Garter Snakes in the Classroom
By Doug Collicutt (Click links to see images.)
Garter snakes make great class room critters! They don't need a lot of room, are easy to feed and care for, and can be kept in simple, inexpensive containers. As cold-blooded predators, in a reptilian sense, they are quite content to lounge around and do nothing provided they have a full belly. And they adapt well to captivity, but, as importantly, can readapt to life in the wild if you choose to release them. So, we've put together a little primer on snakes in the class room, featuring some local teachers who are already "into" snakes, and a "how to" of getting and caring for your own snake in the class room!
At Winnipeg's Sargent Park School, the kindergarten class has been enjoying the presence of a brace of slithering serpents. I came across a couple of baby red-sided garter snakes in August 1997, in southeastern Manitoba. At just over 15 cm in length at that time, I knew they were young of the year (Garter snake babies are born live, usually in late July or August.), and I quickly laid plans for them. After setting them up in a small aquarium and making sure they were adapting to captivity, and, most importantly, eating in captivity, I offered them to Mrs. Collins, the Kindergarten teacher at Sargent Park. She excitedly accepted and her class of kindergartners have been enjoying them ever since. (Yes, that was many years ago, the snakes aren't around anymore.)
I hope the snakes become a permanent attraction in their class room, but we will have to get them a bigger aquarium, as they have already nearly doubled in size. They have become wonderful ambassadors for their kind and I've been very pleased to hear about their progress and the changes in attitudes among the children. (Now, we just need to get all the parents who come to the class to stop going "EYUUWWW!" and "IICCKK!") But, hey, don't just take my word for it! Read further for a class room testimonial!
Snakes! A Class Room Pet?
I have had the opportunity of having two baby garter snakes in my class room this year. Snakes have never bothered me, probably because I was exposed to them in my elementary years at school. The attitude of the children from the time the snakes arrived until now, has changed dramatically. Afraid to look and afraid to touch, these children now wait in line to hold them. Snakes are so fascinating to watch slither around and watching them eat is even more amazing.
As for the care of these snakes, nothing could be easier. The glass cage only needs to be cleaned every one to two months, the dish of water filled once a week and feeding, only once every one and a half to two weeks. I feed them cut up minnows right now, but in the spring, they will go back to eating live worms which the children have fun collecting themselves.
Having different types of pets in the class room (rabbit, fish, frogs and snakes) has been great for teaching children how to care for them and understand the different need, looks, movements and habits, etc., of these pets. The more kinds of pets you have, the more children will learn and appreciate them.
Sargent Park School
Snakes Outside the Classroom!
In Manitoba, we are fortunate to still have healthy populations of snakes in the wild. We also boast one of the world's greatest snake-watching sites, the Narcisse Snake Dens! To learn more about the Narcisse Dens check out NatureNorth's: Narcisse Snake Den Log.
Scientists and wildlife-watchers alike flock to our "snake pits" every year to witness the congregations of snakes at their overwintering dens. And we boast at least one Grade 5 teacher who makes the pilgrimage with her class to view the emerging red-sided garter snakes every year. (Again, this was written in 1997.)
Sophia Munro teaches grade 5 at Bonnycastle School in Winnipeg (or at least she did when we prepared this article). Sophia has a great interest in, and has developed a considerable store of knowledge about, red-sided garter snakes. Here's a bit of her work:
A Virtual Trip with a Grade 5 Class
By Sophia Munro
Please, join us in late April, early May as we leave our school in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada on a cramped bus ride for a two hour drive north. There are no complaints from the grade 5 students - they know they're going someplace special. After all, if these Narcisse red-sided garter snakes are good enough for National Geographic magazine, Equinox magazine, Ranger Rick magazine and a Sesame Street feature, they're good enough for them.
