By Simon Woodhouse
Though snakes may not sit on your lap like a cat, or shower you with affection like a dog, they still make excellent pets. Peering into a tank and watching a reptile slowly slither around definitely has a soothing affect. A well maintained habitat, with dark, shadowy nooks and crannies, will always catch the eye. And even when motionless, the markings on a snake still make it something pleasing to look at.
But just like keeping any other living creature as a pet, snakes require the proper care and attention. You may not need to take your snake for a walk, or provide it with furry toys to play with, you will, however, need to know exactly what it requires to live a healthy, happy life. Unlike a dog or a cat, when a snake is unhappy or unwell, it won't look all that much different from when it's full of the joys of life and on top of the world. So it's down to you to know what it needs, when it needs it and how much. But before all of that, it's important to choose the right snake for you.
For a beginner, it's better to choose a snake that's easy to handle and also quite robust. Another important consideration is size, not the size it is when you see it in the pet store, but the size it might be in ten years time. The corn snake is a good choice for a beginner. They have a comparatively docile temperament, grow to not much more than five feet in length, and are robust enough to tolerate being cared for by a novice. Another plus point for the corn snake is its looks. They are an attractive animal, and though there are color variations, their most common skin pattern consists of a series of red, black-bordered blotches on an orange background.
Ok, so now you've got your snake, you need something to put it in. A normal aquarium tank will do the job, but you must consider the size. An adult corn snake will require a tank no less than three feet long, and one and a half feet wide. Underneath this you'll need to put a low-powered heat mat. Snakes are cold-blooded, and so don't perform at all well in cooler temperatures. But on the other hand, they don't like to be too hot either. To cope with this rather finicky nature, make sure your heat mat only measures about one third of the floor space of the tank. This allows for the creation of a 'thermal gradient', and lets the snake find the ideal spot that's not too hot and not too cold. Besides liking just the right temperature, snakes also like to hide. You might want to watch your snake slithering around the tank, but if you don't provide it with a nice shadowy nook to hide in, it'll feel under constant threat from predators (it's not smart enough to know there aren't any in the tank with it). This will cause it stress, and a stressed snake is a poorly snake. Luckily, snakes aren't fussy about where they hide, so if you don't want to buy a specially molded snake hide from the pet store, a piece of curved cork bark or an empty cereal box will do. Make sure the hiding place is half on and half off the heat mat, so the snake will be able to hide and feel comfortable as well. All you need now is a water bowl at the opposite end to the heat mat, and a few sheets of newspaper covering the floor of the tank.
At last you're getting to a point where your setup is beginning to take shape. You've got a snake, you've got somewhere to put it, now you need something to put in it - snake food. Snakes are carnivores, which means they eat meat. But unlike cats and dogs, they've not been domesticated to the point where they'll eat whatever you give them. Snakes still like to eat the same thing as they would in the wild. In the case of the corn snake, that means mice. Luckily, most captive snakes will happily eat dead mice. These can be obtained frozen from the pet store, then thawed out and dropped in the tank. Frozen mice come in three types - pinkies, fuzzies and adults. The age of your snake will dictate the type of mice it eats. Pinkies are baby mice without any fur, and they're ideal for young snakes. Fuzzies are a bit bigger, and so best suited to slightly older snakes. Lastly, adults snakes eat adult mice, simple really. A quick word of advice here. For the benefit of the snake, and to aid the digestion of its dinner, it's best not to handle it for two or three days after it's eaten.
Now you've got the habitat setup and the food sorted out, there's really not much else to do except sit back and enjoy your pet. This is where keeping a snake has the advantage over most other pets - they're fascinating to watch and be around, but if you know what you're doing they require little day-to-day effort to look after. Running the heat pad under the tank probably cost about 10c a day, and mice being what they are (easy to breed), means the pet store aren't going to charge you a fortune for snake food. What you will probably find however, is one snake won't be enough. But then again most hobbies tend to grow as you get into them, and in the case of your snake, you'll see that happening right before your eyes.