Ball Python: The Mystery and the Art
By John F. Taylor
Every year, ball python breeders are coming out with a new color or pattern morph to satisfy the desires of keepers and breeders alike. Over the last few years, there has been a surge in producing various color or pattern morphs, which are the envy of the snake world. These can cost upwards of thousands of dollars. There are still plenty of normal ball pythons being bred in captivity for the pet industry but there is definite change in the market.
This change has happened before and is seeing a resurgence today. More and more people today are keeping reptiles; specifically snakes in general as pieces of living art. In the late eighties, there was a man who changed the thinking of reptile keepers everywhere with a book called The Art of Snake Keeping. Philippe de Vosjoli has been a source of not only reptile keeping information but also a source of inspiration for many keepers today. Philippe reminded us then and now that a natural environment is the very best way to observe our reptiles.
Reptile collectors today are not satisfied purchasing a snake, placing it into a fish tank with a screen lid, and a heater. They see their reptiles as an investment and want to display them, as they would a Picasso painting. We still see the usual buyers of reptiles within the pet industry but there is a definite increasing percentage of individuals who are purchasing the higher end or more expensive morphs in order to create their personal artistic statement in there home or office.
Solving the mystery
Keepers are much more knowledgeable today as we all are about the care specifics of reptiles. Over the past three decades, many people have learned, with more knowledge about their chosen reptile they can make informed decisions about which product(s) will provide them not only a better environment but also a better way of reptile keeping. Today more keepers are recognizing that it is not about just captive care of reptiles in general, but about the natural history of the entire genre, which is now making a difference in how they keep their snakes. Using the ball python as an example, many keepers thought for years that this species was only a fossorial snake. Today we know that ball pythons from some regions climb into small shrubs and spend time there off the ground. With the trend of creating a more natural environment for our snakes we are observing new behaviors; I would be willing to say, if the reptiles were bred under these conditions we would also see an increasing trend towards better breeding success.
Product manufacturers are also more aware of this increasing trend as well. They now produce a better line of products to satisfy the needs of the discerning keeper. With the manufacturers understanding just as much if not more about our reptiles, we are no longer looking through a bay window onto a large environment but a microscope into the world that makes up the microenvironment of the reptiles we keep. With this knowledge, we are able to provide a much better captive environment, one highlighting the snake, rather than just keeping it alive.
Showcasing a reptile is not just a matter of building an enclosure and making the enclosure look its best by adding plants substrate etc. Many parameters go into this type of environment. In the past, all we had were fish tanks with screen lids as I had mentioned earlier. Today we have plexiglass enclosures, which are easier to maintain. Plexiglass not only is easier to heat but it also holds the humidity necessary for keeping tropical species such as the ball python.
Besides the advent of new materials such as plexiglass for the enclosure, we now have a firmer grasp on our knowledge of plants, substrates, heaters, and various other pieces of equipment that are required to maintain a healthy environment for our reptiles. Manufacturers taking advantage of this, are now producing some incredible products that make snake ownership possible for almost anyone who has an interest. With all of this knowledge being available to people we still see the most common mistake with the new snake keeper.
They purchase the snake and what they think are the right materials for the environment and then put all of this into the old type of fish tank enclosure. The major issue with keeping most tropical animals in this type of enclosure is that there is a huge amount of air exchange when screen lids are used. If you live in a dry area such as myself this type of enclosure will require misting numerous times a day. This is a very time consuming process. If you have made a higher end investment this is a critical component of captive care to mist the snake and monitor its environment. Using the correct enclosure such as those produced by Ricky’s Reptile Enclosures will save you from having to go through this issue.
Now you know which enclosure to purchase, but the fun does not stop there. It is time to get creative; most breeders use a rack system and one of two substrates. These are inexpensive and easy to clean; therefore, they make sense for the breeder attempting to keep costs to a minimum. Breeders use either pine shavings or newspaper to keep their snakes. The showcase snake though will not be display properly on these substrates. To show off the colors and patterns of the higher end morphs or even the ‘normal’ ball python we suggest going with a planted vivarium type of setting.
The Right Plant
The planted vivarium is not as hard as it may seem, it is really a matter of plant selection, placement, and the use of the right soils. I use organic potting soil that is pearlite free and landscape the enclosure so that the back of the enclosure is slightly graded or sloped towards the front. The organic potting soil is fine on its own but to really get a nice look to the whole vivarium I put a layer of orchid bark or cypress mulch on top. As far as plants go, you can leave them in their pots or plant them directly into the soil. Not only do plants help produce oxygen within the enclosure, they also provide a level of humidity as does the soil/mulch mixture. With the ball python being such a ‘heavy bodied’ snake there is certain amount of concern with using plants in the enclosure lest they be crushed by a wandering snake. Delicate ferns and other such plants will not stand up to a wandering P. regius.
We must also be careful of any plants that might be toxic to a reptile. Not to mention the fact that many of the plant recommendations you see online sound great. But what they don’t tell you is that their recommendations are actually bushes that can get extremely large. For instance, one recommendation I saw was for Callistemon, which they also had misspelled as Callistemom commonly known as bottlebrush. Most sites list this as a TREE, which gets 10-12 feet in height.
The other one that struck me as odd was the recommendation of Bougainvillea, which has very sharp thorns among the limbs. Why would you recommend that for a reptile or amphibian enclosure?
Here is a list of non-toxic plants that you can use without fear of them growing into trees or stabbing a wandering snake. Pothos Epipremnum pothos aureus, Liriope Lily turf, & Aspidistra Cast Iron plant are all plants that I have used within the vivarium itself and have never had any issue. Some mosses may be used as ground cover as well but I have never used them before so I cannot make any recommendations here. Besides the plants, add a sandblasted grapevine piece angled from one of the bottom corners of the enclosure to the opposite top corner diagonally so that the snake can choose to be either lower or higher. I have yet to see a branch be provided that was not used at some point. If nothing else, the snake will use this to help with shedding.
You must also provide some type of hide area within the enclosure. Personally, I like the half logs that are sold for this purpose. Buy one that the snake can enter and when coiled their body should encounter the sides. This is a critical piece as it allows the snake to feel secure. If you are going to invest in a P. regius whether a higher end morph or even a normal you must understand that these snakes have a lifespan of 20 plus years in a quality captive environment. Providing a quality captive environment starts with buying the proper enclosure as I stated above.
Be sure to visit http://www.rickysreptileenclosures.com for more information on enclosures. Most important, enjoy your ball python and learn everything you can along the way.