Royal Pythons The true kings of the vivarium

14 May

Michael McLarty took most of the photos for this post and the ones that appeared in the original article.  This article originally appears in issue number 54 of Reptilia magazine.  Python regius is possibly the most widely kept Python within the herpetological trade.  It is also certainly the most imported species of snake as evidenced by The Humane Society of the United States report which states “In 1997, 94,072 Ball Pythons were imported to the United States, constituting 5.5 percent of all[i] reptile imports for that year.[ii]”   This can be attributed to the Ball Python’s “hardiness”.  This is a term that is thrown around the industry quite loosely and for newcomers to the industry this single term plays a major role in choosing to purchase a certain species or not.  I have heard all too often people using this term within pet superstores and small shops obviously, not thinking about the impact of what they are saying to a new keeper of reptiles.  I must admit, almost 75% of the time I have not heard the sales persons inquire as to the experience of the people buying the animal.

The specific term of “hardy” has only one definition.  According to Webster’s II New Riverside University Dictionary, “hardy” means “Capable of surviving unfavorable conditions, as cold weather or lack of moisture.”[iii] Now, in my opinion, this is the last thing you want to tell anyone about keeping anything.  The average person may think this means that they can essentially blow off everything and do what they want or what they think might be best.  Now, I am not saying everyone does this, but a great majority do, and the end result is always the same.  The reptile suffers a great deal of discomfort and typically dies a slow and horribly painful death in these conditions.

The entire reason that I have brought this subject to attention is because in the course of doing research, I came across a book which reminded me of why I go to the lengths that I do when keeping my own collection of reptiles.  I was re-reading the book, The Boa Constrictor Manual by Philippe de Vosjoli, Roger Klingenberg DVM, and Jeff Ronne,[iv]when I came across the section where Philippe refers to the Boa as a living work of art.  Philippe continues to discuss the experiences of watching your Boa in a “naturalistic” environment which enhances not only our viewing pleasure but the quality of life of the animal itself.

It has long been my opinion that any “wild” animal should be kept in an environment that would replicate their natural habitat as closely as you the responsible keeper can possibly achieve.  With that being said, let’s discuss how this is done.  Let us move onto the proper care and maintenance of the Royal Python Python regius AKA Ball Python.

Taxonomy

The family of Boidae has within it the sub-family and or genera (depending on who you talk to) of Pythonidae which in itself has approximately 8 genera and 27 species.  These are all found in Africa, Australasia, and Asia and span an incredibly wide range of habitats from the dry grasslands to the tropical rainforests and just about everywhere in between the two extremes.  The top three largest snakes kept in captivity are all found within the genus of Python they are from largest to smallest of “giants” P. reticulatus, P. molurus, & P. sebae.

Reticulated Pythons can achieve lengths of 9 meters, while Indian Pythons can attain a length of 8 meters, and lastly the African Rock Pythons come in at 7 meters.  All of these snakes can achieve larger or shorter lengths depending on care.  None of these should ever be handled by a single person when adult size is achieved for any reason.

Distribution & Physiology

Python regius Royal Pythons are compact thick bodied snakes which are found throughout the African continent south of the 15˚ longitudinal line.  The average sized P. regius will achieve a maximum length of 4 ft with the occasional large female reaching lengths of 6 ft.   Almost all Pythons have pitted labial scales which are extremely sensitive to temperature variation.  Whether these are used for hunting as in the Viperidae is unclear scientifically but, from personal observations in my own snakes I am inclined to believe that they are indeed used for just such a purpose.

Housing

No matter what size your Python might reach you should always buy the maximum size enclosure that will be required when your reptile reaches its maximum length.  I have always followed the rule that the snake should be able to stretch out to its maximum length and never be able to touch its tail to its nose.  At first glance this may seem quite large.  Before buying a smaller enclosure however, please be responsible and consider all of the elements that will go inside the terrarium.

I have read that an adult Royal Python Python regius should be kept in a standard 91.4 cm long x 30.5 cm wide.  Others have recommended a size of 120 cm long x 75 cm wide.  I personally use the smaller terrarium to house a single Royal Python P. regius just fine in a naturalistic environment with plenty of room to cruise, bask, and soak.  Should you want to add another Royal Python P. regius you should definitely use the larger standard size.

Selecting your new snake

I am sure that all of us have been to the local pet store whether it is a superstore or not really doesn’t matter; they typically house their reptiles in a similar fashion.  You will go in to select your new pet and be faced with the choice of twenty to thirty snakes all in one cage.  The reason they do this is not cruel but actually economically sound and I will explain why briefly then move on to snake selection.  They are able to do this because they are selling large numbers of snakes and don’t have to worry about long term housing.  Also if there is a snake that is exhibiting signs of illness they are typically immediately quarantined along with the rest of the collection until it is proven that they are all healthy.

