Acclimation and Quarantine of Spilotes sulphureus
by Roy Arthur Blodgett
In the following, my aim is to offer a synthesis of the methods I have employed to acclimatize and quarantine freshly imported, wild caught Spilotes sulphureus. Many of the practices herein are also applicable to other species, particularly other large colubrids such as Drymarchon, Chironius, and Phrynonax, and though the following is oriented specifically toward wild-caught snakes, the methods described are just applicable in supporting acclimation and quarantine of captive-bred animals. I’m sure there are many other effective ways of acclimation and quarantine, and my intention is simply to share what I’ve learned and offer a step-by-step process that has proven consistently effective in my circumstances. This comes in an effort to empower others to provide quality care strategies and tactics to support these charismatic animals.
The experience of capture and travel to a foreign environment is an invariably stressful one for any animal - let alone a typically sensitive species such as Spilotes sulphureus. Most individuals arrive in destination countries dehydrated, malnourished, and stressed after the ordeal of travel. In addition, all wild snakes are exposed to parasites in their natural environments, which can become a serious threat when coupled with the usual depletion of the exportation process. This is especially a concern in the case of active colubrids such as Spilotes, because they are lean snakes which don’t maintain much of a surplus in the form of fat reserves. A lean but healthy colubrid in the wild can often contend with parasites, but as dehydration, stress, and weight loss become concerns, a normally manageable parasite load in the wild can lead to rapid death in the stress of captivity.
Thus, it is imperative to provide a streamlined and efficient process of acclimation, emphasizing appropriate hydration, security, and nutrition. By the time most sulphureus end up in the care of the keeper, they have already undergone an acclimation process of some kind in the hands of the importer, but I find it is helpful for the keeper to continue with a brief acclimation process of one’s own, followed by a quarantine period, to ensure the continued health of the animal and to avoid exposing established animals in the keeper’s care to any potentially harmful parasites or pathogens.
The first step in the acclimation process I prescribe, which comes immediately after unboxing the animal when they arrive in my care, is to place the snake in an opaque container (such as a five gallon bucket) with approximately 1 to 1 1/2 inches of lukewarm water - at or just above room temperature, not hot. Leaving the snake in the container for approximately twenty to thirty minutes offers adequate opportunity for the animal to settle and hydrate before the water becomes too cold. I will also sometimes gently mist or spray the animal with lukewarm water to stimulate drinking. Almost invariably, I observe the newly arrived snake drinking deeply during this process, an auspicious sight.
Taking care to handle the animal as little as possible - sometimes using a snake hook or branch - I then place the snake in it’s quarantine enclosure to begin the next phase of the process.
Enclosures for the purposes of the acclimation and quarantine process need not be elaborate - rather the simpler, the better. The enclosure should seek only to provide a secure, stable environment for the animal to settle into its new environment under the careful monitoring of the keeper. I have found that opaque plastic storage totes with locking lids work quite well, as they’re inexpensive, durable, lightweight, and easy to clean. They’re also easy to modify with basic tools and a bit of know-how. I install radiant heat panels and LED or fluorescent lights to the lids of the containers to achieve optimal temperatures and replicate a 12-hour daylight cycle. These components can be managed using thermostats and timers for safety and consistency. For ventilation, I simply drill a few holes in the upper perimeter of the container or install ventilation grommets.
The basic elements of a simple substrate, hide box, a water bowl, and some branches for climbing and basking are all that’s needed in terms of furnishing the enclosure, once the temperature and lighting requirements are in place. For substrate, unbleached paper towels or newsprint paper are good options, as they’re easily replaced when soiled. I use plastic hide boxes or cork rounds as hiding options, madrone branches or PVC pipe for climbing, and a sturdy water bowl in each of my quarantine enclosures. It’s important that whatever components used can be easily cleaned and sanitized. Wood items, such as branches and cork, can be scrubbed and rinsed then briefly baked in the oven for sanitization, while plastic furnishings can be simply cleaned with mild non-toxic soap or veterinary cleaner and rinsed thoroughly with water, then left in the sun until dry.
