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Very Defensive / Scared Adult Male

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  • [Behavior] Very Defensive / Scared Adult Male

    A local friend is joining the Peace Corps and thus is leaving the country for a long time. He asked me to take his two boas, a 2012 female hypo and a 2013 male common.

    The female is a doll. No issues except someone (not my friend) didn't monitor live feedings and she carries the scars to prove it. I also think there's some CA blood in her ancestry with her pattern and size, she's small for her age.

    The male started life chill but at around 8 months of age (early 2014) he started nipping, and has gotten worse over time. When my friend brought the snakes over last week he showed me the bruise from the last love tap, rather impressive, and he admitted he'd been scared of the snake for months so I wonder if the two were feeding off of each other's fear.

    FWIW these are hit-hard-and-retreat bites, not hit-and-wrap food responses, and at almost six feet long this guy can pack a punch when he wants to.

    I haven't handled the male much, just once when I had to clean his enclosure, and then only enough to move him into a holding tub. All he did was try to run so it was easy enough to use a hook and one hand to gently guide him where I wanted him to go. Apparently he's worst when picked up and held as he's very squirrely. I haven't tried holding him yet.

    So far he hasn't taken a swipe at me but I suspect that's because he's still settling in to his new home before his true nature shows up and I've kept interaction to a minimum.

    So, any tips on handling if/when it's needed? I'm going to work on changing his behavior and expect it could take months if not years, but until then what am I looking at? Long sleeves and gloves? Use hooks and minimize hands-on contact? Put a towel on his head if I do have to pick him up, and keep his head well away from my face?

  • #2
    Re: Very Defensive / Scared Adult Male

    Try to keep an open mind about the does sound to me as if they "scared each other", so now he doesn't trust people. It may also be that he has some hidden health issue...maybe he's in pain when he is
    handled. Very few snakes dramatically change personality for "no reason" IMO. You'll have to play detective, & by all means, wear sleeves & gloves as needed, also eye protection...see how it goes, short sessions
    at first, maybe try him in a towel* for a while.* (*he's not going to keep it "on his head", I'd go for a spa-like whole body wrap, maybe he just wants pampered? hahaha!) It might also be something environmental
    where he lived before that was frightening to maybe with you he'll improve? The BCI I took on as a rescue many years ago (unwanted, for biting multiple owners) was happily only a year old when she came
    to me (so not as big!), and it took about 2 months. This male may take longer to un-do whatever is frightening him...then again, maybe it's "growing pains" or hormones...there was a time after I calmed down that
    BCI that she sort of relapsed into a very unsocial mode, also a poor appetite, for a couple months; then it was as if it never happened, & it never did again. Be patient & observant, I hope he comes around for you.

    *And as silly as it sounds, I still stand by my technique of cuddling a snake completely IN a towel on your lap & stroking very gently, for 30-60 minutes (or as tolerated); a gentle swaying motion seems to relax them
    also, so if you have a hammock or a rocking chair, what have you got to lose? When you do this repeatedly (& ONLY when you aren't rushed for time) they seem to learn to feel safe with us.

    Snakes are wild animals, not domestic, so even if captive-bred, their "default mode" is to rely on their instincts (self defense)...try to see things from his perspective. And remember that snakes can react with fear
    to visual things they don't understand, so try to let him know what's going on using HIS best senses. Besides touch, they depend on their sense of after you've had a chance to 'cuddle him' (where he can
    learn your scent!) you might try to blow air across your hand towards him whenever you approach his cage (& he's looking defensive). When you do that, it tells him who/what is approaching...and in my years of
    keeping snakes, I find they're just like us when it comes to having a fear of the unknown. I don't know about you, but I use whatever I can to communicate that snakes are "safe" with me, & it pays off. Good luck!


    • #3
      Re: Very Defensive / Scared Adult Male

      Every snake is an individual. Some snakes can be "tamed" in a week, some take months or years, some will never be "tamed". The few that can never be "tamed" can be trained to tolerate being handled for short periods for necessary cleaning. I haven't heard of a boa who couldn't be trained this way in the care of a competent keeper. The only snakes I've heard who couldn't be trained this way are burms and retics because they are just too big to take a hit from while training. Taking a hit from a 20-40 pound animal is very different from taking a hit from a 80-180 pound animal.

      To me it does sound like fear was the cause of the strikes. If you are not confident handling them, they can feel it and they don't want to be handled because of fear of injury. If you hold them out at arms length, that can also be scary to them because they don't feel secure. Noelle has also mentioned on other topics that holding them at arms length they can see your face and might be scared of it if they don't know or trust humans.

      I actually used her towel method to tame down my young female boa.


      • #4
        Re: Very Defensive / Scared Adult Male

        Originally posted by acephantom903 View Post
        ... If you are not confident handling them, they can feel it and they don't want to be handled because of fear of injury. If you hold them out at arms length, that can also be scary
        to them because they don't feel secure.....
        Perhaps that's why the "rocking" helps, because it relaxes US and then they can "feel" that we are no longer tense so they too relax? I can't say for sure, only that these things have worked well for me, and it's all
        about "outcome"....whatever I can do to communicate to a snake that it's safe with me, that's what I do.

