Notes From the Zookeeper: Working With Venomous Snakes

One of the most common questions I get is “Do you handle the venomous snakes?” The answer isn’t a straight “yes” or “no.” The answer is, we do work with them regularly (we offer food, clean the enclosures, and fill water bowls at least once a week), but we only put our hands on them if we absolutely have to. But sometimes, it’s necessary. A veterinarian might need to check a snake over do diagnose a problem, etc. So how do we do it? With lots of training, and some special tools.

Last week, our Lead Keeper, Stephen, needed to catch up a Catalina Island Rattlesnake (also known as the rattleless rattlesnake – they are a true Crotalus rattlesnake genetically, but they don’t grow a rattle), and he let me take some pictures to share. The photos were taken with my little phone, so they aren’t great, but I didn’t want to use a flash.

Step one: put the snake on the counter.

snake in trash can

We use large trash cans with modified lids for holding venomous snakes for feeding, cleaning enclosures, etc.

Step 2: Move the snake to a counter. It’s important to work a snake in a place that they can’t easily escape from.

Catalina island rattlesnake

We use long hooks to move venomous or nippy snakes from one place to another.

Step 3: Since Stephen actually needs to get his hands on this snake, he is going to have to “tube” it. You can see a selection of tubes of different sizes under the counter in the photo above. The idea is to choose a tube that is big enough for the snake to move into easily, but not so big that it can turn around while it is in there.

Snakes have poor vision, and they will instinctively choose a hiding place into which they fit snugly.

Stephen uses the hook to encourage the snake to move toward the tube. Since this is a fairly small snake, he can hold the tube with his hand. If it were a longer snake, like a cobra, he would hold the end of the tube with a pair of tongs.

Step 4: It’s hard to tell from the photo, but there are two tubes – one inside the other. The snake didn’t like the small tube, so it was offered a larger one. Once it slithered into the big one, the correct size tube was inserted. The snake wriggled right in.

tube a snake

The snake is finally moving into the tube. Sometimes it can take forty-five minutes or more to convince the snake that the tube is a great hiding place. This time, it only took a few minutes.

Step 5: Secure the snake in the tube by grabbing hold of it. Now the snake is safely restrained. The use of a clear tube means that not only can a veterinarian see any medical issues, we also know exactly where the snake’s head is.

hooks poisonous snake

Once the snake is about half-way into the tube, it’s safe to grab tube and snake together. Note that the tube is much too small for the snake to turn around and deliver a bite.

Stephen needed to “tube” this animal because the zoo we received the snake from requested photos of its vent area for comparison. Tubing is also used when a snake needs to be given an injection, must be anesthetized for a medical procedure, or even to get an x-ray of a non-venomous snake (it’s hard to radiograph a spine when its coils are all piled up on top of each other!).

I have so much to tell you about my week at Amphibian Management School and field work with Stephen!

What other questions do you have?

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21 thoughts on “Notes From the Zookeeper: Working With Venomous Snakes

    • I can understand your mistrust of venomous snakes! There are plenty of deadly ones that can kill you by surprise over there! It’s more fun in a controlled environment where there is a protocol for training.

  1. This is really cool. Where I work we have only one venomous snake and I’m not allowed to work with it. I do work with the constrictors, but only as an educator. This is really neat to see. Thanks!

      • You can probably figure out where I work from my resume posted on my blog, but they have a *serious* no social media policy. It’s a museum with AZA accreditation for the indoor zoo.

        As for species, the ones I work with currently are the Brazilian Rainbow Boa and the Desert Rosy. I have also worked with Red Tailed boas, but the ones I worked with have all passed. We also have a variety of other boas as well as pythons. I like working with snakes. Geoff is not a fan of snakes.
        ~Kelly

  2. This is fascinating! I *love* behind-the-scenes peeks at the zoo and I had no idea this was how this works – and I love seeing the care taken, both that you’re safe and that the snake is safe (and feels safe, as well!)

  3. One of my early Script Supervision gigs was on a (so) low-budget (that the producer decided not to pay the crew for the second week of filming) feature called “Venom”. Our snake wrangler was awesome, and of course, the only time we EVER used venomous snakes was for close-up photography (shot with a zoom, of course) to double-in for the non-venomous “photo doubles” that were used around people.

    I got some great photos of myself “draped” in snakes, just to freak out my phobic friends and family, and the day we shot the bad guy getting overtaken, I even did a little wrangling myself! (The Assistant Director was afraid of them; the actor wasn’t but was supposed to be “dead”, so when one of the slither-critters crossed over his body and was ready to make its own escape into the desert, I stopped it just out of frame – I don’t remember if my hands were full so I had to shuffle it in the right direction using my feet, or if I actually just picked that sucker up. It was a pretty awesome day, though, considering the other work conditions weren’t.)

    Don’t think I’d want your job, though. I’d be playing with fire. You do KNOW that “curiosity killed the cat”, right? 😉

    • When I first took this job, I was not at all sure I wanted to work venomous snakes. But the training is very thorough, so I feel like I know what I am doing. We take no chances. At all. Not worth it!

  4. btw, now for something completely different, or “na-na-na-na-na” as we like to sing in my family when someone segues without warning (that was segue music, fyi):

    La Jolla is not really close enough to LA for Jenny to make a detour to the La Brea Tar Pits. I got to see her and get the whale doodle signed on her Furiously Happy tour, because she came to Pasadena, which is in Los Angeles County. La Jolla’s nearish to San Diego, so all of “those” locals directed her to see the seals.

    Not that a detour to La Brea Tar Pits is ever really outta the question; not that I couldn’t have commented directly on Jenny’s post… But we’re “friends” here, and your blog was an easier way to reach you in more than 140 characters. Feel free to delete this comment, if you wish, as it’s really and truly more like a direct message than having anything at all to do with your zookeeping gig! 🙂

      • the whale doodle got published in the book! She had just posted it online so I printed it out prior to the last book tour, because it spoke to me (it was about adventuring and misadventures, and I had her dedicate it to my dead Mommy… so she did: “For Lois, You Raised a Good One, Love, Jenny”…

        I cry every time I see it, and of course we both cried when she was signing it.

        I think she did the LA detour PRE-La Jolla (she posted pics with the Wheatons, who live in Pasadena). Dunno if they got her over to La Brea.

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