Repetition is the mother of all skill, and handling reptiles skilfully is no exception. All reptiles in captivity will require some degree of interaction for feeding, cleaning and other husbandry needs. Tony Jones explains how this can be done safely without harm to you or your animals.
We should aim to make every interaction with our reptiles as stress free as possible and there are various methods by which this can be achieved. Whilst all interaction can be said to be stressful to the reptile to some degree, this article will outline ways to minimise this stress and ensure both you and your animal remain safe and unharmed. Some reptiles are more tolerant of handling than others. Common pet reptiles such as Corn Snakes, Bearded Dragons, Leopard Geckos and the like will tolerate handling easily without displaying any stress related behaviour. Stress behaviour can manifest itself in several different ways; all aggressive behaviour such as biting, tail whipping and clawing is a sign of stress and should be understood as such. Similarly, stressed reptiles will often defecate, wriggle out of your hand and/or make a getaway and are usually a sign of stress or fear.
Even the friendliest reptiles should be handled considerately. A roughly handled lizard such as a Leopard Gecko can shake off its tail, leaving it wriggling on the ground for the (supposed) predator to feast on. Whilst tail-dropping is a naturally occurring defence mechanism for many species of lizard, the process is not benign as regeneration is a metabolically costly process. Whilst Leopard Geckos will tolerate direct handling, care should be taken to avoid restricting their movement or grasping them to avoid this problem.
Hints and Tips
Some species of lizard such as Day Geckos and Wonder Geckos have delicate skin which tears very easily. Although it is not quite as fragile, the skin of these geckos is often likened to the delicacy of wet toilet tissue and so direct handling is not recommended unless absolutely necessary. Species with a reputation as enthusiastic biters, such as Tokay Geckos and Cuban Anoles, are obviously difficult to handle too. When capture is necessary, a cricket tub or large plastic sandwich box can be placed over the lizard before gently sliding the lid underneath, making moving the animal infinitely less stressful. This is also a good technique to use when sexing any small lizard – viewing the ventral surface through the clear base of a tub is preferable to grasping and restricting the lizard upside down in your hand.
Larger lizards can be more of a problem should they take exception to being handled. Whilst a Bosc Monitor will usually behave perfectly when their owner picks them up, other Monitor Lizards and even some Iguanas can take painful exception. Bites, tail whips and clawed hands and arms will soon indicate their displeasure and the method of handling you choose should be adopted on a case by case basis.
Lizards displaying mild or sporadic stress behaviour can be moved quickly and safely by an owner wearing gauntlets – swiftly grasping the lizard from above at shoulders and hip can neutralise the claws, allowing the keeper to hold their legs behind them. My personal glove choice is the welding gauntlet as these are large enough and thick enough to deter most claws and bites. Beware of leather gardening gloves as these often have flimsy fabric on the back of the hand which is no defence at all. And always watch out for the tail whip!
A much better option for handling all stressed reptiles is to utilise a trap box, although this method is more time consuming. The lizard can be persuaded to enter the box which is then locked shut, allowing the keeper to remove them with minimum stress and maximum safety. This method is also effective with aggressive snakes of any size and is my preferred method if sufficient time is available.
Although often necessary, restrictive handling should be the last option for any interaction. In addition to skin tears, tail dropping and the obvious risk of harm to the handler, forcible restrictive handling can easily cause harm to the reptile. Bruising caused when grasping a reptile too tightly can be harmful and sometimes fatal and only the most experienced handlers will judge the balance between their own safety and that of the animal. Grasping aggressive snakes behind the head is another common handling technique that is considered a risky manoeuvre for novice keepers to try. In addition to the near perfect timing required for the manoeuvre, the delicate joints of the vertebrae and skull are easily damaged should the snake’s thrashing attempts to escape not be managed effectively and considerately. Restrictive handling requires much practice to master effectively and this is not easily (or safely) acquired – there is not usually any room for mistakes to be made during the learning process. It is recommended that novice keepers refrain from restrictive handling and the supervision of an accomplished tutor should be sought by anyone wishing to master the technique.
It is usually preferable to adopt other, safer handling methods which negate the need to employ restrictive handling procedures. Venomous snake handling equipment and techniques are enormously useful in achieving this aim and are employed by many professional herpers working with difficult species. Hooks, grabs and trap-hide boxes are effective when simply moving the animal from one place to another, whilst tubes are enormously useful when inspection at close quarters is necessary.