As the bus pulls into the parking lot of the pits, the students begin to wonder what there could possibly be to see when all around them are boring grassy fields with some scrubby bushes. What they don't see is that underneath the grass is limestone bedrock. This soft, easily dissolved rock has had groundwater running through it for thousands of years and a maze of crevices, tunnels and caves have been formed. In some places the surface rock has collapsed forming sinkholes which are the ideal winter habitat for the red-sided garter snake.
As the students begin walking along the grassy marked trail, they may
see the odd garter slithering through the grass. They may also see the
gross sight of a garter who has been slit open in a few select places
and has had his nutritious major organs (including his testicles!) neatly
removed by a major predator, the crow.
About 15 minutes down the trail, the children realize that something is going to happen. They begin seeing more and more snakes and then suddenly they are standing at the edge of a gaping hole that is filled with up to 5000 writhing snakes. What a sight and what a sound! After the students get calmed down and quiet enough, it is actually possible to hear a very eerie rustling sound - the sound of the rubbing of scales of thousands of snakes over grass, rocks and each other.
These snakes have been hibernating for months. They've lost a third of their body weight and should be very hungry. They're surrounded by people with whom they are usually very shy and quick to escape and yet it is very easy for the students to pick up these garters. This is because all the snakes can think about is sex. The males have emerged first in large numbers and are hanging around waiting for a chance to mate with the females that come out a few at a time. The competition is fierce and the mating balls that result when dozens of males try to mate a female are amazing. Sometimes we'll see one of these balls up a tree! Sometimes, these mating balls are comprised entirely of males!
The students leave this pit and continue on the trail to view two more of the larger sinkholes. Each site is slightly different and it depends on the previous weather and on that day's temperature as to which one is the best pit for viewing.
After this frenzied mating ritual, the snakes will migrate up to 16 kilometers to marshes where there is ample food and habitat for both the adults and the young that are born there. In early fall, the mature snakes start heading back to the dens. The ones that are fortunate enough to survive predators or early frosts find themselves back in the dens for another winter.
Well, your imaginary field trip is now over. If there is something you would like to ask our grade 5 class about our real snake pit trip, we would love to answer any questions.
Do it yourself - Snakes in the Classroom
Where and How to Get a Snake
It's not uncommon to come across garter snakes anywhere in the southwestern 2/3's of Manitoba. And there's nothing wrong with capturing a few to study up close, or to keep in captivity as a class room pet for a while. One of the nice things about snakes and other small reptiles and amphibians is that they can survive quite contentedly in captivity for short or long periods and then be released back to the wild, and be none the worse for wear. Having a snake in the class need not mean a permanent commitment.
If you are interested in capturing a snake and are planning a trip to a likely location, then make sure you have the right tools and containers for the job. You'll need a cloth bag with a draw string or a glass or plastic container with a lid. Make sure there are air holes in any container. If you catch a snake and don't have a proper container, then don't try to keep it. There'll always be another time. A long stick with a right-angle on the end is useful to gently hold down the snake until you can grab it by the tail. Don't try to grab snakes near the head, you can damage the skull or neck vertebrae. Gently lift the snake by the tail and plop it into the bag or container. If you're traveling a long distance after catching it, keep the container somewhere cool.
Snakes are out and about from May until October in Manitoba. The best time to catch one is mid- morning on a sunny day. Snakes like to bask to raise their body temperatures and will look for exposed, sunny spots to catch the warming sun. Trails or roads near wetlands are your best bet for finding snakes. Unfortunately, the use of roads for basking leads to a major source of mortality for garter snakes! It's tragic, but there are probably many snakes that are killed on roads each year by well meaning people on their way to visit the snake dens.
It's been my experience that male garter snakes are more inclined to settle down in captivity than females. They even seem to be much less concerned about being handled when first captured in the wild. Large adult females tend to be down-right "snarky" in the wild and are more aggressive in captivity than males. As they represent the important breeding stock for the population, it's best not to capture them, anyway. So, perhaps there's a good rule of thumb. If a snake is very aggressive and distraught upon capture, don't try to keep it. If it doesn't seem too upset at being caught, then it's probably a better candidate for captivity. (It's difficult to tell males and females apart. The coloration and shape are similar between sexes. But very large, thick-set garter snakes are almost always females.)