        As far as holding a snake at arm's length: we appear to be a predator that's about to pounce on them so of course they're frightened! The same 'back pressure' (ie. feeling of being in a snug cave) that snakes prefer

        in a hide-box also applies to when we hold them: I guarantee that (whether or not you're a snake, lol) it's much nicer to be cuddled close than at arm's length...we ALL like to feel secure. But do keep in mind that

        a snake that is close to you may STILL be scared of your face & want to bite...I think that's why many keepers hesitate to use this method? But there ARE ways to teach the snake not to fear your face, & since I've

        always done programs (& didn't want to model a bloody face during them) I've worked with my snakes to make them relaxed even when close to my face. They are also safer when others approach, none of my snakes

        has EVER bitten anyone....but you cannot expect a snake to learn this without your participation. Just like when you teach a horse not to fear things that blow across the have to let animals get up close &

        experience that something is really harmless so they can learn & remember. It's simple, really: if we expect our snakes to let go of their fears, we have to let go of ours. (*and yes, you can still take precautions!!!*)

        If you're at all worried about looking "silly" for using these techniques (like rocking), you're in the wrong frame of mind to communicate with snakes, so get used to bites.


        • #5
          Re: Very Defensive / Scared Adult Male

          Hey - I'm looking more for tips/tricks on how to safely deal day to day with caring for a larger defensive critter until he figures out - whether that takes weeks, months, years, or never - that he's safe with me. Since he's in QT I'm handling him as little as possible anyway, but at some point I expect to find that he played "Poocasso" and I may just have to go hands-on with a ticked off snake that needs a bath.


          • #6
            Re: Very Defensive / Scared Adult Male

            No shame in safety gloves/welder jacket if that time comes. Just be careful because safety equipment can also snag their teeth and hurt them.


            • #7
              Re: Very Defensive / Scared Adult Male

              Yes, sooner or later, we need to get hands-on...and should a snake need to see the vet, think how much BETTER the outcome is (for EVERYONE!) if the snake isn't hysterical for just being held.

              Since we know that stress contributes to poor health in humans, I think it's safe to assume it works that way for our pets too. Even when I kept snakes that could NOT be handled (ie. hots), I made a point of
              identifying myself via scent (blowing across my hand thru the screen on their cage so they got my scent & could identify me as familiar) and I feel sure that it helped: I had good success getting rescues to eat &
              thrive, rattlesnakes learned to recognize me & hardly ever rattled after I did this for a while, and overall longevity has been excellent for most of my snakes. And besides that, cuddling our pets lowers our own
              blood pressure least once they're no longer biting us, haha! So to me, it's time well-spent and an "win-win".


              • #8
                Re: Very Defensive / Scared Adult Male

                Yeah, I have one that I wear fireplace gloves when I work with. Each animal is an individual and will, or will not respond to handling attempts differently.

                Typically, the answer is more handing to acclimate him to being handled. This usually works, but not always. I have one that has never not tried to bite me. It hasn't mattered what I've done with his keeping, he wants to eat my face. So I've learned to deal with it. I no longer attempt to handle him more that necessary. Which is to say on cage cleaning day. I keep a hook handy for water bowl changes and re-fills. And as mentioned before, I use thick leather gloves that go nearly to my elbows when I handle him. The rest of my boas have calmed with more handling and age. Don't give up on him.

                -Sean in NoCal
                “Americanism means the virtues of courage, honor, justice, truth, sincerity, and hardihood – the virtues that made America.”
                -Teddy Roosevelt.


                • #9
                  Re: Very Defensive / Scared Adult Male

                  Originally posted by bcr_229 View Post
                  and keep his head well away from my face?
                  This is good advice for any snake, regardless of temperament.

                  -Sean in NoCal
                  “Americanism means the virtues of courage, honor, justice, truth, sincerity, and hardihood – the virtues that made America.”
                  -Teddy Roosevelt.


                  • #10
                    Re: Very Defensive / Scared Adult Male

                    Another idea, just in case he needs a bath before he's ready to accept your handling: I used to bathe some of the rattlesnakes that I took in, those that were being kept and no longer wanted, because under those
                    circumstances, the owners usually kept them in filthy stinking cages and avoided dealing with them altogether. So I invented a way to bathe them safely & securely, which I can describe for you. It's easy to make.

                    At the hardware store where they sell PVC drain pipes, you buy an appropriate length & width. I think my biggest is 30" long and 8" diameter. I installed a sturdy handle on the side, and a "drain cover" on one end with
                    bolts (*making sure no sharp points are inside the tube*). I bought a second "drain cover" to fit the other end, & installed a handle on it so it could be manipulated with my long hemostats. Whenever one of my guests
                    needed a bath, all I had to do was offer this nice "cave" for them to hide in and they easily went in on their own. I secured the "doorway" (various ways to latch it securely) and lowered it into some comfy luke-warm
                    water in my bathtub. While the rattlesnakes were noisy at first, they got pretty quiet in the bath and I sensed they were enjoying it. You only use water that is about half the depth of the tube, of course. I gently
                    sloshed the tube back & forth so the water moves through. And when they've had enough, the water drains out on it's own & you just slide them back into their cages, smelling ever so much better. How's that???

