Keeping Garter Snakes Outdoors

Recently I’ve received a couple of questions from readers who want to know about keeping garter snakes outdoors.

Now I understand that this is actually done in Europe: garter snake keepers there set up these elaborate backyard facilities to house a large number of garter snakes collectively; in terms of their quality and sophistication they’re zoo-grade, and include hibernation and basking areas, the whole nine yards.

But that’s not what my correspondents are asking about. What they’re asking about is keeping their snakes outside, in a cage, because their roommates or family members (for example, their parents) won’t let the snakes into the house. For example:

I am 12 years old and my mom hates snakes. She refused to buy me one, so I decided I’d go catch a garter snake in our back yard. We live in Texas, and I figured out that the snakes in my yard are most likely common garters. I have to keep the snake outside because of my parents. I’m just wondering if it’s okay outside. Just letting you know lots of days are in the 90 degrees Fahrenheit range. Please tell me if there’s any possible way I can keep this snake! I read your whole care guide. Also How can i get my mom to get to the pet store and buy some mice for him/her? Any advice?

Here’s why this won’t work.

A snake in the wild isn’t just outside; it’s not like it could be anywhere outside and be fine. Sometimes it needs to be in the sun, sometimes it needs to be in the shade, sometimes it needs to be underground. This is what being cold-blooded is all about: your body temperature is set by your surroundings. Which means that if you’re too warm and need to cool off, or too cold and need to warm up, you need to move.

When we keep a snake in a cage, it’s usually not enough to keep it at the right temperature; we need to provide a temperature gradient: it’s why we heat one side of the cage, so the snake can choose whether it wants that warmth.

A cage kept outside is subject to the temperatures outside. My correspondents are writing from states in the American south like North Carolina or Texas, where the temperatures seem to be warm enough. But sometimes warm enough is too warm: 90° Fahrenheit (32° Celsius) is slightly higher than the ideal temperature range in captivity. If it got much higher than that it would start getting into dangerous territory. In the wild a snake would get under cover or in the water when it got too hot; a snake in a cage doesn’t get to make that choice. At least indoors, you have some control over the cage’s temperature.

It’s even worse if the cage the snake is kept in is made of glass: if it’s in direct sunlight, that cage will act like a greenhouse. Temperatures inside the cage will get very hot, very fast. I’ve known snakes that have died very quickly that way. It’s a lot easier — and faster — to kill a snake with heat than it is with cold. And that’s just as likely to happen on a sunny winter day as it is during the summer.

And when winter comes, even in the American South, the snake will want to get out of the elements. A cage might not provide the right temperatures for hibernation: it might be too cold, killing the snake, or it might be too warm to hibernate but too cold for it to keep eating, which isn’t exactly good either, because the snake will slowly starve over the winter.

Bottom line, if you have a snake in a cage, you’re responsible for maintaining appropriate temperatures, because the snake can’t do it in its natural way (by moving around). Keeping a cage outside isn’t a good idea. It’s certainly not a natural way of doing things.

As for convincing a mother who doesn’t want snakes in the house to buy your mice for you — that’s not a problem I can help you with from here. Sorry.

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