The beautifully-patterned milk snake spent the entire winter eating, shedding and nearly doubling in size. Photo credit: Michael Marchand, NHFG
A Snake That Didn't Sleep
By Dave Anderson
The harmless and beautiful milk snake – formerly called a “house adder” – wears a distinctive pattern of black-rimmed brown patches along its tan body. Milk snakes eat a wide range of food from mice to other snakes. In the wild, snakes do not eat or grow during winter. Instead, they enter winter torpor, essentially hibernating below frost or in a cold basement.
While other milk snakes hibernated all winter, Silas’s snake didn’t sleep. He was living large at a veritable snake resort upstairs in the heated portion of the house. He became acclimated to handling, continued to eat and shed his skin four times over the winter. Snakey nearly doubled in size dining once-a-week on frozen baby mice called “pinkies” available for $1.59 in the frozen food section at the big box pet store. Who knew?
Snakey escaped a few times and the family dogs chased him under furniture before the cats could catch him. The final time he escaped, they found Snakey in shock under the television cabinet. According to Rachel “he looked like he was kind of kinked” so they rushed him to a veterinary emergency center at 7 o’clock on Friday night. So much for dinner. He was fine, just shaken and appearing shredded due to his shedding again. Snakes shed when they grow; Snakey kept growing.
While they’d literally and figuratively saved his skin, Rachel began to question whether they’d done the right thing saving Snakey in the first place. He’d become a pet. Was it legal to have him? Should they keep him or release him? Would he even survive outdoors after being domesticated?
Snakey spent a few weeks recuperating on a heating pad. They stopped handling him and fed him a live baby mouse instead of a frozen pinkie to prepare him for his old life outdoors in the wild.
According to biologist, Mike Marchand, snakes commonly show up in NH basements each autumn when searching for places to overwinter. In the wild, rock crevices, fallen logs and tunnels made by burrowing rodents provide natural dens below frost. It isn’t necessary to capture and care for basement snakes. The best policy is to leave them but few people or cats are comfortable with that. According to NHFG rules, an individual may possess up to two eastern milk snakes. There are other sub-species including southern “corn snakes” sold in the pet trade that are not regulated.
The Nongame and Endangered Wildlife Program of the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department is the steward for the state's nongame wildlife, the species that are not hunted, fished or trapped. The Non-game program works to protect more than four hundred species of native mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and rare butterflies and other invertebrates. The NH Department of Agriculture manages the commercial pet trade.
Whether it’s best to keep a wild snake active and fed all winter, Marchand suggests if a snake is not injured or sick it is best to hibernate it by putting it back where it was found. If that isn’t feasible, it’s acceptable to keep a snake over winter and release it in the spring if you are able to care for it properly. Captive turtles and snakes are often “head-started” where they are fed and grown in captivity through winter to attain a larger size before release in the wild. Rehabilitated reptiles are fine after release as long as they are released in familiar area and suitable habitat during the right time in late spring or early summer.
In response to concern that “Snakey” was domesticated in captivity and to release him in spring would jeopardize his chance of survival, the greater concern is release of any wild reptile that came in contact with non-native captives due to concerns over potential transmittal of disease to wild NH populations. Marchand says “This gets trickier than it seems. While it’s legal to possess a milk snake, it’s technically illegal to release one unless you are a licensed rehabilitator.” Marchand acknowledges that it happens all the time when homeowners trap and relocate mice, squirrels or skunks and in more unusual situations with birds, snakes or bats. “If there is no contact with other non-native reptiles or amphibians, it’s best to release captive snakes in spring. With a snake that was only in captivity for one winter, I’d expect it to be fine once released” he adds.
Pecan Snakey was last seen on a warm May afternoon sliding into a sun-warmed stone pile behind the barn where he lived last summer. There’s no word on the reaction from smaller local snakes who spent the winter underground and haven’t had a meal since October.
Naturalist Dave Anderson is director of education for the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. His column appears every other week in the New Hampshire Sunday News. He may be reached at email@example.com or through the Forest Society's Web site: forestsociety.org.