The question came up on the Facebook Garter Snake group last month: why are garter snakes underrated and overlooked by reptile keepers?
Snakes aren’t necessarily the most popular of animals, but even among reptile keepers, garter snakes aren’t terribly popular. It’s not that serious reptile keepers are openly disdainful of them; they just don’t seem to be all that interested in them. Go to any reptile expo and you’ll see table after table filled with ball pythons, leopard geckos and other popular species; chances are you’ll be hard pressed to find any garter snakes.
One reason for this is that the reptile hobby has largely shifted to captive breeding rather than collecting, and there aren’t that many people breeding garter snakes compared with other species. But that just punts the question down the field. Why aren’t more people breeding garter snakes? When I was breeding garter snakes a decade ago, I could count on one hand the number of people in Canada who were doing it. (I’m not in touch with what’s going on now; I couldn’t tell you who is doing it today.)
Well, they’re not breeding garter snakes because they aren’t popular. It took me more than two years to sell a single litter of Red-sided Garter Snakes; I only sold locally, and even in a market of more than 10 million people, there were only so many who would pay money for a captive-bred garter snake. It was not an experience that encouraged me to keep at it.
That’s not to say that there aren’t garter snake keepers; there just aren’t very many of them compared to keepers of other species, and they tend to be a distinct minority among reptile hobbyists — odd ducks, the nerds and geeks of herpers, along with salamander keepers.
There are, as far as I can tell, three reasons why reptile keepers aren’t interested in garter snakes:
- They don’t eat mice and are harder to feed.
- They’re messy: they defecate too much and they smell.
- They’re too ordinary.
Let me deal with each of these concerns in turn.
They Don’t Eat Mice and Are Harder to Feed
First, it’s simply not true that garter snakes won’t eat mice. Even in the wild, rodents have been found to make up a surprising percentage of some larger garter snakes’ diet. Several garter snake species, including the Common, Checkered, Plains and Western Terrestrial Garter Snakes, are prey generalists and aren’t fussy about their food. I have had next to no trouble converting individual snakes of these species to a mouse-based diet.
But even more specialized species can be convinced. I had Butler’s Garter Snakes (Thamnophis butleri) eating mice, and I’ve even seen ribbon snakes convinced to take mice on occasion. Garter snakes are a lot more willing to take mice than some people think.
Now that’s not to say that every single garter snake will take mice. Not every garter snake will take worms or fish, for that matter. It depends on the individual, and the population from which that individual is descended. For example, I once had a melanistic Eastern Garter Snake (T. s. sirtalis) who was fussy and strongly preferred fish; he was descended from stock collected at Long Point, Ontario, where the garter snakes largely eat fish. I also had a rather insane Eastern Black-necked Garter Snake (T. cyrtopsis ocellatus) who would only eat live fish, though her species is reportedly amenable to eating mice.
But I’ve also had baby corn snakes who refused to eat anything at all: feeding problems are not limited to garter snakes.
In fact, garter snakes are probably easier to get feeding on mice than some lizard-eating snakes that are for some reason extremely popular with reptile hobbyists, such as Gray-banded Kingsnakes (Lampropeltis alterna) (which, by the way, are boring snakes). I’ve never had to force-feed a garter snake, because I don’t have to resort to it if the snake won’t take mice: I can always keep it going on fish or worms in the meantime. This cannot be said for other species. Among the snakes that don’t reliably eat rodents, garter snakes have to be the easiest to deal with.
They’re Messy: They Defecate Too Much and They Smell
As for their being messy, most of that is due to a fish- and worm-based diet, which results in prodigious amounts of watery urine and feces. For all snakes, it’s the wet feces that smells the most: once it dries out it doesn’t smell very much. A snake that eats fish and worms produces very wet feces, and if fish is involved, it’s going to smell fishy.
Changing the diet produces feces that is less wet, and therefore less smelly. In fact, a garter snake that eats mice produces urine and feces that is no worse than that produced by a corn snake. True, garters defecate more often than corns, but it’s not much wetter and it’s certainly no more pungent.
At this point, the stinkiest snakes in our house aren’t the garter snakes, but the bullsnakes and pine snakes. They don’t go very often, but when they do, it’s significant. Not coincidentally, they’re also our largest snakes; it must be said that even the stinkiest garter snake can’t out-stink the considerable feces of a very large snake.
And frankly the worst snake feces I’ve ever encountered came out of an indigo snake. Eye-wateringly, button-meltingly bad. I’ve heard indigo snakes described as seven-foot garter snakes, but even a seven-foot garter snake wouldn’t smell that bad.
But then there’s the musk. I suspect that many reptile hobbyists’ aversion to garter snakes is due to a rather vivid encounter with garter snake musk. And since garter snakes aren’t common in the hobby, it probably happened in the wild, where the garter snake musk is really pungent and the garter snakes are much more willing to inflict it on you.
I remember the look of severe discomfort on the face of one of my friends during one field expedition where an eastern garter snake was merrily musking all over him: this is someone who had hands-on experience with half a dozen species of crocodilian. Some people would rather deal with being bitten than being musked on.
I may not be the best judge of how bad garter snake musk is, because I’ve been mucking around with garter snakes since I was eight years old. I’m kind of used to it. I’m actually kind of nostalgic when I encounter it, because the garter snakes in our home, all captive-born, hardly ever musk. The most recent incident I can remember was more than six years ago. Captive snakes behave quite differently from wild snakes, as anyone who’s encountered a belligerent wild corn snake can tell you. Like biting, musking is a defence mechanism: snakes who get used to having people around tend not to do it.
They’re Too Ordinary
The real reason I think most reptile keepers aren’t interested in garter snakes is that they think they’re too ordinary. They’re not interested in the snake they see most often in their backyard; they want something different. Something exotic. Something they can’t even see in a zoo. After all, as one person at a reptile show put it to me, as I tried with mixed success to sell hand-tame mouse-eating baby garter snakes, “Why should I pay $40 for a garter snake when I can go out and catch one?” Except that he really wasn’t going to: the fact that he could go and catch one immediately rendered them uninteresting to him.
Reptile keepers equate exotic with interesting; if they didn’t, they’d probably be just as happy with a cat. So garter snakes, like other commonly encountered snakes in North America like water snakes, rat snakes and racers, get looked down on a little bit. Exotic pets don’t seem so exotic when they’re commonly encountered in a nearby park. They’re just not interesting enough. Not rare enough. (Reptile keepers do have a … problematic relationship with rare and endangered species.)
But what is and isn’t interesting is a totally arbitrary and relative thing. What’s common to you might be exotic and rare to someone else, and vice versa. Cockatiels and cockatoos are popular pet birds in North America and Europe, but they’re practically pests in their native Australia. In the same way, while garter snakes don’t generate very much interest in North America, in Europe things are much different. European reptile keepers love garter snakes; to them, garter snakes are exotic, and they can appreciate them without being bored by their being too common.
And, to be quite honest, reptile keepers can be snobbish. In the same way that camera guys boast about their equipment or model railroaders go on about how their model locomotive is detailed perfectly, reptile keepers judge themselves — and each other — by the species they keep. Garter snakes are, I think, beneath some hobbyists.
It’s their loss, frankly. In a future article, I’ll talk about what garter snakes have in their favour: why are they so appealing, and why do we like them so much?