Time to Go Big

While various regulations may limit the sale of certain boas and pythons in the pet trade, there are some species that will meet consumer demand for big snakes.


Regular readers of this column will have noticed that, for several years now, I have avoided writing about our industry’s elephant in the room. That elephant is, of course, the legal incursions promoted by the federal government and some animal rights organizations against the trade and ownership of boas and pythons. This is a vast and complex issue, and while I certainly have my two cents, I have felt this column was neither an appropriate nor effective platform from which to share them. I will continue this policy, except to say that this controversy is directly impacting our professional and personal lives, as well as the health and well-being of these animals, and it behooves us all to investigate, keep appraised of and have an educated opinion about the issue. 

For the purposes of this column, it is important to note that some species of python and boid are increasingly hard to acquire. Some of these are snakes that I have always thought were difficult at best for private keepers to maintain due to size and personality—and frankly, I think that banning them within the pet trade is not the worst thing in the world. (I’m looking at you, African rock pythons.) On the other hand, it seems surrealistically silly to consider some species that have been targeted for bans as dangerous or problematic animals. Thus, we need to be diligent and aware of how things proceed.

The possibility of losing some of the mainstays of our inventories like boa constrictors and Burmese pythons means that we should become increasingly aware of alternatives to offer to pet owners and hobbyists. Some people are drawn to the size and feel of big snakes, and I must admit that there is a quality to these larger snakes that engenders the feeling of a real human/animal connection that smaller snakes do not so easily muster. Fortunately, there a few species that will work on that level. 

What should we look for when we consider alternative big snakes? First, I think it is important to look at animals that already have a history of captive production. If we start importing massive numbers of wild-caught animals of another species to compensate for the loss of some species as potential pets, these bans will eventually be extended to include these newcomers to the pet trade. Secondly, we would prefer animals that tend toward docility, for obvious reasons. 

Thirdly, and this is purely a commercial consideration, we should look primarily at species in the mid-size range. Thirty years ago, the true giants among snakes—green anacondas, and reticulated and Burmese pythons—were all the rage. As people became more familiar with them, it seemed to enter the general consciousness that having a 20-plus-foot snake in the house presented certain inherent problems, and that the same pleasures of big snake ownership could be had with an animal a little less formidable. It’s really the same reason that not everybody keeps Great Danes.

One animal that immediately jumps to mind that perfectly fits the bill is the Dumeril’s Boa (Acrantophis dumerili). This snake, a native of Madagascar, has it all: an easy-to-work-with size (six to eight feet), laid back temperament and physical beauty. The species boasts a pattern—a rococo series of saddles—that is vividly detailed in shades of black, white, tan, chocolate and, in the prettiest ones, pink. Because the saddles are outlined in black, the pattern achieves something of a 3D effect. Roughly the size of a boa constrictor, with a similar personality and care regime, this snake is ideal for a pet owner who desires a snake that feels big without being too large for a single person to safely handle. The only drawback I can think of is that they don’t tend to wrap and hold onto a person as well as your typical boas will. But hey, that’s nitpicking.

Another snake that fulfills the same niche is the carpet python (Morelia spilota). A native of Australia and Indonesia, it typically tops out at around eight feet. Carpets are docile as adults, although the babies, which hatch out surprisingly small, are often a bit nippy. They handle very much like a typical boa constrictor.

The carpet python’s patterning is highly variable and intricate—thus the common name—and it tends toward jet black and pale yellow coloring. There is a subspecific variant from Queensland called the “jungle carpet” that has a higher percentage and far brighter shade of yellow. I suspect that many or most of the so-called jungle carpets offered for sale in pet stores are a result of selective captive breeding and not actually pure Queensland stock. That is because, currently and for the past two decades or so, no carpet pythons of any locale have been coming directly out of Australia. Australia has a broad-ranging and strictly enforced ban on the exportation of all native species. 

Slightly larger than the carpet is the white lipped python (Leiopython albertisii), capable of growing up to 10 feet. This is an even-tempered beast with a lovely unpatterned body that fades from yellow near the belly to a velvety brown along the top. Its head is usually jet black with startlingly white labial scales. They are native to New Guinea, and are occasionally available as captive-bred specimens.

These are excellent mid-size snakes that give the feel and thrill of large snakes without the attendant problems. Some people, however, really want a truly big snake, and there are a few that have not yet made their way into the sights of those intent an banning these animals altogether. They also happen to be Australian in origin, and thus outwardly resemble the formerly mentioned pythons in form. The olive python (Liasis olivaceus) closely resembles the white lip, with an even more velvety appearance to the scales and no distinguishing head coloration. At around 13 feet for adults, they might seem intimidating, but I have rarely seen a more tractable snake—though others with whom I have talked have had quite the opposite experience. I am not sure to what to attribute this phenomenon, other than perhaps my luck at encountering nice snakes. On paper, their coloring does not sound all that exciting, but I have repeatedly seen people literally have their breath taken away when first seeing one. They are simply stunning. 

The largest of the Australian pythons is the scrub python (Morelia amethistina), which typically gets to 15 feet, but occasionally reaches lengths of 20 to 29 feet. They are variable in temperament, but, like most of the large pythons, if acquired while young and handled properly, they too can become quite reliable and terrific captive animals, though clearly inappropriate for beginners.

A few words about big snakes in general: First of all, a real-world guide for enclosure size of larger snakes is as follows. When the snake is coiled up in the cage, if the footprint it covers is less than half the floor size, that reads as adequate. If the floor size is more than triple the footprint of the snake, that’s excessive and may actually disturb the snake, which wants nothing more than to feel cozy and hidden. In other words, even gigantic snakes can do well in surprisingly conservative quarters.

Secondly, statistics show that nonvenemous snakes under 10 feet in length are not potentially lethal to healthy human adults. Anything over that size should be regarded with care and respect, and I recommend two essentials when working with larger snakes. The first is a capable back-up person. The second is a bottle of vodka. Why the vodka? Nothing in my experience gets a snake to release its bite and grip faster than a splash of alcohol in the mouth. Plus, when the threat of danger has been averted, it is time for a tasty adult beverage, don’t you think?


Owen Maercks has enjoyed being immersed in the world of professional herpetoculture for nearly 30 years. His store, the East Bay Vivarium in Berkeley, Calif., is one of the oldest and largest herptile specialty stores in the U.S.

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