Any snake you select should be handled before you leave the premises.  Previous to even going to select a snake you should have already set-up the terrarium at home. This means you have had the light and or heating elements on, making sure the temperatures are all within the required ranges, the substrate, limbs, and water bowls are in place, all of these items will be covered in detail later in this article.   If you are not comfortable handling snakes I have heard it recommended that you should take someone with you who is.  This is completely wrong.  If you are not comfortable handling snakes you shouldn’t be purchasing a Royal Python P. regius as your first snake.

While holding the snake you should look for one that is plump with skin taught over the entire body.  The body itself should be free of any lumps and the spine should be straight not kinked in any way.  The body should also be free of any ticks and or mites as well.  The eyes should be clear unless they are in shed and the eyes are clouded over.  In this case both eyes should have the same amount of cloudiness to them.  The snake should exhibit interest via tongue flicking and cruising in your hand.  You should if at all possible view the snake head on and look carefully at the mouth area making sure there is no mucous wet or dried crust in the pits or labial/lip area.  This means that the snake either has or has recently overcome a respiratory infection.  Turn the snake upside down while in your hand the snake should struggle against this which is a good sign; look at the vent or cloaca making sure that the anal scale is flat against the body without protrusions, crust, and mucous.

Naturalistic Vivaria

Setting up the naturalistic vivaria is not something which can be taken lightly.  Setting this type of vivaria up takes time and patients.  I personally recommend this type of set-up to anyone who would care to ask me about setting up any type of vivarium for any reptile species.  The reason being is that as famed Herpetologist and Herpetoculturist extraordinaire Philippe de Vosjoli is always reminding us, these animals are “works of art”.  This alone should this be reason enough. In case it’s not, my personal experiences have shown that the reptiles I keep not only display better, but exhibit behavior patterns that I have never witnessed in the various pet shops where I have been employed.   They have however, exhibited behaviors known to occur quite often in the wild.

Substrates

To set up a naturalistic vivarium for a Royal Python P. regius you should have first of all purchased a commercially designed vivarium with a screen top and locking pin(s).  When it comes to substrates for a naturalistic vivarium there a few opinions as to which works best; seeing the range of the Royal Python P. regius it is easy to see why.  Some people would recommend that commercially available coconut fiber found in dry bricks which can be re-hydrated works best because it can be spot cleaned easily and holds moisture better than other substrates.

Some advocate the use of small bark chips, also available commercially specially designed and treated for reptiles.  Personally, these very same small chips are available from most any home improvement store at a much cheaper cost and work exactly the same and come in larger bags, of course they are not known by the familiar names but if you look you will find them.  Still others promote the use of sterilized potting soil without perlite.  With so many choices it would be easy to become confused especially for the novice herpetoculturist.

Some argue that the small chips might be swallowed by the snake by accident when feeding.  This is a common myth that I have never once encountered anywhere.  This belief no doubt comes from those who feed their snakes in their cages.  This is a huge mistake and I highly advise against anyone ever feeding any snake in its enclosure not only for the safety of the snake itself but also that of the herpetoculturist.  The snake while being somewhat intelligent can sometimes miss its mark and bite the hand that feeds it, this not only a painful experience for you but also a very stressful one for the snake.  I will cover in detail feeding later.

Other people in the industry say that the coconut fiber becomes too dense within the vivarium and therefore begins to dry out too quickly.  In my experience its simply just not as attractive as some of the other substrates that are available and it does seem to have a tendency to dry out very quickly, this might be because I personally live in a very dry area but I have no data from other regions for comparison so I can only relay what I know.  The sterilized potting soil works very well and is both easily cleaned and retains moisture fairly well.  The only drawback to this particular substrate is that it is slightly more expensive.

My personal vivaria are set up in two different formats.  In the first I have the small bark chips which are at a depth of about ½ to 1 inch deep.  In the second vivarium I have a mixture of sterilized potting soil and small chip bark at a depth of about 3 to 4 inches deep.  The reason for the difference is because in the larger cage there are live plants growing within the vivarium itself.  This larger cage also houses the larger of our two Royal Pythons P. regius.

Heating & Lighting

When it comes to heating there are choices as to be made as far as the best method.  Lighting on the other hand is a subject where there can be no choices where the snake is concerned as I will explain here.  If you should decide that you want to keep live plants you must have some type of fluorescent bulb that emits the specific type of light needed to grow plants.  I know there are incandescent bulbs which are also sold for the same purposes, but not only are the less efficient in use of energy but they tend to heat the vivarium beyond the range of what is comfortable for the snake.

Incandescent bulbs are also sold as heating elements in a three colors which are red, blue, and sometimes purple.  Never buy a blue or purple bulb that will be left on throughout the night.  This is due to the fact that reptiles can see these colors at night and they perceive them as being daytime colors which inevitably puts their circadian rhythms of night and day activities out of sorts.  Red bulbs are a good choice for heating reptile cages because the reptiles can not sense the red wavelengths in light so as far as they are concerned they just have a warm environment.

