The Great Escape.

Albino Burmese 5

“If it can – It will.  If it probably can’t- it probably can!” (Dave Lester – Reptile breeding pioneer 1953- 1994)

Although reptile escapes are rare, when they do occur the consequences can be devastating.  Most times the offending escapee will be re-captured quickly without much fuss but even the smallest, most harmless escaped pet can attract negative media attention.  Houdini herps are certainly frustrating, but the blame for escapes always lies squarely with the keeper; so what can we do to avoid it?


An ounce of prevention is worth any amount of cure in the case of herp escapes and so we’ll begin by looking at how to avoid the problem.  The Dave Lester quote above is without doubt the best approach as your beloved pet will astound you with ingenuity in its bid for freedom.  Even the smallest hole, such as those made for electrical cabling will provide a means for escape and snakes are particularly adept at squeezing through the tiny gaps you originally thought were too small.  Ensure ventilation holes are fine enough to hamper a bid for freedom and that any gauze or vents are securely attached to the vivarium. Ill fitting sliding glass doors are another vivarium weak spot as they are easily dislodged from their runner.  I have even known snakes to flatten themselves between the overlapping sheets of glass when thin panes have been used in wide gauge runners.  Always use the correct glass thickness and add a plastic trim if in any doubt. (See Picture.)

Human Error.

The most common cause of escape is human error.  Failing to adequately secure the enclosure is an easy mistake to make and it happens to the best of us if we are distracted.  Substrate or other debris caught in the runners of sliding glass doors is another culprit; the glass slides no further and appears closed but leaves just enough gap for escape.  Hatchlings in plastic tubs will make short work of a poorly secured lid and some snakes are strong enough to open even a tightly secured lid.

One tool in the fight against human error is to utilise a locking mechanisms, preferably a locking mechanism that can only be deployed if the enclosure is properly closed.  Glass locks and rubber wedges are often used to secure sliding glass doors but I’m not a great fan of either for several reasons.  Both can easily be affixed to doors that have not been fully closed shut and so despite the lock being in place, the reptile may still be able to escape.  Also, I find neither locks nor wedges stay in place very well and I despair of having to continually re-fit them.  Unless you are locking your vivarium to guard against unwanted access, there are simpler and more effective means of avoiding escapes.

A length of wood cut to size and placed into the vacant sections of runner will make it impossible to slide open the glass, but my preferred method is to use a cleverly bent piece of wire as these are easier to fit and remove than the afore mentioned runner blocks.  The best feature of both of these is that they cannot be affixed if the glass doors are not fully closed, thus drawing your attention to any problems.


Ok, so we all make mistakes and your beloved reptile has flown the coop.  There are several tried and tested methods of retrieving them, but first you should check if they have definitely escaped.  It is not uncommon for herps to hide underneath water-bowls, amongst vivarium decor, bury themselves in the substrate or even stretch out on the ledge where the ventilation gauze is often affixed in their vivarium.  Unless the animal is of such a size it could not be hiding anywhere sneaky, I am inclined to strip the vivarium bare, piece by piece.  Often they can be found safe and sound in the viv and wondering what all of the fuss is about.

Once you are sure you have a free-range reptile on your hands it is worth knowing that most are found within a few metres of their vivarium.  Remember that many herps will climb and so it is worth looking up too, on curtain rails, wardrobes and cabinets and around door frames are the first places I look.  Beyond that it is a case of exploring every nook and cranny.  Warm nooks and crannies are certainly worth a look but in my experience the pesky critter could be just about anywhere.

Be sure to check bins before putting them out and consider using lidded bins to prevent your herp from hiding there.  Check laundry before loading the machine and check your shoes before putting them on.  Check book cases, CD racks and wardrobes, in bedding, the back of the sofa, behind the toilet and remember to look UP underneath everything.  It is worth using a torch and a mirror to look in those dark and inaccessible places too.

Most escapees are located during this initial search.  Make sure you know how it escaped before putting it back into the enclosure to avoid a repeat performance.


If the initial search proves fruitless you’ll need to be a little more creative.  There are several different types of trap worth considering depending on the size of your renegade reptile.  Smaller specimens such hatchling snakes can be caught using a tape trap.  This comprises a piece of glass (such as the sliding glass door from an empty vivarium for example) covered in parcel tape, sticky side up.  Leave these in strategic places; particularly near the door in the room the vivarium is kept.  Once caught, removal must be performed with the utmost delicacy, prising each scale carefully from the tape.  It may be beneficial to use oil to avoid the animal becoming re-stuck during the process.

Funnel traps have also proven successful.  Cut the neck from a plastic drinks bottle and invert it inside the belly before taping it in place to construct a type of sealed funnel.  Bait the trap with food or water, punch some small holes to allow the aroma to escape and position strategically.   Some people even like to use a mouse to rub a scent trail leading into the funnel, paying particular attention to the mouth of the trap.  The idea is that your herp will hunt out the bait and enter the trap but not be able to easily exit, particularly if they are too fat with food.

As snakes can go for some time without food it is likely that they will become thirsty first, so it’s always a good idea to bait some traps with water.  In addition to the funnel trap you can use plastic “Tupperware” type containers with a couple of millimetres of water in the bottom.  (No more as your trapped herp could drown.)  Cut a small hole in the lid of the tub and you may find your pet has taken the water bait and decided to hang around.

If you’re feeling particularly covert you can set a series of ambush traps.  These work particularly well at night as your herp is likely to hide during the day whilst it is noisy.  Wait until dark before placing crinkly paper and plastic bags along walls and in all other obvious places. Then lie in wait, with torch in hand ready to leap into action when you hear rustling.  It may take a while before your pet decides the coast is clear, so be patient.


Box Outs

Box-out (News Item): Woman almost crashes car as snake slithers across windscreen

Miss Dixon-Yeung, 27, was driving to the supermarket when the creature appeared from beneath the bonnet of her silver Audi TT.  She enlisted the help of Asda worker Joe Moore to remove the reptile which was later identified as a harmless North American corn snake.  ( 14 Jul 2009)

Box-out (News Item): A FOUR-foot long SNAKE has been found in a Cliftonville park.

The huge kingsnake, more commonly found on the plains and canyons of America, was spotted by horrified dog walkers in Northdown Park this month.  They called in reptile experts from animal charity the RSPCA to catch the gigantic serpent, which is thought to be an escaped pet. ( 22 Jul 2009)

Box Out – Flour Power. Although not strictly a trap, flour can be used to monitor a Houdini herp’s movements; sprinkle it liberally around a room, particularly near doors and check for trails later.  

Box out (Anecdote) –Homing snakes “I once lost a breeding pair of Great Plains Rat Snakes that lived together in a three foot vivarium.  They were lost for about three weeks before both turning up on the same day…inside their old vivarium.  Apparently there’s no place like home!” (Gareth Bayliss – Colubrid breeder.  Cannock. )

Box Out: Modified fish tanks make poor enclosures for reptiles, not least because they are quite impossible to secure.  Securing any lid with weights is rarely effective and reptiles frequently escape from this type of enclosure.

Box-out: I know that I am easily distracted and so there is always the chance I could inadvertently leave an enclosure susceptible to escape.  I have a golden rule where I check every enclosure in my reptile house for safety and escape risks before I leave.  When all the work is done I stop and re-check each vivarium, tub and enclosure as my final task, before switching off the light safe in the knowledge that nothing is going walkabout.


~ by Tony's Desk on October 16, 2009.

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