The Good, the Bad, the Ugly

Hardly one-dimensional, green snakes, water snakes and garter snakes can be both fascinating and a bit tricky to own and care for.


I often stress how important it is for even the most basic store’s live herp inventory to include a few of the more unusual, high-ticket animals. It gives customers the sense that they might, at any given time, see almost anything populating your cages, giving your store a mystique that will engender frequent repeat visits. This also gives a store a bit of gravitas; it certainly is nice to be taken seriously by your customer base.

By the same token, it is to your detriment to ignore the basics. A good inventory must always include those animals that act as a gateway to the hobby: animals that are inexpensive, easy to maintain and keeper friendly are a must.

When it comes to snakes, I consider corn snakes and king snakes to be the basics. They are the standard of our business and need to be treated as such. Readily reproduced, beautiful, highly variable in color and pattern, and generally problem free, they really are ideal first snakes.

But for some customers, they do present certain problems. They are exclusively rodent eaters, and some people—and in fact some stores—cannot abide by that. These snakes also tend to range in price from about $35 to $100. Many potential customers want to get their feet wet for less than that. The truth is that, whether you spend $10 or $100 on a snake, the setup is guaranteed to run in the $75 to $200 range, so the cost of the snake itself becomes less of an issue (I like to patiently explain this to customers, often getting them to readjust their expectations accordingly). However, the rodent feeding issue is a bugaboo that can often be non-negotiable.

In answer to that, there are green snakes, water snakes and garter snakes. They tend to be quite inexpensive, very attractive and, with the exception of a few species of garters, they do not eat mice or rats. That said, they too present some issues that retailers need to address.

Green snakes (most commonly the rough green snake, Opheodrys aestivus) are beautiful, slender snakes with an interesting lifestyle. They are diurnal (day-active), spending their time on trees and high shrubbery hunting insects, thus explaining their beautiful, bright green sheen. At night, they descend into the grass to sleep.

They are popular with the general public for a number of reasons: their elegant, slender beauty and bright green color, their docile disposition and their seemingly easy diet. 

However, there are some challenges to keeping them. While they are docile, they don’t take to handling that well, and they are easily stressed from over-handling. They do not ever coil around your hand in the way that a corn snake might. Because of the high mobility, they really only do well in very tall cages, larger and more expensive than most people find desirable. Because they are diurnal baskers, they also require a strong UV light. So, for a very inexpensive snake, your customer is now going to be asked to spend a handsome sum on cage, lighting, heating, etc.

There are customers out there happy to do just that, and they will be thrilled to watch their green snakes gliding through the ficus trees within their cages searching for bugs. There just aren’t many of those customers, and setting up greens in a habitat that is anything less than what I described ends up being a bad experience for your customer, you and, mostly, the poor snake.

So, let us turn to the garter snake. Garters (Thamnophis spp.) are a large group of snakes indigenous to nearly all of North America. With nearly 30 species, garters display great variability as to size, coloring, diet and personality.

For instance, the Florida garter (Thamnophis sirtalis) is a robust, colorful and hardy beast. They feed readily on goldfish, and they are fascinating to observe as they go fishing. They are probably the most commonly offered garter in the trade. Sounds great, right? Unfortunately, they have just about no tolerance for handling, and they both bite and musk maniacally. The musk, a defense common to garters in general, is remarkably unpleasant. I personally have a high tolerance for animal musks; for instance, I find a distant skunk to be a very pleasant accent in the air. But Florida garters? I’d rather smell the men’s room at a NASCAR race.

Western ribbon snakes (T. proximus) are a darker and more slender garter relative that are much more sociable to human contact. I find them variable as feeders; some eat feeder fish readily, and others get very picky, wanting tadpoles, crickets or even mice—often teaching us great lessons in patience as we struggle to figure out exactly what it is that they desire.

Of all the garters, the Canadian—also T. sirtalis, but way different than the Florida garter—is the one with which I have had the best results. They have a pleasant disposition, a hardy appetite for fish, and are generally very pretty. As a general rule, garters are easy to set up and maintain. A 10-gallon tank will do, with mild heat (75-85 degrees Fahrenheit) and cypress or pine bedding. I like using a large water dish, as most garters are semi-aquatic. 

I also prefer to use a separate covered feeding bucket, with an inch or so of water, to which you add one garter and a half dozen goldfish. I don’t often suggest separate feeding quarters for snakes, but I find garters will often drag fish around their cage, losing a fair number of them that will end up making the tank smell rank, even by garter standards. Also, if you keep multiple garters in a single cage, they will fight over the fish, making for even more of a mess.

That leaves us with water snakes (Nerodia sp.). Water snakes can get large, and they tend to have robust physiques. Most are rather muddy in appearance, looking like they once had a pattern that has since eroded away (this is sort of true, since the very strong pattern in youngsters washes out over time). In my experience, there are no docile waters. Remember what I said about Florida garters, what with the musking and the biting? Add to that, flailing and urinating. Now bundle that all up and shoot it up with steroids. There’s your water snake.

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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