The next time you walk into a competitor’s store, particularly if it’s one of the big-box stores, check out their selection of snakes. Almost inevitably, the selection of snakes you see boil down to this: corn snakes, with maybe a few color-morph variations; Colombian boa constrictors; ball pythons; and just maybe, a king snake or two. These are the standards of our business, as they are reliably tempered, hardy and attractive. Their popularity is timeless, but they are far from the only snakes around that exhibit those qualities.
Keep in mind that the kind of person who might want a snake as a pet in the first place already marches to a different drum than most people. Snakes are mainstream enough, however, that even among enthusiasts, some species just seem too normal. I would say that roughly half the kids who walk into my store want a snake just like the one their friends have, but the other half want one that their friends don’t have.
Do you see a potential market? I do. Many of the lesser-known snakes are, as I said, every bit as pet-worthy as the standards, and their relative obscurity will engender your customers’ interest—and a somewhat higher price. So, let’s take a look at some great pet snakes that are not so run-of-the-mill.
The Rat Pack
Corn snakes (Pantherophis guttatus) are part of a much larger group of snakes, the rat snakes. Versions of rat snakes exist not only in the U.S., but in Central and South America, as well as across Asia and into Europe. Of the American rat snakes, I have a particular fondness for the trans-pecos rat (Bogertophis subocularis), a beautifully patterned beige and black four-foot snake with a good disposition and slightly buggy blue eyes.
Other American rat snakes, which range in color from yellow to black to grey to greenish, can be variable in personality, with some of them being little assassins. The grey rats (Elaphe obsoleta spiloides) tend to be sweethearts, as does the close cousin to the corn, the Emory’s rat (P. guttatus emoryi). The Baird’s rat (Pantherophis bairdi), a Texas native, grows up to be a subtle beauty of silvery gray, with tiny flashes of red and yellow between the scales. The Everglades rat (Elaphe obsoleta rossalleni) may be my favorite of all; despite an extremely defensive personality, they can be vividly orange with long brown stripes. With beauty, there’s always a little pain, as they say.
The Asian and European rats tend to have much feistier temperaments than their American counterparts, but there are a few exceptions. The Aesculapian snake (Zamenis longissimus), famous as a symbolic icon for the medical practice, and the Russian rat (Elaphe schrenckii) are both richly patterned, gentle and hardy creatures.
The Western hognose (Heterodon nasicus nasicus) is a small (2.5 feet) cutie with an upturned nose, and it is easily adaptive to captive life. Selling points to many families include their small size, hardiness and winning “smile.” Two words of warning: these and their close cousins, the Mexican hognoses, are easily fed mouse eaters, but the Southern and Eastern varieties prefer toads and turn their noses up even further when offered rodents. Also, they have a long-disputed reputation for being venomous. Most experts agree that they have only a sort of pre-venom protein in their saliva that may cause, after an extended bout of chewing, a bit of numbness and swelling. I would always explain this to potential customers on the outset, pointing out that it is unlikely that any family member would allow an extended chewing session, and that these snakes are unlikely to bite anyway.
Speaking of smaller snakes, California and Mexico are home to a dwarf boa species, the rosy boa (Lichanura trivirgata). These are beautiful and variably patterned snakes—to such an extent that fans are fixated on their specific origin locale, which indicates the color and pattern that will result. These boas rarely exceed 30 inches and are as slow moving and gentle as their larger and more famous cousins. One tip to keeping the rosys: they have comparatively smaller stomachs than other species of a similar size, so always pare down the size of the rodent they eat.
Of course, most of the boas and pythons get a bit larger. The rule of thumb with snake size and safety is this: if a snake is less than 10-feet long, it can be safely handled by most adults. Snakes over 10 feet really should have two handlers, so if the human makes a mistake (snakes rarely do—accidents are the fault of the keeper, not the kept), there is adequate back-up. Of the larger boas and pythons, I always like to introduce people to the carpet pythons (Morelia spilota), the Dumeril’s boa (Boa dumerili) and rainbow boa (Epicrates cenchria). None of these exceed 10 feet in length, and all of them tend to be gentle and easy snakes to work with.
Carpet pythons are an Australian group that get in the range of eight feet. They display a beautiful pattern of accented black and tan-to-gold wavy bands, and have beautiful triangular heads. The jungle phase tends to be the prettiest of the group. If you only have babies to sell, make sure to at least have photos of the adults, and preferably the snakes’ actual parents, as the babies tend to be pale shadows of the beauty that a little growth and time will bring.
Similarly, Brazilian rainbow boas are born with very little of the color the adults will manifest. Most snakes, like most of us, do not really improve in looks with age, but the Brazilians just seem to draw color from the world around them as they mature. The “rainbow” part of their name refers to the sheen they display when in direct sunlight (and this is an excellent selling tool), but their basic colors are black with a rich mahogany and more orange as they grow. They rarely exceed seven feet, and while not naturally tame, they are easily acclimated to handling if raised by hand.
One important tip: Rainbows are rainforest denizens, and as such, have evolved very porous skins with little ability to retain moisture. They should always be kept with a large bowl of fresh water and high humidity. A few hours without water could be their death sentence.
For me, the most beautiful of all the non-venomous snakes is the Dumeril’s boa. These also stay under 10 feet, and there is something about their pattern that is almost an optical illusion; their coloring is shaded in such a way as to give their skin an extraordinary sense of depth. Their intricate patterning is a jumble of white, brown, black, and in many cases, mauve and pink. They tend to be big sluggards, rarely moving except to eat, thus they are easily handled and lovely.
These are just a few of the many species that can make your store something special. Many of your customers might view them all and still go for a ball python, but keep in mind that they are your customers in no small part because you gave them far more options than that huge store down the street that, despite its size, seemed to have so little to offer.
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.