While the red bulbs may make your pet comfortable they can be a very distracting element to your home life if like me you have your snakes on constant display.  To this challenge there raises a small but highly efficient and cost effective heat source known as the ceramic heat bulb.  This is in my opinion one of the greatest pieces of equipment to ever come to the herpetological trade.  These elements screw into the same metal shrouds that the incandescent bulbs do but they emit no light whatsoever but do emit heat at an extremely efficient rate.  With that being said, please always make sure to always use metal shrouds with ceramic sockets not plastic.  Many times I have had customers insist against my advice buy plastic socketed shrouds only to return them with the sockets melted or warped out of shape from the heat.

Another element that needs mentioning here is the U.T.H. or under tank heater.  All of the commercially available reptile cages I have seen are all built with a recessed bottom to which you can easily apply these devices.  It’s as easy as buying the appropriate size for your cage and peeling back the covering sticking it directly to the glass and you’re set.  Most of the U.T.H. sold today that I know of come with small rubber feet to be applied at the corners to raise the cage off of the surface where the cage will rest.  Please use these and save yourself a lot of trouble.  Not using these and setting the cage on a wooden shelf may start a fire.  I have never personally heard of this happening but the warnings are typically printed on the directions so I am mentioning it here.

While these are very useful I have as yet to use one that would raise the ambient temperature to the necessary 80˚- 85˚.  In my experience these temperatures can only be obtained through the use of a U.T.H. and a ceramic heat emitter or red reptile heater.  Besides the ambient or background temperature you should also provide a basking area of 90˚- 95˚.  This allows the snake to thermoregulate their own body temperature at will by moving in and out of the basking area.

Decorating

When it comes to embellishing the vivarium with decorum many items will be appealing to you as you wander the aisles of the local pet store.  You being the responsible herpetoculturist must resist the temptation to buy everything in sight.  Myself I typically get the essentials first such as a water bowl, and sand blasted or regular debarked grapevine.  After which if I am planning on having live plants I will select those last to specifically fit the vivarium and the snake(s) size.

The water bowl should be of a size where the snake can fully submerge itself should it want to.  It should also be heavy enough that when the snake attempts to climb into it that it can not be tipped over.  Other than that the bowl can be any shape and texture that you find appealing.  As far my personal tastes are concerned I use the rock style plastic molded bowls as they are typically more appealing to the eye when setting up a naturalistic vivarium.

Most of the literature that we read tells us that the Royal Python P. regius is a terrestrial serpent.  I have no doubt that this is true in the wild considering it is consistently found in the open grasslands with few trees and rocky outcroppings.  Yet again my mentors’ words come back to me “There is big difference between book smarts and experience.”  I bring this point up here to reflect the fact that I have personally kept the Royal Python P. regius for many years and always with some type of climbing branch in the vivarium.

Never once have I ever kept one that didn’t use the branch at all.  Some would climb and hang from it for hours or even days at a time.  This was not to get to the basking area as some might perceive for the basking area is always half over the hide shelter.  They evidently simply wanted a change of perspective or just literally wanted to hang out.  Why they have specifically exhibited this behavior is unknown to me as of the writing of this article; regardless of the specific why more importantly the point is that this would lead me to believe that they should be classified as a semi-arboreal snake not terrestrial.

Other than just having a branch again the choice of debarked or sandblasted grapevine is one that is left to the herpetoculturist and their specific tastes.  I have used and have had the same experiences with both.  Plastic and or wire core rubber vines and branches are available for use within the vivarium I normally recommend against these types for the simple reason that when the snake grows they will not support their weight and will collapse.  Not to mention that if they for some reason; by the snakes natural movements or the careless keepers misplacement come into close proximity with the heating element you can seriously injure your pet and even start a fire.

When it comes to shelters I once again am a “Purist”.  I believe that there should be nothing in the vivarium that the snake wouldn’t encounter in the wild.  That being said I have used half logs as well as molded plastic made to look and feel like rock much similar to the plastic molded rock bowls I mentioned earlier.  When using either of these I typically bury about ¼ of the bottom into the substrate to give the snakes the opportunity to feel that they were protected from all sides.  That being said I have noticed that the Royal Pythons P. regius I have kept seem to be more apt to cruise while housed with the plastic molded rock shelter than they did when housed with the same size half log.  I have no explanation for this behavior other than they seem to be more comfortable with the half log.

