Portrait By Kiva Bay

Dax Murray

Book reviews, coding thoughts, feminist rants, and occasional cats.

Snake Love

Me holding my snake in front of my face

I adopted a snake recently! Her name is Melusina, she was hatched in July 2016 and she is a yellow belly ball python. "Yellow belly" is her "morph" - what snake breeders use to describe patterns / markings / genetics. There's a whole system of dominate / co-dominate / recessive traits breeding that goes on to make some really awesome looking snakes. "Ball python" is the type of snake she is. Ball pythons are medium sized snakes that are non-venomous. They are constrictors, which means they kill their prey by squeezing them. They are also sometimes called "royal pythons" because royalty in sub-Saharan nations would sometimes wear them as jewelry. The monikor "ball python" comes from the fact that balling up is their response to pretty much anything.

a ball python's backside as wrapped around a human wrist Yellow bellies have "flames" coming up from their bellies. So the pattern would normally be solid black, but instead, inside of the black, there are some orange-ish flames. You can see my snakes "flames" pretty well in the light. Yellow bellies also have an orange smudgey triangle on their heads. It's a morph that was first "discovered" in 1999, and it's a dominante gene. If you breed two yellow bellies together, you will probably get a super yellow belly, or what is known sometimes as an ivory, which is a snake that is mostly all off- white with a very faint yellow pattern. Melusina's dad was an ivory ball python.

farm animals at a pet expo, including goats and miniature horse

I've wanted a pet snake for awhile now, and have had my heart set on ball pythons since college, when one of my sorority sisters had a snake she kept in her dorm room and sometimes brought out for various campus events. A few weeks ago I was at the Maryland World of Pets Expo with my friend Liz and we had a ton of fun meeting goats, alpacas, very large rabbits, very small horses, ducks, dogs who did tricks, cats who slept, and lots and lots of very good dogs that Brent would approve of. We eventually found our way to the reptile dealers, where some woman was very non-chalantly holding a scorpion. Down a little ways from her was a ton of snakes, and I asked if I could hold one. I ended up holding a banana ball python, and really wanted to take her home with me. The dealer said he could set up a kit for me and I could take the snake home with me today! However, the partner that I live with is kinda really scared of snakes. I texted anyways asking if it was ok, very jokingly. I didn't get a response until after we were pulling out of the expo and heading back home. But the response was "Sure."

So I spent the next few days talking it over, doing some research, and triple checking that my partner was actually fine with me getting a python. I called up some Petco's and Petsmarts to ask if they carried ball pythons, not because I wanted to purchase one from a chain retailer, but because I wanted to know if they might have the correct supplies for me. I got on craigslist and tried to find some snakes for adoption on there, but wasn't really finding any ball pythons. I googled for reptile stores in DC, and found one in Baltimore. Finally I did the desperate thing and got on reddit, which is how I found MorphMarket, which is a pretty new site, but it has inventory of hundreds of reptile breeders and reptile specialty stores, you can look by reptile type, and on the ball python end you could look on genetics, making it easy to find an Ivory (or "super yellow belly") or Banana or Albino or really any other fancy patterns. I used their map functionality to find a breeder (Osmun Reptiles) about twenty minutes from my place, and used MorphMarket to send an inquire about a hatchling he had. He responsed very promptly, and gave me a ton of good info about her. I let him know I was pretty local and while he could ship the snake, I wanted to pick her up in person and not risk it with it being winter. Breeders can often overnight live reptiles by putting heating packs in the box, but if there is a problem and it gets delayed, or it gets left on your porch and you don't get home for several hours, it can turn disasterous.

With payment made and pick up arranged for the upcoming weekend, I started shopping for supplies for her. I waded through tons of care sheets from pet stores and pet supply manufacturers like Zoo Med and Zilla. I watched YouTube Videos from LLL Reptiles and other places like them on how to set up a snake habitate. They all had glass acquariums with screen tops, and said you needed a heating lamp and an under tank heater, like a heating pad. They said you could get a cheap substrate like aspen shavings, and that the heater went on one side (which would be your snakes "hot" side) and the other side should not have a heater (and be your snakes "cool" side). Most of them said you should have a "hide" on each side, or a small dark enclosure in which your snake could hide.

