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07 14/07/2014

A week in the life of a snake keeper

  • Reticulated python
  • Reptiles
  • Snakes and lizards

My name is Ruth Smith and I have been a reptile and amphibian keeper at Chester Zoo for four years. In aid of World Snake Day on Wednesday 16th July I will be bringing you a daily blog over the next seven days describing the work I do with snakes.

I will take you behind the scenes at Chester and show you the amount of effort that goes into caring for our animals, explain the key role some of the animals are playing in the conservation of their wild counterparts and give a glimpse into the plans we have for the future of our collection. 

I hope to be able to meet some of you this Wednesday in Realm of the Red Ape where we'll be talking about our reticulated python, showing you the snake hooks and tubes we use for handling venomous snakes (you can practice on our toy snakes) and answering your questions.

See you then! 

Reticulated python
Reticulated python

Monday

First day back in after a weekend off and I arrive at 7.45am to meet the team and discuss the events of the previous day and plan for the day ahead. Our team is made up of seven keepers who have a combined 100 years of professional reptile and amphibian keeping experience.

Although every day brings something different we have a set daily routine that we have to ensure we complete in the mornings. We are assigned a selection of exhibits, by our team manager, which we are responsible for throughout the day. Our exhibits are in the Tropical Realm, Islands in Danger, the okapi house and Realm of the Red Ape

If you have visited Chester Zoo you will have seen that we attempt to replicate the animal’s natural habitat as closely as possible. We want visitors to feel like they are glancing up into the canopy of the Sumatran rainforest at the red-tailed racers, and at the next turn peering down onto the floor of the Bornean jungle at a reticulated python coiled up next to a pool of water. Although, unfortunately, sometimes visitors will look in and see me! 

I am usually, either on the floor digging, stretching up as high as I can go to reach a snake that has decided to perch on the very top branch or crouched down in the corner watching them eat and making sure no snake steals another’s mouse. 

As a keeper, we are used to over-hearing a lot of very funny comments from visitors who think the glass is soundproof. People point and say ‘that’s a funny looking reptile’ and ‘are you dinner for the snake?’ Ha! We also hear ‘oh gosh I couldn’t do that job, snakes terrify me’ and ‘oh no, I bet she gets bitten all the time.’ 

The truth is, just like mammals, most snakes will only attack if they feel threatened or they get confused and think your hand is dinner. Common misconceptions like these are understandable if you have never encountered one before. Funnily enough I have never held a hamster before and they terrify me!

It brings much amusement to my friends and family that I could be scared of something so small and fluffy when I work with snakes, crocodiles and komodo dragons every day.

Red-tailed racer at Chester Zoo
Red-tailed racer

Tuesday

Tuesday is always a very, very busy day! The day revolves around our weekly meeting with each member of the team, including our curator of lower vertebrates and invertebrates Dr Gerardo Garcia. It always feels very strange sitting around a table with our notepads and pens covered in dirt!

I always really enjoy the meetings as we get to discuss the ongoing projects at the zoo, findings from the field work we are involved in, news from other zoological collections and plans for the future of our collection. As there are so many species and sub-species of reptiles and amphibians, we tend to refer to our animals by their scientific name to avoid confusion - for example, the white-lipped viper is Trimeresurus albolabris and the Gaboon Viper is Bitis gabonica. So for anyone who might walk past our meeting room it can seem like a Latin lesson!

The main topic for discussion today is Islands... the zoo’s new development due to open in spring 2015. We are currently deciding on the animals which will be housed in the subtropical indoor rainforest – the largest indoor zoo exhibit in the UK. The sunda gharial and the tentacled snake are amongst the species being discussed. The tentacled snakes are one of my favourites as they are so unusual (see picture below). 

Tentacled snake - Chester Zoo
Tentacled snake

These snakes are aquatic and hunt by lying rigid and motionless in the water, the end of their body anchored around a plant, waiting for fish to swim by. When a fish approaches, the snake ‘ripples’ its neck muscles, which causes the fish to instinctively flee... in the direction of the snake’s mouth!

Another interesting thing about them is they are the only species of snake to possess two tentacles on the front of their head; the purpose of which is unknown. Tentacled snakes do have venomous fangs however the venom is specific to fish and is virtually harmless to humans.

Wednesday

It’s the big day! Snake fever has spread across the zoo and I have already caught our First Aider Karen Illston and Guest Experience team member Scott Kardashian getting into the spirit of the day and enjoying the cuddly snakes in the gift shop.

Retail team

First thing on the agenda is feeding our two female reticulated pythons. It is one of the very few times we have done it in front of the public so we are expecting a big crowd. Feeding two very large snakes requires a lot of planning, co-ordination and monitoring. One of our reticulated pythons, Bali, is quite famous as she is thought to be the largest snake in Europe. You can often find her climbing on the rock vines or coiled up in the pool.

Much to the visitor’s excitement both pythons took their food straight away in front of the windows. It is a fantastic sight to see a reticulated python work their jaw’s down along the body of their prey. I was really pleased that so many school children were in today and they were able to see such an impressive sight.