When it finally comes to plants to put in the vivarium I try to select plants that are well suited for indoor use.  This is due to the fact that they will in fact be indoors and have minimal if any exposure to “real” sunlight.  Most plants are much too sensitive to survive very long within a vivarium which houses such stocky snake as the Royal Python P. regius.  I have seen Liriope Lily Turf used with some success in the vivarium but understand these will be become compressed over time as the snake cruises.  I have also seen Epipremnum aureum Pothos used as well to decorate the branches and the vivarium itself.  The Aspidistra elatior or Cast Iron plant is also another plant that I have occasionally used; this plant is really hard to kill even with a cruising snake.

Feeding

Within today’s standards of reptile keeping (in pet stores) feeding your new snake should not ever be a problem.  I personally ask to see the snake I have selected feed before ever purchasing it.  This is unless I have previously purchased from the store or current owner with no regrets.  When purchased from most local pet shops Royal Pythons P. regius will typically be feeding on full size mice.  Buying directly from breeders you will typically be purchasing hatchlings which will be feeding on fuzzies.  I have heard of “problem” feeders.  As of yet I have yet to ever personally experience a problem feeder.  I have had customers come to me with Royal Pythons P. regius unwilling to eat but through careful steps and environmental conditioning I have as yet to ever own a snake that just won’t eat; therefore requiring me to force feed.

Live/Pre-killed

This is a subject that I approach with every customer I have ever sold an animal to which required the intake of another animal for survival.  This is particular necessary when dealing with snakes which are not piscivorous (fish eating).  Most books and experts in my experience will recommend the feeding of “pre-killed” prey.  This term has several different meanings and depends on who you ask as to what is meant by this.  Pre-killed prey refers to the prey either being stunned or frozen.  Stunned prey in my personal opinion is an option for those who are strong of stomach and simply can’t get frozen prey.  I will not go into the details of how prey should be stunned before presentation simply due to the graphic nature of what may occur when done improperly.

Pre-killed frozen prey is in my opinion the best choice both for the snake and the herpetoculturist alike.  The mice are sterile and are euthanized in a humane manner and then delivered to the pet store in a sealed bag ready for consumption by your pet.  The best method I have found for feeding this type of prey is to leave the mouse in the bag and place the bag in warm water in the morning allowing it to defrost “naturally” for a few hours.  You should never allow the prey to sit out un-refrigerated overnight.  This is because the prey itself may decompose even within the sealed bag as natural enzymes begin working.

The very first thing you should do is defrost the prey.  After the prey is thoroughly defrosted you can place the prey in the place where you intend to feed.  Next you will remove the snake from the cage and place it in a dark confined place where it can be left undisturbed for twenty four hours if needed.  Myself, I use a five gallon bucket with a locking lid which has been perforated for air.  If the snake is still small enough you can use a brown paper bag that has been stapled shut.  I will generally check on the snake every couple of hours to see if it has eaten.  If it has not eaten within twenty four hours then I remove the snake and throw out the prey item unless I have another snake which I know is regular feeder in which case I will feed it the other snake.

The reason it is safer to feed pre-killed frozen is very simple.  Pre-killed frozen mice will never wake up from being stunned.  They will also not fight back as would anything that was being consumed live by another animal.  Mice and Rats both can inflict serious damage when they are fed live to snakes of any kind.  After feeding the snake should be immediately moved back to its vivarium and then left completely alone for a minimum of forty eight hours.  This will allow the snake to digest and rest according to its needs.

Handling

As with any pet there should be an acclimation period where the pet is allowed to adjust and familiarize itself with its new environment.  Most people when they get a new pet whether it be a reptile or mammal their first reaction after bringing it home is to call all their friends and show it off.  With Royal Pythons P. regius this can be extremely detrimental to the snakes’ behaviors and feeding later.  I recommend at least a week long period of no handling of any reptile after it is brought home.

After a week of being in the vivarium you can begin to handle the Royal Python P. regius for about ten minutes at a time and even then handle the snake only every other day.  At about the third or fourth day is when I will typically attempt its first feeding.  When the snake has fed successfully on multiple occasions then and only then will I lengthen the handling time at ten minute increments.  You should never under any circumstances put any snake around your neck or anyone else’s.  You should also never put the snake anywhere near anyone’s face.  This is to keep yourself and your friends safe.  Too many times people forget that snakes have only two defenses and these are bite and squeeze.  Granted, Royal Pythons P. regius are not large snakes but if you have ever fallen victim to any snake bit you will understand that a bite to the face could be a very serious thing.

In closing I would like to dedicate this article to my wife Adelina who through her love has shown me the way back to my passion of writing and reptiles.


[i] The bolding of the word (all) was inserted by the author to exemplify the actual amount.

[ii] http://www.hsus.org

[iii] Webster’s II New Riverside University Dictionary Published by the Riverside Publishing Company

[iv] Philippe de Vosjoli, Roger Klingenberg DVM, and Jeff Ronne.  The Boa Constrictor Manual published by Advanced Vivarium Systems Inc Copyright 1998

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