                    It goes without saying (?) that if you're doing this with a rattlesnake, your fingers are NEVER near the vent-holes on either end.


                    (there, I hope that covers it?


                    • #11
                      Re: Very Defensive / Scared Adult Male

                      As far as keeping your snake's head well away from your face...
                      Originally posted by Pandorasdad View Post
                      This is good advice for any snake, regardless of temperament.
                      I'd agree that's important for now, but hopefully not forever. For me, there's comes a time with "most" snakes that's right (fairly safe) to get closer. Maybe that's just me? It takes
                      "as long as it takes" though & is an advanced technique, but just like when you ride horses, it's much safer to never jump them, but if & when you get to that level, the risk may be
                      there but so is the reward. Obviously if your snake is still biting you for merely holding them you do NOT stick them in your face. It's never an abrupt thing. I am SO NOT a "risk-taker"!


                      • #12
                        Re: Very Defensive / Scared Adult Male

                        A general afterthought: Because boas (& many other snakes) can achieve such a sizable length, whether or not you INTEND to handle your snake near your face, I think it's going to happen...and you ought to be
                        prepared for it when it does. If you panic, your snake might also. Snakes that learn to be calm & comfortable "knowing us" are far less likely to panic-bite. They have personalities, just as we close attention.

                        To the OP: You have your work cut out for you with the male especially & I truly hope you can mellow him out. Like when you put a snake on the ground, he has "lost contact" with people since his previous owner
                        became afraid to handle him, so it may take much longer to bring him back from his purely instinctive reactions. Be patient & non-threatening...& let him know "it's you" each time he seems defensive & afraid in his cage.
                        Remember that he doesn't 'know you' (or anyone) visually & cannot help feeling threatened when you approach him. Becoming 'familiar' should help him to calm down. You might also try leaving a shirt you've worn
                        (so it has your scent) in his cage for a while.


                        • #13
                          Re: Very Defensive / Scared Adult Male

                          The PVC tube for bathing was the kind of trick I was talking about, though since this guy so far seems ok with being touched, just not picked up, I could wipe him down with damp paper towels to clean him up. Obviously that's not an option with venomous snakes. FWIW I could never keep hots, I know my limits!

                          One thing his prior owner never did was hook train. I know it's used primarily so the snake learns to distinguish between "food" and "no food" but I think in his case it would also be beneficial as sort of "hello" from me.


                          • #14
                            Re: Very Defensive / Scared Adult Male

                            I never have used "hook training"...but I have nothing against it as techniques's just another way of signalling to your snakes that what is about to happen is not about food. Whether you use your scent,
                            your touch, a snake hook, or a combination of such signals, their success all seems to verify that snakes aren't as "dumb" as some people still think...otherwise, snakes would not retain what they learn...& if they
                            can retain these signals, they can also learn & retain the idea of feeling safe with us. They aren't all equal though, any more than we's our job to read their body language & stay safe. By all means, hook
                            train this snake, it's a start. But I don't think that will be enough to make him calm about handling, and you did say that his bites were not "hit & wrap food responses". In the course of hook training him, I would
                            take a t-shirt (with your scent on it) & wrap it tightly around the end of the hook, then pet him with it, so he gets to associate your scent & touch. It's also possible that he had a bad experience that the guy
                            didn't fully tell you about, & maybe it's mostly him that he mistrusts, who knows?


                            • #15
                              Re: Very Defensive / Scared Adult Male

                              I have to throw another thought into the mix here. I have a Guyana male that belonged to someone else before me and he was always extremely
                              squirrel-y to handle. He wasn't a biter but he was all over the place every time anyone tried to hold him. Sometimes he would calm down and others, he would not. He was kept in a Boaphile with proper temps and humidity. The previous owner tried different substrates during the time she owned him and none of them made a bit of difference so we just thought that's the kind of snake he was.

                              Fast forward a few years and I ended up with the snake AND the Boaphile. I guess something happened to the flexwatt during transit so it needed replacing when I got it home and proceeded to set it up. No biggie, I had a 41 QT empty tub in my QT rack that he would be fine in until the flexwatt arrived. Long story short, he prefers a smaller habitat! He is the easiest snake to handle now since living in the rack. I did set up his old Boaphile and returned him to it once everything was ready and he got all squirrel-y again. I returned him to the rack and he's happy as a clam and easy to handle. He eats, defecates and sheds perfectly.

                              I just thought I might mention this since it is something I ran into...I would never have guessed that he was uncomfortable in a big enclosure, hides or not.

                              Photo credit:Eddie Ard .....Banner Credit:Big PaPa Ernest