes should never be housed together”, and “snakes could cannibalize each other”; others will make statements such as: “I have always kept pairs of snakes together”, “my snakes have been housed together all their lives”, “I keep breeding pairs together all year long”, and “snakes huddle together for warmth”. These previous statements are anecdotal. They are not based on empirical scientific research. The quest to uncover previous behavioral studies to support any of these claims has come up empty. This pilot study will be an important first step in providing answers based on actual scientific observations of snake social behavior in a captive setting.


The facts as I have been able to find, or not find, simply do not tell us if snakes maintained under human care (in captivity) prefer the opportunity for the company of conspecifics or not. Clearly some species predate upon other snakes and even those of their own kind, and others spend time with multiple members of their kind in communal hibernacula and other settings on occasion in the wild. There have simply not been any controlled scientific studies on cohabitation of snakes under human care with any published findings.

Literature Review


The following studies were the only ones found relevant to aspects of snake social behavior that did not specifically involve breeding, prey capture, and basking behavior. While they do address aspects of snake social behavior relevant to communal living, except for one these were conducted in the wild and not in captive environments. The one conducted in 1975 and published in 1977 observed a group of 4 males with 1 female Indian Python and studied the social hierarchy regarding dominance in breeding behavior.

• Dinets, Vladimir. 2017 “Coordinated Hunting by Cuban Boas”. Animal Behavior and Cognition 4 (1): 24-29. Open Access.

• Alexander, G. J. 2018. “Reproductive Biology and Maternal Care of Neonates in Southern African Python (Python natalensis)”. Journal of Zoology; Zoological Society of London. Press Release.

• Amarello, Melissa. 2012. “Social Snakes? Non-random Association Patterns detected in a Population of Arizona Black Rattlesnakes (Crotalus Cerberus)”. Arizona State University, USA. Master’s Thesis.

• Amarello, M. 2012. “Social Snakes? The Role of Kin Selection in Rattlesnake Aggregations”. Sonoran Herpetologist 25: 129-130.

• Barker, D.G. 1979. “Social Behavior in a Captive Group of Indian Pythons with formation of a Linear Social Hierarchy”. Copeia, 466-471.


Through Spirit Keeper Equine Sanctuary 501c3 and Behavior Education LLC, with assistance from Pikes Peak Community College Zookeeping interns, I am conducting a pilot study. This pilot study is designed to answer the question of whether snakes given the opportunity and choice will remain solitary or near other snakes when provided two identical connected enclosures. When two snake enclosures with identical environments that are carbon copies of each other in every way (i.e. duplicate layouts, furniture, perching, hides, water, heating, lighting, vegetation, etc.) are connected so that each snake may access both, will the snakes remain apart from each other or near each other most of the time? This must be a long duration study. The animals must be observed throughout the year and throughout their various life-stages as behavior may change based on age and seasonal fluctuations.

For over a year now I have been observing four cohabbed pairs of snakes from the genus Morelia. I have the animals in carefully controlled and monitored set-ups and keep detailed journal notes on them. I plan to continue the current study and to set-up additional pairs for observation. I journal their behavior and record statistics as to how much time they spend together versus separate when given choice and control. No agonistic behaviors, conflicts, or failure to thrive have been observed in these four pairs to date. The current pairs are as follows: M/F 2017 Morelia spilota variegata, M/F adult Morelia spilota unknown subspecies, F/F 2017 Morelia spilota harrisoni, and F/F 2018 Morelia spilota harrisoni. Animals pending pairing are sub-adult Morelia spilota metcalfei and Morelia bredli. Statistics are being pulled from the logs and a time budget is being produced. In general, the F/F pairs spend less time together the older they get. The M/F pairs spend most of their time together versus separate; this is observed in the adult pair and in the sub-adult pair. Interestingly all four pairs spend time basking together for several hours after they have been separated for feeding and placed back inside their enclosures. 100% of the time they move around the enclosure(s) immediately following their return from eating until they locate each other; then, they coil together in the same basking area for several hours.

Preliminary Conclusion

The four pair of Morelia spilota currently observed indicate a preference to be with conspecifics some of the time. No agonistic, bullying, or conflict behavior has been observed. The animals are consistent feeders that express natural behaviors free from any indicators of fear or distress. It is not known if their individual personalities or behaviors would change if permanently separated.

Based on my findings so far, I would offer these considerations for anyone thinking of cohabbing snakes:

• Choose a species that is not known to engage in ophiophagy.

• Choose male/female or female/female cohabitants as some males engage in male to male combat during breeding season.

• Set up two enclosures with identical furnishings and resources in each and then connect the enclosures; or, set up one double-sized enclosure with resources duplicated (2 of everything). SEE VIDEO EXAMPLE BELOW.

• Two connected enclosures or one large enclosure with duplicated resources will allow everyone the choice and control over utilizing resources alone or with the other animal and will give one animal the opportunity to move away from the other animal if it chooses.

• Monitor the animals closely for any signs of stress, agonistic behavior, health issues, or general failure to thrive.

• Consider surveillance cameras to monitor the animals when you are not there to watch them in person.

• Divide the enclosure or separate the animals for feeding to avoid feeding accidents or conflicts over food.

• If you are training the animals, separate them so that they may be worked with individually during training sessions.

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