Few people are crazy enough to breed garter snakes and raise the babies, but more than a few of us have unexpectedly been handed the task of raising a large number of baby garter snakes. We may, for example, have been handed a “rescued” garter snake that turns out to be very, very pregnant, which then surprises you one day with dozens of her offspring slithering around her cage.
Oh great, you think. Now what? Suddenly you’re faced with having to look after a whole bunch of little snakes. The sheer number of them can make that a very intimidating situation. And raising baby garter snakes isn’t the same as raising a litter or two of corn snakes. Garter snakes don’t eat mice, you think, and they’re too small for pinkies anyway — how are you going to feed them all?
Taking care of an adult garter snake, especially if it’s been trained to eat mice, isn’t really any different from taking care of your average colubrid. But baby garter snakes are different. Their special requirements can trip you up if you’re not ready for them, but they’re not that difficult once you know them. I call them the Seven Rules of Raising Baby Garter Snakes, and I’ll share them with you here.
Rule #1: Garter snakes shed immediately after birth. The books say that baby snakes shed seven to 10 days after birth, after which you can begin offering them food. (Even Perlowin’s book on garter snakes states this as a fact.) The first time I had a litter of baby garters, I didn’t see the birth itself, so I waited. And waited. It never came. The next year I was able to watch the whole gory process, and, to my surprise, they were shedding within minutes of breaking out of the birth sac. The shed skins were so thin, they practically disintegrated under the traffic of 42 baby snakes (and one adult); if I hadn’t seen them shed, I’d never have known they’d done it. So if you’re waiting for them to shed before offering them food, don’t.
Rule #2: House baby garter snakes in small groups. The conventional wisdom is to house baby snakes individually in small containers. If you’re facing a large litter of garter snakes — as I did in 2002 with my litter of 42 red-sided garters — that’s an impractical number of plastic boxes. Fortunately, housing them together isn’t a problem. Not only is it more convenient, but baby garter snakes have been observed to be calmer when housed in groups. (Garter snakes aggregate in the wild, especially during hibernation, so we shouldn’t assume that they’re completely asocial.) I split my litter of 42 among four five-gallon tanks: 10 to 11 snakes each. They were small enough at the time that it worked; over time I managed to sell a few, so I ended up able to have fewer snakes per cage as they got larger.
They should still be fed individually, though; more about that later.
Rule #3: Dessication is a serious risk on hot days. Dessication can be fatal on hot, dry days, so you want to be able to have a moist spot. The entire cage shouldn’t be moist, because that encourages blister disease. But you can keep a clump of moistened sphagnum moss in one corner of an otherwise dry cage to prevent the snakes from drying out.
Rule #4: Getting baby garter snakes to start eating is hard. I’ve had some troubles getting the little monsters to start eating, and I think there were several reasons for this. For one thing, they’re too small for some of the more conveniently acquired food items, such as pinky mice or bait-store nightcrawlers. Some of them — my wandering garter snakes, for example — looked good and plump at birth, and weren’t hungry, probably due to retained egg yolk. Others had trouble recognizing what they were being offered as food, either because it didn’t move (they responded to live fish but ignored fish fillet and cut-up worms) or because they wanted to eat worms rather than fish or vice versa. Some baby garter snakes would eat anything I gave them; some were fussy; some refused everything I could find.
Which brings me to Rule #5: Using “natural” garter snake food is hard. When people think about garter snake food, they think fish, worms and frogs. We’ll leave aside frogs (i.e., tadpoles) for this article and focus on fish and worms, which are more easily obtained. Whole, live fish can be expensive and full of parasites; you need a lot of them and it’s hard to control how many each snake eats if you’re offering a dish full of fish to a cage full of snakes. Whole worms are too big for baby garters if you buy the big nightcrawlers from bait stores; small worms you collect out of the garden (or off the street when it rains — though that can’t be healthy, can it?) work just fine, and baby garters seem to love them, but it’s hard to get enough of them. And, as I mentioned before, baby garters don’t always recognize worm pieces or fish fillet as food.
A snake being fed fish or worms needs to eat a lot: as often as twice a week. If you have a full litter (two dozen babies, for example), do the math and brace yourself for how many you’re going to need. Assume two to four fish or worms per feeding, per snake, and assume two feedings per week, and you’re looking at around 100 to 200 live fish or small worms each week. That’s a lot of money spent at Big Al’s or time spent digging in the garden!
Now you know why nobody breeds garter snakes.
Rule #6: Getting them on pinkies is easier than you think. Fortunately, worms and fish aren’t your only option. As you may know, I advocate converting garter snakes to a mouse-based diet. It’s not only easier and cheaper, but it’s easier to keep them healthy and growing. I originally thought you had to feed babies fish and worms until they were large enough to accept scented pinky parts, and that’s how I proceeded in 2001 and 2002, when I had large litters to deal with. I lost a lot of babies before they were converted to mice: some to dessication, some to the simple fact that I couldn’t give them enough food. But once I got them onto mice, they were fine; the trick was to get them to that point.
But in 2003, when I had acquired a handful of baby garters, I tried something new: feeding them very small pinky parts right from the outset. And it worked! Not only that, but some of them were more enthusiastic about mouse parts than they ever were about fish or worms! I told a friend about this, and she tried it with a litter of garter snakes in 2004; within two weeks, most of them were eating mouse parts.
Not every garter snake will eat mice; I’ve known some adults that would resist everything but live fish, for example. But if you can get them on mice right from the outset, it will be easier for you and healthier for the snakes.
Rule #7: Feed them separately but be efficient about it. Even if you house them together, you need to feed them separately for all the usual reasons: food fights and accidental cannibalism, one snake hogging all the food (especially with live fish, where one greedy snake can eat them all before the other ones notice). But when you have a couple dozen snakes, feeding them individually can mean that either you spend all day feeding them or you spend a lot of money on a bunch of feeding containers.
Jennifer and I found a way to speed up the process by using deli-cup containers. We set out enough containers for the snakes of one cage and put the food in each (by this point, usually a half pinky), and then took the snakes out of the cage and put one in each container. Before long the snakes were well used to this procedure and frequently had clamped down on their food before Jennifer closed the lid on them. While they fed, we cleaned their cage. By the time that was done, some were already finished and ready to go back in. Repeat for each cage. It’s more labour-intensive than simply dropping a plateful of food in each cage, but it’s definitely better for the snakes: it’s safer and makes sure every snake has a shot at the food. Feeding individually is always going to be time-consuming, but we’ve been able to make it about as quick and efficient as we can, I think.
Unfortunately, by the time I’d figured all of this out, we had almost completely run out of baby garter snakes to experiment on: each of our breeding pairs lost one member due to old age or disease, so we haven’t had a fresh litter of garter snakes since 2002. But we’re raising up a trio of checkered garter snakes at the moment; the females are still pretty small, and I don’t think they’ll be ready to breed by next year, but with any luck I’ll be able to test the Seven Rules on a couple of new litters in 2008.
First published in Chorus 22, no. 5 (May 2006).