Serpent Sales

Corn snakes are imperative to a successful herptile business.




I have always advocated that shops should diversify their stock as much as possible. If an animal falls into the basic parameters that define a good pet, it’s probably worth keeping in stock. However, this must be balanced with the obvious necessity to stock the most popular, high-demand animals in the marketplace.


This past Christmas season, I found myself in the awkward position of selling out of virtually every snake in the store. It’s one thing to be out of African egg-eating snakes, but when you are out of corn snakes, that’s a serious problem. That dilemma brought to mind the idea that it’s always good to be conscious and conversant about the basics of our business, and in our business that means corn snakes.


The corn snake has everything going for it as a pet. It is beautiful, and through captive breeding, numerous color varieties are available at very reasonable prices. It is hardy, resilient and easy to breed. Its size is large enough to seem substantial, but the snake is not intimidating or cumbersome. Most of all, it is remarkably good-natured, but still willing to be active and exploratory, and thus more interesting than its closest contender in popularity, the ball python.


The corn snake’s natural habitat ranges throughout the Southeastern United States. It often prefers pine groves peppered with rodent burrows, but it is tremendously adaptable and will turn up in various locations—from farmlands to swamps to suburbs.


While these snakes are commonly found in cornfields, barns and agricultural areas, that is not the source of their name. One theory behind the name is that their bellies vividly mimic the patterns on maize. Whether this is coincidental or causal is up for debate, but the similarity is indeed remarkable.


There are many natural and captive-bred color morphs, but of the wild variants, the most sought after are the Miami phase—in which the background color is a deep gray—and the Okeetee phase, which is found in Jasper County, South Carolina. Wild Okeetee have vivid orange backgrounds, and their saddles have strong black outlines. However, captive breeding has muddied these waters—many snakes that are called Okeetee have dubious relationships to the original wild stock.


Captive breeding has produced a stunning array of color variations that are well beyond the simple albino, amelanistic and anerythristic varieties. It is frankly dizzying to try to follow the various lines available. The good news is that corn snakes are so prolific and easy to breed that very few of them command anything beyond a minor boost in retail value.


Care of these animals is so straightforward that it can serve as a blueprint for the basics of general snake care. Keep these snakes at about 75 degrees at the cold end of their enclosure and approximately 85 to 90 degrees at the hot end. If they are housed in glass tanks, I prefer a combination of under-tank heat pads and overhead lighting. If using a glass-fronted wooden cage, a single overhead light should suffice. The humidity of the tank can have a wide degree of variation, as long as it is neither soaking nor arid. Make sure they always have a hiding spot and a bowl of fresh water. UV light might well improve their activity level, but it is not indicated as a necessity for them. They are largely crepuscular to nocturnal.


A word on cage size—which can be misunderstood not only by the general public, but even by many animal care professionals. The general rule of thumb with adult colubrid snakes is that, when the snake is comfortably curled up in the cage, it should have a “footprint” no greater than one third of the cage floor—with boas and pythons, make that one half. For baby snakes, keep the cage small enough that the heat can be completely controlled. This will prevent cold spots where the baby might find itself below its temperature threshold, which could potentially be lethal. A hatchling corn snake should never be in a cage larger than a 5-gal. tank.


Feeding Frenzy

Corn snakes should be fed appropriately sized mice or rats once a week. What does “appropriately sized” mean? Everybody seems to have their own way to explain this, but every verbal explanation I have ever heard seemed confusing to me. Having done this work for decades, all I can say is that experience is a great teacher, and after a while you will know the right size for any given snake without even giving it a second thought. I will also add this: if it seems too big, it probably is. A colubrid snake’s meal should never give the snake a distended appearance. When confronted with this question by my customers, I always ask them to bring the snake in and I will happily “size” it up.


Corn snakes generally have no particular preference for live over dead meals, making them one of the easiest snakes to take care of. There are no particular health advantages of one over the other, but I will take this opportunity to review some basics of feeding.


When it comes to live food, if the mouse is weaned, do not leave it unattended in the snake’s cage for more than about 20 minutes. Beyond that point, the mouse might get interested in the snake, and that unfortunate inversion of the normal feeding cycle could be lethal for the snake. At the very least, if you leave the prey in longer than 20 minutes, drop some mouse kibble in the tank as well. This will dissuade the mouse from dining on the snake. With un-weaned prey items, do not be alarmed if the snake eats dinner without the formality of constricting the prey. They seem to have an uncanny sense of what prey might be able to fight back.


With pre-frozen dead food, always make sure the mouse or rat is completely thawed. Test this by trying to bend the rodent’s torso. One will feel—or even hear—the crunch of a still-frozen interior. If the rodent is only partially thawed, it can result in dramatic health issues for the snake. It often helps to drop the thawed meal into a plastic bag and give it a quick run under a stream of hot tap water. Quickly remove the dinner from the bag and present it to the snake. It will now excitedly take a mouse that not only feels and smells right, but is also just the right temperature. The snake will often “kill” the mouse all over again.


Last Christmas was the first time in memory that I ran out of corn snakes. Even after 39 years in the business, I can make mistakes. That was a big one, and since then I have lost out on many potential sales as a result. Do not make the same mistake I did. Corn snakes are both the bread and the butter of our business.  PB


Owen Maercks has enjoyed being immersed in the world of professional herpetoculture for nearly 40 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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