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Old 05-04-2004, 03:17 PM   #1
Training in venomous snake handling

In my opinion, the best training you can get in safely handling venomous snakes is handling a very wide variety of nonvenomous snakes.

I have handled many species of venomous and nonvenomous snakes, and once you get past the mystique, they are all pretty much just variations on the same basic themes. Snakes that occupy the same environmental niche and have the same body type all tend to handle and behave very similarly. I have found it very effective to teach classes where the students see me working with a real venomous snake, and then they practice the same skill set with a nonvenomous analogue that behaves and handles similarly.

The real venomous snake I am using as a demo model is usually easier to handle than some of the nonvenomous stand-ins. I have had students complain that my cottonmouth was just sitting there and letting me put a tube on its head while they had to struggle mightily with their water snakes. My cobra is usually much easier to bag than the racers we hand out for student practice, and my mambas are sweethearts compared to Asian rat snakes. It is usually quite obvious in class which snakes are the most physically challenging to handle. It isn't the ones with fangs.

There's actually a pretty good evolutionary reason for this. Snakes that evolved to catch their food using pure speed and strength are generally faster and stronger than snakes that rely on venom. Hold a constrictor in your hands and then do the same with a safely head-tubed rattlesnake. Big difference in terms of muscle tone. The one physical arena in which the viperids at least can equal or exceed their nonvenomous cousins is the sudden and explosive strike. But this is not an effort they can sustain in a struggle with a handler.

Anyone who becomes very competent at moving around a wide variety of belligerent nonvenomous species with hook and tongs has the basic skill set necessary to safely work with venomous species. The physical moves are exactly the same. It is only the consequences that are more serious if you get careless.

Every species and even some individuals will handle a little differently, and you learn to fine-tune your techniques a bit when working with a particular snake or a particular type of snake that reacts and moves a certain way. The best education you can get that will help you fine tune your handling to a particular venomous species is not just working with that single species, but working with a wide variety of species so that there is nothing a snake can do that will really surprise you. To that end I highly recommend working with a wide variety of the worst tempered nonvenomous snakes you can lay a hook on, until your moves are automatic and you can't be surprised by any variation in their behavior.

Some people suggest training with a venomoid, a snake that has had its venom glands removed. Aside from the ethical issues around venomoids, this really isn't the best choice. An Asian rat snake makes a *better* trainer mamba in many ways than a real mamba, and the same can be true for other species that are wickedly fast and strong because they don't have the advantage of venom to kill their food. A large, angry semi-arboreal colubrid simulates a mamba in really tiptop physical shape who is having a very bad scale day, which is a good thing to learn how to deal with.

A lot of bites happen because of complacency. The average venomous snake can be placid or timid so much of the time that a handler can get overconfident, and when that snake finally does get motivated to seriously act out, they aren't prepared to deal with it. Training a new keeper on a snake that will always physically challenge them is better than letting them be surprised when a hot snake suddenly does its thing after being nice and calm for days on end.

The skill of a handler is not in handling the average venomous snake. The average venomous snake doesn't actually try to bite most of the time (though some species are certainly an exception). The skill of the handler is in his or her ability to deal with the snake that is absolutely freaking out and being defensive or trying to escape to the far reach of its physical ability to do so. That is the specific skill set I want to teach, and I really can teach it best using horrible tempered, fast and agile nonvenomous snakes that are close to a venomous snake in body type.

The average long term captive venomoid snake will not match a healthy wild animal for temper and physical agility in avoiding the handler's control. My mambas are not venomoid, but they are long term captives. When I use them as trainer snakes I am aware that they are probably not going to demonstrate the full physical capabilities of this species because they are habituated to handling. Since I won't let a novice deal with a freshly imported mamba, they get nasty big arboreal colubrids instead that will demonstrate just how far and fast this type of snake can move when it is really motivated to.

It is the behavior that really makes the difference, and a long term captive (which a venomoid would be) is simply not the best training model. Anyone who trains exclusively on long term captive snakes may not be prepared for a "snake emergency" when an animal seriously starts acting out. There are of course some species that retain quite a temper even as long term captives, and they are much more acceptable training animals. But some species habituate and calm down fairly rapidly, or they rarely act out even when they are freshly wild caught. So an act-alike that will more reliably put up a fight is the better trainer.

To learn more about venomoids, visit

To learn more about safe handling and restraint techniques for venomous snakes, see
Old 05-04-2004, 09:59 PM   #2
Agree 100%
That psycho blue racer that I had to practice tailing at your place gave me way more fight than your mambas or boomslangs ever offered They were sweethearts in comparison.

IMO, there are 3 pre-requisites for keeping venomous reptiles:
1. A good grasp of basic handling skills and the desire to learn more
2. A good set of tools
3. A healthy respect for the animals you work with
(and keeping venomoids would pretty much tell me that someone doesn't have the third)

Of course, I can't think of any non venomous snakes that would put the fear of God into me like your King.
Old 05-04-2004, 10:44 PM   #3
My male orange king is indeed remarkably naughty. The female is a lot less psychotic. But considering how badly beaten up, weak, timid, emaciated and abused that king was when he first came in, I am extremely grateful that he has developed into a big strong confident animal after over a year of assist feeding and veterinary care. He bred two females this year and one of them is gravid! **does the happy herper dance** I like him a lot better as he is now, even if he does try quite vigorously to kill me every time I open his cage. LOL

Kings are smart cookies, capable of learning and making behavioral associations. I have to wonder if he was badly enough abused in capture and transit that he has learned to react very negatively to humans. I suspect that the uncomfortable veterinary care I had to give him in order to keep him alive didn't help either.

All of the adult cottonmouths I have personally captured in the wild (as urban nuisance animals, I don't generally take them from good habitat) have learned to ignore humans because nothing a human does to them is painful. Without exception, they are highly tolerant of being handled with a snake hook and they do not show defensive behaviors unless I have to grab and restrain them for some reason (eg, veterinary care). Many of the cottonmouths from the same area captured by other people who use less humane tools like Pilstrom tongs are permanently bad tempered and suspicious. X-rays of some of these animals show rib fractures and spine damage. Hmmm.

I think that snakes are capable of learning and that they do form behavioral associations, either learning to be desperately defensive to avoid pain, or learning that humans can be tolerated and ignored because they are harmless.

There may be other factors as well. All of the cottonmouths I have raised from neonates, either as wild captures or as captive bred animals, are absolute buttheads. A captive raised copperhead is a placid animal; a captive raised cottonmouth is generally a very snappish beast. No idea why this is.

A king that goes through extensive veterinary treatment comes out as a butthead. A mamba that goes through extensive veterinary treatment comes out placid and habituated to handling, even though most of the regular handling that it was subjected to involved some degree of pain and discomfort. Again, no idea why this is, but it holds pretty consistently true.

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