Reticulated python at Chester Zoo
Reticulated python

The Zoo Ranger team had also set up a trolley in Realm of the Red Ape for visitors to look at snake skeletons, snake skulls, snake eggs and snake skins. It was a great hit with the public and also with our orangutans who kept coming over to the window throughout the day to have a look.

The Zoo Rangers borrowed our snake hooks (which we use for handling dangerous snakes) to show the visitors how we use them. We definitely discovered some future snake keepers in the making!

Team snake!
Team snake!
Orangutan
Even the orangutans joined in the fun!

Thursday

You may not be aware but some of the reptiles and amphibians we look after are not on show to the public. The reptile section is involved in many research projects which endeavour to better understand species, improve captive care and boost successful reproduction.

We are currently working hard on getting our Boelen’s pythons to breed. You may remember they were on display in Islands in Danger, opposite the Komodo Dragons, but we have now moved them to a special facility to keep a close eye on them. Snakes are very sensitive and need very specific conditions to reproduce. Now, I know we shouldn’t have favourites but, if you really twisted my arm, these would be them :-) They have the highest honour, in my world, of being my screensaver.

Boelens - Chester Zoo
Boelen's python

The snakes we have, two males and one female, are very chilled out but also curious so I will often be working in the enclosure and feel one move over my shoulder to have a look what I’m doing.

Today’s task was to construct a ‘climbing frame’ for them! Unfortunately this one won’t have swings or a slide :-) As you can see from the picture, it gives our snakes the opportunity to climb and coil around the poles giving them lots of exercise. They have quite a large enclosure and we want them to utilise every inch of it.

Climbing frame - Chester Zoo
Climbing frame for Boelen's python

Friday

It has taken me a long time to get used to spending the majority of my day working in very high humidity and at temperatures over 26°C. But today I really struggled, working in this heat! 

At Chester, we like to put a lot of effort into providing stimulation (or environmental enrichment) for our snakes. Just like on the mammal sections where the tigers' food may be tied up a tree getting them to climb; the pigs’ food may be buried encouraging them to dig; and the primates are provided with new ropes and furniture for them to explore. We do the same for our snakes. 

For example we will use old bird’s nests, branches and bedding that have been used by small mammals in the zoo or collect fur and feathers to put in the snakes enclosure. The snakes love investigating the new sights and smells just like the mammals. 

Red-tailed racer enrichment
Enrichment for our red-tailed racers

We monitor the development of all our snakes very carefully and today’s task was to measure and weigh our red-tailed racers which hatched in August last year. Now a question that always stumps the visitors is when I ask how do they think we measure and weigh a snake? I don’t know of a snake that would sit still on a set of scales or one that would conveniently lay stretched out next to a ruler. So we actually use a piece of string! We start at the tip of its nose and work our way down the body to the tip of its tail. We then put the string next to a ruler and record the length. To get the weight, we encourage the snake to go into a bag which we then loosely tie and place on the scales.

Red-tailed racer being measured
How to measure a snake - use string!

Saturday

Much to the horror of my mother and the delight of my father I am currently being trained in venomous snake handling by our most experienced keeper (and my hero! :) Isolde McGeorge. Today we are moving an eyelash viper, called Goldie, so that we can clean and refurbish her enclosure. 

There is an extensive set of protocols that we must follow when dealing with venomous snakes. It was quite an intimidating set of guidelines to read through when I first started my training, but now I am familiar with them I can concentrate on my technique. We always use two hooks to move a venomous snake. The snake, with a little encouragement, will use the hooks like branches of a tree; sliding and coiling onto them.

Snake hooks

Once the snake is settled and comfortable on the hooks, I can then slowly and steadily move them to the secure container. Goldie decided to make it a little more difficult for me today as she had decided to coil herself around her roommate, Jess. Despite it being a bit fiddly, it all went swimmingly and today can be logged as another successful session. 

Eyelash viper
Goldie - an eyelash viper

If you have visited the zoo in the last 2 weeks you will have seen that we are re-designing our red-tailed racer exhibit. Today we have had a short brain-storming session, discussing ideas that could work and putting together a vision of what we would like. We hope to start constructing the exhibit in the next few days so if you are visiting the zoo you may see us in there.

Sunday

Ok, my day off! What to do, What to do? I could go shopping or to the gym...the cinema perhaps? Actually I think I’ll crack on with a good book. A snake book! As keepers we are very lucky to be employed to practice our hobby. We absolutely love what we do and want to be as good at it as possible. 

Reading at home

This means we have to do a lot of reading in our own time which is a pleasure. We need to know the most up to date research and findings on our snakes' natural behaviour and habitat as well as any work being done to improve their captive care. We want to constantly strive to better the work we are doing within the zoo and in the field.

At the moment I am reading a lot about Smooth snakes, Grass snakes and Adders; the only 3 snakes which are breeding naturally in Britain. Chester Zoo is focusing on native species this year which I think is really important as a lot of people aren’t aware that we have beautiful snakes on our doorstep (not literally) that we need to protect.

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