By Tatiana Garrett
Happy Chinese New Year! 2013 is the year of the snake, and though these sleek and mesmerizing creatures often get a bad reputation, they are necessary in a healthy environment and can make good pets. Before adopting any reptile, pet parents should do their homework, consider why they want the particular animal, and know exactly where the animal is coming from.
The folklore and cultural significance behind the Chinese zodiac is quite interesting. Like other ancient calendars, the Chinese lunar calendar follows the moon, and therefore does not match the calendar that most people use in the United States. The Chinese New Year can be in January or February, and it is celebrated with a two-week long Spring Festival.
Various readings on the cultural significance of the snake say different things, but a snake found in the home or courtyard is considered a good omen in Chinese folklore and is said to mean the family will not starve. Perhaps this is related to the fact that snakes are such a valuable part of an ecosystem—especially in environments that rely on farming and agriculture. Snakes eat animals that typically act as pests to farmers, and by saving crops from vermin, they allow farmers to provide for the community.
If you’re still reading, hopefully you have some appreciation for snakes, and may even be considering taking one in as a pet. Snakes can be excellent pets—especially for someone who may find themselves with allergies to fur babies. (Although individuals with severe allergies may have trouble at feedings since mammals will likely be on the menu.) Snakes are not “slimy” at all and actually feel cool and sleek to the touch. With gem-like scales and captivating eyes, they truly are beautiful creatures.
Don’t get a snake because it may be “cool to watch them eat.” I worked at zoos and a wildlife rescue facility for fourteen years, and since my work dealt with snakes often—I adopted them out for two years—I often saw this rationale among teenagers. If you have a fascination with watching a predator/prey relationship unfold, watch a nature program or go to the zoo. Taking in an animal for a novel amusement often leads to a neglected pet when the fascination goes away. Every pet should be a respectful commitment for the duration of the animal’s life.
When people don’t think through the care and responsibility that comes with being a pet parent, detrimental things can happen. In south Florida (where I worked at a wildlife hospital for two years), there is a bad problem with an introduced/feral population of Burmese pythons. People would purchase them as babies without thinking through to the fact that an adult female can grow to be in excess of 20 feet long. When the snakes got to be too big and the novelty wore off, people would simply let them loose. Imagine coming across a snake in your front lawn that is large enough to eat an alligator. Pets are a lifetime responsibility and none should ever be turned out to fend for themselves.
As with any pet, whenever possible—adopt; don’t buy. The Chicago Herpetological Society is a great resource if you’re in the Chicago area. If not, look for a similar group that is committed to the welfare of reptiles and amphibians (TAILS Resource Page is a great place to start).
If you do go to a pet store, ask a lot of questions to ensure that you are getting reliable information. There are some great pet stores out there that adopt out animals, while others may have questionable (if not illegal) suppliers, and only see animals as a way to make money. News headlines are regularly peppered with stories of some smuggler being busted in transit with baby snakes and other animals taped to his person. Don’t be the person helping the illegal pet trade. You will also need to do your homework because some species are illegal to own in some states.
Snake are gorgeous. Wild snakes deserve to be left in peace, and pet snakes deserve loving forever homes just like any other species. Learn all that you can to prepare the tank and environment before bringing the snake home and avoid mistakes during feeding time that could lead to injury to the snake and yourself. May the year of the snake bring you much luck and prosperity!
Tatiana Garrett grew up with Borzoi, a rescued Standard Poodle, cats, hamsters, parrots, rabbits, guinea pigs, and an iguana… just to name a few pets. She began her professional career with animals in 1995 at Brookfield Zoo. She has studied wild dolphins in Australia and rescued wildlife in Florida, but people are truly at the heart of her work. If it walks, hops, or slithers, Tatiana cares about it. She currently oversees the Humane Education programs at The Anti-Cruelty Society and hosts “Chicago Tails“ on Watch312.com.