Snakes are a pet which some find hard to comprehend, especially when a snake lover makes the somewhat subjective claim that snakes are 'cute'. However, there's more to a pet than fluffiness, and there are some very good reasons why snakes - and corn snakes in particular - make great pets. These, as well as some background history on them, are detailed below.
The Where and Whens
Corn snakes originate from the middle and southern states of the USA. In the wild they are often found in and around corn silos hunting for mice, rats and other rodents, which is how they came by their name. They were first commercially bred in captivity about 30 years ago. As a result of a small original sample group of breeding snakes, there was a lot of inbreeding, and as a result the first albino corns were hatched. These proved very popular on the market and opened up the market for newer colour combinations of snake. Corn snakes are today bred in almost every colour imaginable from pure white snow corns to jet black.
Corns as Pets
Where to Find Out About Them First
There are literally hundreds of websites about corn snakes out there, as well as countless books on the subject. One of the best UK sites follows Shaggy and Alice the Corns and baby Rio. It also has some good advice about starting out and snake healthcare in general with some great pictures. If you want to see some of the many different colour and pattern variations, Dr Shawn Lockhart runs an excellent site. If you are certain you want to keep a corn or any other snake, go to your local reptile or herpetology interest group. There you will be able to meet a lot of people who can give you further advice about your snake. Alternatively, if you have a local petting zoo, ask the reptile keeper there for any advice.
Why Are They Such Great Pets?
Like all reptiles, corns have no fur or feathers with which to trigger allergies. The vast majority of corns have a very placid character, and it is extremely rare for a corn snake to bite a human. Because of this very laid-back nature, they are a great snake for children to be around (but only under adult supervision). They respond well to regular handling, and do learn to recognise their doting owner. Their constant tongue flicking can be off-putting to some people, but this is only the snake's way of tasting the air to see who or what is around - but being licked by a snake only tickles. They are very inquisitive and love to explore new places and smells.
One Researcher's snake called Aero has a couple of examples of this natural inquisitiveness which have lead to a some very interesting times. One night, Aero was sitting around his owner's shoulders when he decided to crawl through her hoop earring and got stuck. The moral is never wear hoop earrings when handling corn snakes. When his owner bought his current tank, with very nice sliding glass doors on the front, he opened them and escaped for three days. A lock was fitted very shortly after that!
The first thing to do is to make sure you have the space and time to look after a corn snake. A corn will probably need a few changes of tank as it grows. A fully-grown corn can be up to six foot long and live in excess of 30 years.
A good vivarium can be bought from most reputable pet stores. A rough minimum guide for the size of the tank is that the snake must be able to stretch out fully from corner to corner. It must be as secure as possible; it's not for nothing that corns are also known as Houdini snakes! A heat mat must be provided, as corns like the temperature to be between 75 and 85°F, or 25 to 30°C. The heat mat should be placed under a layer of substrate (usually bark chips), which you can get from your local pet store. It will have been treated to remove any mites, germs and other nasties that could hurt your snake. A hiding place is essential too, be it an old kitchen towel roll, or a hollowed out log. Fresh drinking water is obviously another must. Once your vivarium is set up, you can start looking for your new snake.
Where to Find One?
You can purchase corn snakes from any number of places. In the USA, laws vary from state to state - this entry deals only with the UK.
If you are looking to start with a baby snake, private breeders are the best bet. You will be able to see the parent snakes and what their health and condition is like. If you are unable to locate a private breeder, try a reputable pet shop that regularly deals with exotics. If they do, you will almost certainly be able to buy your snake's food there too. Also try animal rescue charities such as the RSPCA. They may not have any babies in, but you might find a fully grown or adolescent snake there that could do with a good home.
Check on the health of your potential new pet. Make sure that the eyes are clear and bright; the snake should be alert and interested in what's going on around it, unless it's just been fed. After feeding all snakes settle down in order to digest for a few days: asking them to do anything is like asking anyone to run a marathon after a Sunday roast. If the snake seems OK, ask to be shown it feeding - as a new snake owner you don't need an awkward eater.
Most vets have only a limited knowledge of snakes and their needs. The best thing to do is phone around and find a vet that specialises in reptiles. They can be expensive, but it is worth it.
Do I Have to Feed Them Live Mice?
In a nutshell, no. A good reptile pet shop will stock ready-to-eat frozen mice. All you have to do is defrost one or two on the side for a few hours and then feed the snake. If you or the people you live with can't cope with the idea of several dead mice in the freezer, you can buy snake sausages. They are sausages that contain mice bits and pieces, but don't look like mice. Just label the container clearly. As an occasional treat, you might like to try your snake with a live cricket or two.
A baby snake needs feeding one pinkie every five to seven days, increasing to two as the snake gets bigger. When the snake is able to eat fluffs (the next mouse size up), move it onto one fluff every five to seven days.
Aero at three and a half foot long and at time of typing being two and a half years old, has two full sized mice every ten days.
So your snake doesn't associate the sight of your hand with food, and thus make a grab for you every time he sees you, do not feed your snake by hand. The method this Researcher finds best is to dangle the mouse in the tank by its tail, using a pair of pliers or tongs. It all helps with their docility. Some people recommend defrosting the mice in water, but this is not a very good idea; it removes much of the smell and taste of it, so your snake may not realise it is food.
The Financial Implications
Corn snakes can be fairly expensive at first: a three foot by two foot vivarium could set you back a hundred pounds or more. You are recommended to get your snake insured with a specialist company to cover any vets bills that could crop up. A baby corn could cost as little as twenty five to forty pounds, whereas a snake who's getting on for a year old and has grown that bit more could be up to one hundred pounds. Remember, snakes grow and if you get yours as a baby, it could be with you for the next 30 years. That's longer than most children will haunt you for!