The San Francisco Garter Snake in Canada
What was once thought of as unattainable is now available in Canada — for a price. An interview with Montreal garter snake breeder Phil Blais.
Philippe Blais, a physician who lives in the suburbs of Montreal, works with a number of different herps, from Uromastyx to Tiger Rat Snakes, and from box turtles to False Water Cobras. But without question he is best known for his work with garter snakes, in particular, the “flame” morph of Eastern Garter Snake, Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis, which he pioneered; they are now frequently referred to as “Blais flames.” His article in The Vivarium about this bright-red variant rekindled interest in garter snakes.
One of Phil’s new projects was on display at his table at the Metro Toronto Reptile Show last October: San Francisco Garter Snakes, Thamnophis sirtalis tetrataenia. His breeding colony produced a few litters this year, and his display had more than one herper cursing their inability to meet their high price tag. (Phil sells them for $1,600 a pair — on par with their European price and justifiable given their scarcity, but easily the highest price ever commanded for a natricine snake in Canada.)
Jonathan Crowe conducted this interview by e-mail in early December 2000.
JC: Many of our readers might have assumed, as I once did, that San Francisco Garter Snakes were simply unavailable. How did you manage to acquire them?
PB: Well, they weren’t imported into Canada until I was lucky enough to know the right guy at the right time. That is, a contact of mine in Europe, the Netherlands to be more precise. That was in 1998. He was a big garter snake enthusiast at the time and knew of a friend who had possibly bred his own stock (his own specimens were too young to breed yet). At the time it seemed that they were hard to get since few breeders had any worthwhile success at breeding them, with a lot of stillborn and weak babies, or had only surplus males. I was told quite a few of the people that had them had rather long waiting lists of potential clients. The subspecies had been around in Holland, Germany, Britain and other East Bloc countries for a few years already, ever since the Jersey Zoo had dispersed its old colony throughout other European zoos and to the private sector from there.
Since he was interested in getting a few of my own garters, he made a few arrangements so we could make some kind of partial trade with his friend’s tetrataenia. And this friend of his apparently owed him some favours, so everything was in place for lady luck to shine on me. Otherwise, I’m quite convinced I’d still be waiting.
JC: So, they’re legal to own in Canada, then? I would guess that the U.S. market is completely off-limits, though, isn’t it?
PB: The species is strictly protected in the USA, where it is native to the San Francisco peninsula (San Mateo County, to be precise). It is listed as endangered under the ESA at the federal level, so is then strictly unavailable to U.S. citizens to own in any way, shape or form. There is so much red tape even for institutions to posses it that just a handful of zoos have them on display. But that’s the extent of the protection they are subjected to, so they are not listed on the Washington Convention (CITES) and probably never will be, since their predicament is strictly a domestic one in their native country. That means that as soon as specimens are across that country’s border, anything goes — and does! One can easily imagine that quite a few animals have been smuggled illegally into Europe over the last decade or so, in order to replenish a captive stock that was apparently sorely inbred. The problem is that it’s just about impossible to verify the lineage of animals now on the market, as to ascertain their legal status. The original animals that were acquired by the Jersey Zoo in England were acquired with the fully legal nod from the U.S. Department of the Interior and USF&W, but none have been since, and that was only three animals. So it’s an unfortunate situation that the present European gene pool most probably owes more to illegal poaching than to the original founding stock from the zoo, which makes for a big gray area, legally speaking. The Canadian laws make sure the animals stay in that gray area, since WAPPRIITA doesn’t have very specific provisions to target such animals when it comes to importing them into this country. I sure didn’t have any problems when I declared them at customs upon importing them.
JC: The San Francisco Garter Snake has a reputation for being one of the most endangered snakes in North America. What can you tell us about its conservation status?
PB: Actually, their endangered status has been the subject of much gloom-and-doom speculation outside of herpetological circles, meaning among herpetoculturists, mainly. I’ve heard more than once that their population is going down from year to year in a depressing decline, and that their remaining habitat is shrinking by the minute under the rapid urban development in the Bay area. But the reality is quite another matter. Their population in the wild hovers around the thousand-head mark from year to year, and swells and ebbs in a seasonal fashion according to fall births and winter mortality. But it’s still pretty stable, considering. The only reason for this small population is their similarly diminutive range, so they just fill up what space they have, basically. And the remaining habitat is pretty much secured as we speak, in the form of habitat preserves, and has been for quite a few years now. Most of those areas are nowhere near the main centers of urban sprawl where the developers are bulldozing left and right, and there is no reason to believe that situation is headed for a change any time soon. So the “endangered” status is a very relative term. If their present range was 20 times the one they currently occupy, that status would probably be revised in short order.
So that means they are quite safe from extinction and probably will be for quite a few decades to come at the very least. The main threat they suffer from is apparently poaching, would you believe it? That’s what I was told by someone in the know, but wasn’t able to get precise stats about the problem. The way I look at it, if their population is relatively stable as stated, whatever losses the wild population suffers on average years is probably negligible. After all, prolific species such as garters are basically programmed to suffer sizeable predation pressures and be able to rebound from them. I’m not condoning illegal poaching here, but merely stating that such illegal activity probably isn’t too big a problem, ecologically speaking. As long as good habitat is preserved (and it seems to be in this case), the animals should always be able to recoup such relatively small losses.
But should they ever become legal to own in the States (and that is fantasy of the purest kind, I was told again by a scientist who has worked with the taxon for many years, knowing the way the ESA regulates such things), that situation surely would take such dramatic proportions as to be a threat of a much greater order to the species. Indeed, if no one could differentiate the legals from the illegals, poachers would have a field day, and the species would surely be truly endangered then. But as I just hinted at, they will most certainly never be available to the general public within their home country, since before the ESA slacks off its rules a lot of water will have to pass under the bridge, as they say.
So they are not in any foreseeable danger of disappearing from the face of the earth, as so many folk like to say with alarm. Heck, I was one of them in the not so distant past!
JC: Does the captive care of San Francisco Garter Snakes differ from other subspecies of Thamnophis sirtalis? What have you observed about them that is different from, for example, your flame garters?
PB: I find that the ones I have had the chance and pleasure to work with so far are a bit more on the nervous side, a classic reaction from them upon being disturbed being to launch themselves out of their container in a frantic manner. But then again, that seems to be a constant with most of the western subspecies of sirtalis, as my California Red-sided Garters (Thamnophis sirtalis infernalis) and my Red-spotted Garters (T. s. concinnus) also do that. But like the eastern subspecies, they tend to be a whole lot calmer and personable when kept in groups. Mine calmed down dramatically once I stopped housing them separately, as I had done for the first two years since acquiring them as babies. The males especially started feeding a lot better, and all of them fed a lot more at a sitting.
Mine are also a bit harder to convert to rodent prey even if most eventually do, but will rarely refuse fish. I was never able to get them to eat worms myself, but one of my friends to whom I send some babies this summer told me they were chowing down on them with gusto at his place. Maybe the worms in the U.K. taste better than our Canuck ones!
Otherwise they are pretty much the same husbandry to keep and rear, and I would say that they probably tend to grow a lot faster than easterns. They sprout like weeds. I bred mine at two years of age, and they seem full-grown now.
You don’t need to brumate them for more than a few weeks, and they tend to mate only after the females have gone through their first shed after emergence. Also, they are more stealthy maters, with the male courting the females in a rather subtle way for a few days after her shed. I never saw copulation per se with any of the three litters that I got this summer. No obvious post-copulatory sperm plugs either, unlike the easterns.
Did I mention they look pretty different, too?
First published in The Ontario Herpetological Society News 87 (Dec. 2000).