There's one more thing to bear in mind on catching snakes. They are not without defense! No, I don't mean they'll try and bite you. They may well try, but their bite is pitiful, they're not likely to break the skin on your hand. What they will do to you if they are distraught is poop on you. They will "slime" you with foul smelling excrement, whipping their tails around to ensure that you get well and truly covered in it. Actually, it's not that bad, though some snakes are more pungent than others. So be warned, and take some gloves if you intend to try catching a garter snake, gloves you don't plan on keeping!
A glass aquarium or a screened cage with a secure lid (snakes are amazingly adept at climbing and escaping through small holes) can make a good home for a snake. As a gauge for size, the container should be at least as long as the snake itself, so there is ample room to move around. Put aquarium gravel or some other washable substrate on the container bottom. Construct a small cave out of rocks, or a place a can or other container on its side, for a hiding place. Put some sticks or plastic plants around the tank for the snake to climb on or as a jumble of things to hide in. Place an incandescent bulb near the aquarium or have the tank near a window where it gets some sunlight, so the snake can bask. A proper aquarium lid with fitted lights is good, but make sure the lights don't heat the tank too much. Keep a small, flat container filled with fresh water for the snake to drink and to raise the humidity in the aquarium, but make sure the cage is not damp inside for prolonged periods.
You may need to clean the container occasionally, once every month or two, primarily to remove old snake poops and keep it smelling fresh. Remove the snake to a secure container, then rinse all the contents and the cage itself. Allow everything to dry before reassembling things and returning the snake. And each time you reassemble the cage, change things around a bit. I'm convinced that snakes enjoy a little change of scenery. Any that I've had are always quick to explore new items placed in their cages or check out the new layout after I clean things. Call it "habitat enrichment".
Garter snakes in the wild eat an array of soft-bodied creatures such as worms, leeches, fish, frogs and toads. They don't like insects (I've tried to feed them some) and small mammals (mice, voles, etc.), are probably eaten by only the largest snakes. They are stimulated to eat by the smell of food items and don't seem to care whether the food is dead or alive. A convenient and inexpensive food for captive snakes is bait minnows, the frozen, UN-salted variety that comes in little plastic buckets. Adult snakes can eat a whole minnow at once, while smaller snakes can be fed parts of a cut-up minnow. Worms are another good food. These can be bought live from bait shops, but are expensive, or you can start a vermiculture pail to provide your own snake food. Worms can also be captured in abundance after autumn rains, as they slither over sidewalks and roads. They can be kept alive in a large pail of soil or even frozen (spread out on wax paper) for later use as snake food.
As a rule, snakes can easily swallow things that are as wide as their own bodies, so pieces should be cut accordingly. Adult snakes don't need to be fed more than once every 2 weeks. One large minnow will do for a single meal for a snake that's about 60 cm long. People tend to err on the side of giving snakes too much to eat and this can cause as many problems as too little food. If your snake starts getting noticeably thicker, cut back on the food.
Snakes will learn the routine of when and how they are fed and usually respond rapidly when food is placed in their cage. To help keep things clean, place food items on a tray (a piece of paper, cardboard or a jar lid) that is then placed in with the snake. After the snake eats the food, the tray can be removed. I've even had a snake that got so accustomed to me that it took minnows out of my hand! If you want a number of people to be able to see the snake eating its food, instruct them all to remain still as the food is placed in the cage. Motion and noise outside will distract or confuse the snake.
If you should choose to try and feed your snake with live food items (minnows, frogs, worms, etc.), be aware that, although this event is truly a natural experience, it might be shocking to some people. Garter snakes are not constrictors nor have they venom to subdue their prey, they just grab on and swallow it whole and alive! The struggle that a live frog will put up can be a little disturbing to watch. So be warned!