Conditioned Feeding Response
Most reptile bites are inflicted by small pet species upon novice handlers. Whilst these defensive, stress induced bites are unpleasant they rarely cause significant injuries given the fact that this type of bite is usually followed by an immediate release. A greater risk is posed by feeding response bites, particularly when inflicted by a larger species snakes. Feeding response bites represent a much greater risk and it is important to understand both how and why these occur and to employ husbandry processes to negate them.
Conditioned feeding responses occur when captive reptiles associate activity near their enclosure with subsequent feeding opportunities. It is particularly common and particularly dangerous in large constricting snakes when handling is infrequent due to their size. The pattern that is formed when feeding time is the most frequent activity the snake experiences and therefore begins to associate the opening of their tank with dinner time. The instinctive strike-bite reflex that is conditioned by this pattern will make simple husbandry tasks (such as cleaning and water change) unduly risky and potentially dangerous.
Feeding response bites appear to involve a more habitual and mechanical behavioural process. Once a snake has instigated the feeding process and a bite is secured, releasing the ‘prey’ is not part of the normal series of events. The snake will usually throw several body coils around the ‘prey’ and any movement will encourage further constriction. The inclination to release will require the snake to break the strong behavioural feeding pattern, realising that that this is not a feeding opportunity. Feeding response bites are usually prolonged experiences with extra damage being caused by the constriction process. Attempts to remove the bite body part (usually the hand or arm) from the mouth forcibly will inflict further damage due largely to the inward pointing teeth possessed by most boid species. Tears inflicted by teeth as flesh is pulled out of the snake’s mouth can cause significant damage and the possibility of damage to blood vessels should not be underestimated. Therefore, non-release feeding response bites, and particularly those involving constriction are difficult to disengage without further damage. There are several supposedly effective methods for securing a quick release from a non-release bite, most usually that the snake should be held under cold water. However, no single method has been proven to be universally effective and most python experts recommend that the bitten party awaits release patiently if at all possible, assuming the bite and constriction are not life threatening.
The best method for avoiding conditioned feeding response bites is to avoid the conditioning in the first place. There are several means by which this can be achieved, most notably by never feeding the snake inside its vivarium and never entering the vivarium smelling like food. Always wash your hands thoroughly after handling snake food, otherwise you hand will simply resemble a strange looking rat to your snake, and will be considered fair game.
Other tips include frequently handling the snake, ensuring that interaction is not associated solely with feeding opportunities. Most boid keepers will also alert the snake to their presence with a hook or other implement, so as to assure the snake that it is not feeding time. A shield, such as a dustbin lid is a useful tool with a dual purpose. Not only can it be used to deflect strikes from startled or hungry bois, but more usually it is an effective means of alerting snakes to the keeper’s presence. Shields are most useful when maintaining large collections of boids as it is not always possible to avoid installing conditioned feeding responses in these applications.
This article aims to promote safe and stress free handling for both the keeper and the kept, and whilst some of the advice addresses potentially dangerous situations it is important we appreciate the context. Captive reptiles have been kept in the UK for around 200 years and there has never been a recorded case of death or serious injury. Accidents can and do happen, but managing the variables outlined in this article will certainly help to preserve the flawless record of UK reptile keepers.
- Snakes prefer to have their ventral surface in contact with the ground. Supporting as much of the snake as possible will make them more comfortable and less likely to bite.
- Most lizards will release their bite if you put their feet on the ground and allow them to run away.
- Some snakes have saliva with anticoagulant properties. This means you will bleed for a surprisingly long time if bitten. Others, such as False Water Cobras and Hognose snakes have toxic saliva which can cause painful swellings and possible allergic anaphylactic shock.
- When handling large boids, always ensure there is another person present in case of emergency. Constriction and asphyxiation can occur within minutes.
- Adult male Iguanas will sometimes attack their female keepers when the woman is menstruating.
- Reptile training is a recent husbandry development, pioneered by zoo collections in the U.S. Several species of crocodilian have been trained to obey simple commands to enhance the safety of keepers, motivated by small food rewards, crocs have been trained to come when called, retreat and even to stand behind a line given specific command cues.
- Practical Reptile Keeper issue XXX features the Federation of British Herptoculturists guide to keeping large boids and contains information of safe and effective husbandry processes. Back copies are available from XXXX
Published – Practical Reptile Keeping Feb 2010