I went back to reddit, ready to ask questions that the videos did not answer. I went back /after/ I'd purchased a lot of stuff. I started reading, and reading, and reading, not quiet wanting to ever actually need to post on reddit, and therefore combing through the archives trying to find what I needed. The first thing I found was a rather tragic post of someone's snake removing the stick on thermometer in the tank and getting stuck to it. This did not end well for the snake, and I was really sad. I then checked the thermometer I'd purchased. Oops. Same one. I learned that if there is an adhesive surface in the tank, the snake will find a way to get to it, so don't stick anything to the tank walls with tape, sticky tack, command strips, etc. If you need to attach something to the tanks inner walls, use hot glue.

The next thing I learned is that tanks are actually pretty bad for snakes! They don't hold heat, and with the screen top, it makes keeping the necessary heat in a constant battle. With a screen top, humditiy also becomes difficult to maintain. A ball pythons cool side should always be above 75 F, and the warm side should not ever be above 95 F, preferrably no higher than 90 F. The humidity should always be above 50%, and during shed, it should be around 70%. I also had purchased aspen bedding, which sucks up a lot of moisture, and misting your tank to try to get the humidity up could easily cause a mold outbreak in the aspen substrate.

I found links to places like Animal Plastics and PVC Cages. I know the webpages is incredibly sketchy looking, but multiple people on reddit vouched for it, and several of them I saw in multiple threads explaining how to treat snake emergencies, so I started to trust them even though they were often not the most pleasant people, since they obviously just wanted snakes to live a happy life. These enclsures were advocated as a pretty optimal place to keep a pet snake. You can buy the enclosure, the heating sources, and lighting sources all at once. They apparently last decades, and require very little by way of cleaning and upkeep. I'd already sunk a ton of money into my supplies, though.

I already knew that baby ball pythons can get really scared of large spaces, so while mine is just a hatchling, she would need a smaller space. So I decided to try to make the best of what I had, and save up for a larger enclosure for her by way of either PVC Cages or Animal Plastics. First, I got two heating pads. These are adhesive, and meant to be stuck to the outside bottom of your tank, not the inside. The thing they don't tell you is that they can't really be bent, and bending them breaks them. So once it's on the tank, it's not coming off without breaking. However, as I learned on reddit, you can use the adhesive to stick it on tin foil, and then tape it onto the bottom outside of the tank with a heat resistant tape. I put one at each end of my tank, since it's glass and not great at heat. I then plugged them both into a thermostat. On the one side I set the temperature to 90F, and on the other, 78F. These aren't the most expensive thermostats, and there are some that are $600 USD and made specifically for reptile enclosures. This way the temperature in the enclsure would always be above 75F. The thermostates have probes to check the temperature, they come with suction cups. Don't be tempted to put the probes inside the enclosure. Instead put them in between the heating pad and the glass, the snake will find a way to move them, and if the snake sits on it in the enclsure, you might end up with a wrong temperature reading.

I then got a foam poster board, and cut it up and taped it to the back and the sides of the glass tank. This achieves two things. First, it makes the snake feel more secure. Second, it acts as insulation for the glass, helping to keep the heat in. In addition, I got saran wrap and covered abut two-thirds of the screen top. I was now getting the right temperature readings, so I didn't need to rely on a heat lamp, and could use LED lights to illuminate the enclosure.

I ordered bricks of coconut fiber substrate, which I then soaked in water and put in. I didn't soak it in too much water, just enough to get it to not be so compact. This helped keep the humidity up, and didn't have such a high risk of mold that the aspen bedding did. YOu don't need much substrate, you could actually get away with using papertowels as substrate if you wanted. I like the look of the coconut husks and it's helpful during shed.