Interacting with Snakes
If you intend to keep your snake in captivity permanently, then "taming" it and getting it accustomed to being handled is good for the snake. A snake that is more at ease around people will be more comfortable in its artificial surroundings and you will be better able to observe it and it's behaviour. It will also be less stressful for the snake when you have to handle it for purposes of cage cleaning or moving it here or there. If, on the other hand, you intend to release the snake back into the wild, then don't attempt to "tame" it. A snake too used to people, then released to the wild, may approach humans again and it's actions could be misinterpreted as aggression - and "whack" there goes another snake, needlessly. For the snake's own good, keep it mindful of people. Release the snake back where you originally found it, and do so before the end of summer so it has time to readapt to the wild before winter.
Getting a snake used to being handled involves patience and persistence. To catch the snake in its cage can be difficult, so during the taming phase it's a good idea to remove any objects that the snake might hide under or amongst, while you are trying to handle it. Replace them when you're done. Move your hand slowly towards the snake and grasp it gently, but firmly, somewhere from its mid-body to its tail. Don't try to grab it by the head or neck. Lift it and let it crawl or squirm from one hand to the next, letting it slide between your fingers. Keep a little pressure on it so it can't get away or move too quickly. After a few seconds, let it go. Repeat this every day, being consistent in the time and manner in which you handle it, just gradually increase the duration of the handling from day to day. In a week or two your snake should be comfortable enough with being handled that you can remove it from its cage for periods of time. Just remember that snakes can move rapidly, even on smooth, tiled floors, so don't be surprised if it makes a break for freedom! If you want the snake to come out for observations or handling, make sure you have it somewhere where it can be corralled easily if it does get away.
A Snake Souvenir
If you have a snake in captivity long enough, you're bound to end up with a particularly interesting souvenir, it's skin! All reptiles regularly slough off all or bits of their old skin and replace it with new skin tissue. Snakes just do it in a rather dramatic fashion: in one piece, all at once.
Garter snakes probably shed their skin once or twice a year in Manitoba. You can easily tell when the process is imminent. The snake's colour begins to dull and its eye will grow cloudy. About a week before the skin is shed the eye will be at its milkiest in appearance. You may notice that the snake seems less active at this time and may refuse to eat. With its vision impaired the snake would be vulnerable in the wild, and would probably hole-up somewhere at the height of this change. The eye cloudiness will disappear over several days, as the old skin thins and prepares to be cast off.
Then one day you'll notice a bright new snake in the cage, with clear, glassy eyes and vibrant colours. And you'll find the old skin bunched up like a discarded sock, left wherever the snake crawled out of it. Typically the skin first splits beneath the jaw and the snake wriggles next to rough objects to catch the skin and pull it off as it squirms past. The process can be very brief. If you're lucky enough to notice the process in action, take the time to enjoy it. Few people have been privileged to see it in real life. (It's better than on TV!)
A snake skin makes a wonderful souvenir of your experiences with snakes in the class room and can continue to be a valuable teaching aid, even after your snake is gone. If you happen to find the crumpled-up skin after it has dried out, become brittle and taken on an awkward shape, just moisten it by placing it in warm water for a couple of minutes. Then you can unravel it and stretch it, gently, to its full length. Pin it to a piece of wood or cardboard and let it dry again. Then find a suitable place to display it. Gentle handling won't hurt it, and if you wait a while, you'll get another one anyway.
If you find yourself with the opportunity to care for a snake for a period of time, we hope you'll take advantage of this great privilege. There is no substitute for a hands-on, up-close-and-personal experience with a real-live critter. I'm continually struck by the words of Mrs. Collins at Sargent Park School: "We had snakes in my class room when I was in school, so I've never had a problem with them." What a wonderful example of passing-on positive experiences in life. For the sake of all wild things, it's time we broke the cycles of fear and misunderstanding that still surround too many creatures, great and small.
Thanks for learning about Snakes in the Classroom! Bye for now!
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