A detailed write-up of the quarantine enclosures I use can be found here.
Given their shy and sensitive nature, feeding freshly imported puffing snakes can sometimes pose challenging, but there are a few methods I have used with consistent success. Once a new arrival is placed into its acclimation enclosure, I typically allow the snake to adjust to its new environment for five to seven days before offering food. I always approach offering food in a systematic way - beginning with the lowest-stress methods first, before resorting to higher-stress methods if the snake is initially reluctant to eat. I have found that puffing snakes almost always express a preference for avian prey over rodents, and for this reason I tend to feed my snakes a diet of primarily quail and chicks, supplemented by occasional rodents for specimens that willingly accept them as prey.
The first method I attempt with new arrivals is always the same - simply offering a frozen-thawed chick or quail of appropriate size on a plate and leaving it for the snake to eat. To alert the snake of the presence of the food, especially if the snake is hiding when it is offered, I often tap the hide box or the food plate to alert the snake of something new in its environment. Curious snakes will often come to investigate what the fuss was about after a few minutes, even if at first they respond defensively. More often than not, I’ll come back a few hours later to see that the prey is gone. In cases where a specimen is reluctant to accept frozen-thawed prey, I’ll typically try the same method a few days later, but this time with a live chick or quail.
Occasionally, a puffing snake will refuse to accept frozen-thawed or live prey in the method described above, and a more hands-on approach is needed. In such circumstances, I have had good success with tease-feeding to get the snakes started. The method is simple, and consists of teasing the snake in question with a frozen-thawed prey item on tongs or hemostats, by wiggling or thumping it against the snake’s neck or tail. This will typically result in the snake striking the prey item, and in many cases, swallowing it. For obvious reasons, this approach is quite stressful for the snake, and I only utilize it as an absolute last resort. When it does prove necessary, I re-attempt the first method described above after a few successful tease-feedings.
Once the specimen has accepted a few meals in its new environment, I begin to assess treatment for endoparasites. Parasite treatment is a nuanced and important step in acclimating freshly imported puffing snakes, and is best supported by the expertise of a qualified veterinarian. It can also be helpful to follow up parasite treatment with probiotic treatments of Bene-Bac or Nutribac to replenish beneficial gut fauna.
An isolated quarantine period serves the dual purpose of ensuring a smooth acclimation process and minimizing the risk of exposing other animals in the keepers care to potentially harmful parasites or pathogens. Correspondingly, the duration of the quarantine period should be as long as is needed for the animal to be cleared of any parasites or diseases, and also begin feeding regularly. The aims of the quarantine period are best supported by consistency in care and practice, and it is helpful to devise best practices which can be referenced until they become ritual and integrated in the keeper’s routines. My quarantine protocol is as follows:
The quarantine enclosure is kept in a separate area, and ideally a separate room, from any of the keeper’s established animals.
A separate set of tools and supplies are used for quarantined animals, and disinfected between each use or if expected to come into contact with another quarantined animal.
Animals in quarantine are attended to last, after attending to established animals, to further mitigate potential for cross-contamination.
Animals in quarantine are handled as little as possible to avoid stress. When necessity dictates handling the animal, as when applying medication, care must be taken to wash one’s hands and change clothes before working with any established animals.
Any uneaten prey items offered to the quarantined animal are disposed of immediately - never offered to an established animal.
The weight of the quarantined animal is monitored and recorded on a weekly basis.
The quarantine period shall persist until the quarantined animal has been cleared of parasites, has
accepted at least four meals, and appears outwardly healthy and established.
A careful acclimation and quarantine period can make all the difference in supporting wild-caught Spilotes sulphureus to transition well to a life in captivity. By prioritizing and attending to the essential needs of a newly acquired animal - hydration, security, and nutrition - the keeper can do much in the short term to ensure the long term health of the animal, a clear and worthwhile dividend. As keepers continue to work with and learn from the behaviors and requirements of sulphureus in captivity, the success and consistency of captive breeding efforts will likely increase, hopefully with a corresponding decrease in demand for wild-caught specimens - a beneficial arrangement for all involved.