I made the mistake of ordering too small a water bowel, none of the care sheets or videos from Big Brands explained that the snake should be able to fully fit into the water bowel in some manner. So I made sure to go to a pet store and find an appropriate sized one instead of relying on internet measurements to try to figure out if she could fit in it. Snakes will sometimes soak themselves in their water bowels to help with shedding.

In addition to the probes used for the thermostates, I have two other thermometers and hygrometers in the enclosure. One at each end, so that I can always have a feel for what is going on. I plan on getting an infrared thermometer in the future, but right now these are working well and I am making sure that it stays above 50%. So far with the coconut husks and the fact that I myself prefer at least 50% humidity, this isn't a problem. Melusina's enclsure is in a room where I have a giant 3.5 gallon humdifier that I have set up for my own personal comfort, I understand not everyone does this though, so you might have to take other measure to keep your snake happy.

I have two hides for her, and she spends a lot of the day in them. The hides are identical. As I learned, hides should be the same size, and those hollowed out logs don't really give them security, even if one end is butted up against glass. So far Melusina really likes the ones I have for her. You can use pretty much anything for hides as long as they are the same size. The reason for this is that in the wild a snake could have its pick of hides, and so will look for one that meets its temperate and size needs for its own security. If one is too small or too big, it can go find another one. In captivity, a snake can't be Goldilocks. The snake can really only pick between the hides that we give. So if the snake feels safe in the warm hide, but needs to thermoregulate and be cooler, the snake might have to choose between feeling safe and thermoregulating. She has some fake plants, too. Most of which I bought in the fish section, because for some reason they were cheaper. She also has a fake log that stays in the middle of the tank that she will sometimes climb on at night.

As for food, I order her food online. Be warned, the shipping is a big pricy, and it will come packaged with dry ice. But the mice and rats themselves are pretty cheap. I bought her 50 frozen prey for $12, plus $50 shipping. The breeder suggested to me PerfectPrey but there are other places you can buy too. I can't so far find frozen prey local to me (which is weird, this is a major city…but I guess DC is a fairly conservative city as far as pets go?). I also picked up some tongs which I use to hold the prey when I attempt to feed her.

I feed her frozen/thawed mice, which was what the breeder also fed her. Ball pythons are docile, shy, and not always interested in food. Live feeding can be lethal to the snake if the snake isn't wanting to feed and the prey is wanting to fight, especially if the prey is a bigger rat. The prey items are humanely killed and then I thaw them, warm them up to a body temperature without cooking them, and then feed to Melusina. I also feed her in her enclosure, there is no need to move a snake to a different tank to feed them. This way the snake isn't stressed out from being somewhere else. Feeding in the enclosure won't cause "cage aggression" and won't train your snake to think you hand is food every time you open the cage.

A few more things: you can also apparently use sterilite or rubbermaid bins as snake enclosures, they hold heat and humidity better than glass tanks, and you can do pretty much the same set up, with some accomodations for making sure the under tank heaters don't melt the plastic. You use a soldering iron to put some holes in the side, and make sure it has secure clips to keep the lid on. If it doesn't, you can use luggage thing ma bobs to keep it closed. The draw back is you don't have the crystal clear view of your snake. It's cheap though! The PVC enclosures I talked about earlier have the crystal clear view of glass, and the heat/humidity retention of bins. Some of the links that I saw posted over and over again in reddit were really helpful to me, and they might be helpful to you too.

  1. The Basics and Then Some
  2. Ball Python Common Problems
  3. Ball Pythons Feeding

I've sure learned a lot about snake keeping, and I hope if you have the means, you go for the PVC enclosures, but if you are like me and already have all the stuff for a glass tank, hopefully this can help you get a good set up until you can afford to make a change.

Oh…and about my partner that is terrified of snakes? Totally in love with Melusina now <3