Earlier this year I explored some of the reasons why garter snakes are underrated and overlooked by reptile keepers. Those reasons included their ordinariness, their messiness, and their (supposed) unwillingness to eat mice, all of which I shot down with extreme prejudice.
Some of us, though, like garter snakes very much. I certainly do, or I wouldn’t have built this website; in fact, I think that garter snakes, for all their ordinariness and stinkiness, are my favourite snakes of all. (And that’s saying something: I’m fond of an awful lot of snakes, including bullsnakes, fox snakes, rosy boas and a whole bunch of others.) Since you’re reading this, I suspect you might be fond of them too.
In this article, I’d like to explore some of the reasons why those of us who like garter snakes like them as much as we do — and why reptile keepers choose garter snakes over other kinds of snakes.
If many reptile keepers won’t consider garter snakes because they (supposedly) won’t eat mice, the fact that you don’t have to feed them mice makes them attractive to others. Some people are squicked out by rodents. Others are horrified at the idea of feeding rodents — live or previously frozen — to snakes, possibly because they also keep rodents as pets. They may like snakes, they may want a snake, but for any of a number of reasons feeding them rodents is Not. Going. To Happen.
That’s where garter snakes come in. At least one person bought a garter snake from me on the basis that they could feed it something other than mice. Yes, I feed mine nothing but mice, and I generally recommend garter snakes mice if they’ll take them, because it’s easier to keep them healthy on a rodent diet than on a fish or worm diet. But if you want a snake, and for whatever reason you will not feed them rodents, and you’re willing to be careful about the snake’s food, then a garter snake is a good option. In fact, of all the snakes that can (or must) be fed a non-rodent diet, a garter snake is likely your best option: other non-rodent-eating snakes are generally less tame, harder to feed, and likely to do less well in captivity.
If many reptile keepers won’t consider garter snakes because they’re too ordinary, others may take comfort from the fact that they’re familiar. Most people, after all, live in cities; most people don’t have a lot of personal experience with wild snakes: they wouldn’t know a kingsnake from a kingfisher. What little exposure they have to snakes may come from zoos and Animal Planet, where the tendency is to focus on the giant, the exotic and the deadly. Garter snakes are one of the few native snakes almost everyone in North America has heard of. In many areas “garter snake” and “harmless snake” are interchangeable; they’re immediately recognizable, and immediately recognizable as harmless. “Don’t worry, it’s just a garter snake.” They’re not scary (except, of course, to those who are terrified of all snakes).
Related to that is the fact that they’re small. There are potential reptile keepers for whom even a corn snake, at four feet in length, is too big, and larger colubrids, boas and pythons are simply out of the question. I’ve had people looking for snakes under two or three feet ask me for advice. They may not be comfortable with larger species, they may not have the space, or (to be honest) they may not have parental permission over a certain size. Some garter snake species get larger than three feet, others stay well under that length, but for most species the rule of thumb is around two feet for males and three feet for females. You’ll never need anything bigger than a 25-gallon tank, and in many cases you can get away with smaller. There aren’t as many snakes that stay under three feet in length that make good pets — some kingsnakes and milk snakes, rosy boas and sand boas — but garter snakes are certainly on that list.
But those small milk snakes, kingsnakes and sand boas have an annoying tendency to hide all the time. Some of them you hardly ever see unless you bring them out. Not garter snakes: they’re active and responsive. They’re visually cued, watching for movement. They’re diurnal, not nocturnal. And they seem downright curious at times. Compare that to other captive snakes who seem in a permanent coma, or who never seem to notice that you’re in front of them.
If you like garter snakes and none of the previous reasons apply in your case, I’ll bet this one applies to you big time. Simply put, bright-eyed, curious garter snakes can be awfully cute.
Now there are other snakes that are active, curious and visually oriented. Many of them — like racers and coachwhips — have an overwhelming desire to chew your face off at the first opportunity. The intersection of “alert” and “tame” is awfully narrow among captive snakes; garter snakes do include some sluggards and some evil monsters, but they do better as a group than many other snakes do.
Which brings me to something I’ve observed among garter snake owners. They tend to anthropomorphize their pets a lot more than other snake keepers. Garter snakes’ alert and curious nature often inspires us to ascribe a personality to the snake, or makes us think that they’re smarter than other snakes. Me, I don’t think so. Owls are visual creatures too, and we’ve long seen them as intelligent birds for that reason. But it turns out that they’re actually below average for birds: what brain power they have goes into audiovisual processing rather than thinking. Snakes, for their part, are not smart animals; and if you get it into your head that your garter snake is somehow more intelligent, watch what happens when you feed your snake, and he can’t find the food two inches in front of him because he’s lost his mind and is biting at everything else.
So while garter snakes might be ordinary, messy, and harder to feed, they are also reasonably sized, familiar and fun to watch — and they don’t need to eat mice, if that matters. They have other qualities in their favour — some of them, after all, are quite spectacularly beautiful — but these are some of the advantages they have over other kinds of snakes.