Let me preface this post by saying that anytime someone takes a hard stance against live-feeding the assumption is always that they’re a mouse or rat lover and incapable of being objective. I freely admit to being a rodent lover. I owned four pet rats and was a foster for many others. However, I also fostered reptiles for seven years, including snakes. Here is a pic of my foster ball python, Lolita, enjoying a meal of frozen-thawed mice (graphic photo warning for anyone who is upset by images of snakes eating whole prey). On top of that, I was a zoo volunteer for three years and my primary duties involved caring for the dozen or so snakes in the reptile collection. So please don’t comment about how soft-hearted or unobjective I am. I love rats and I love snakes and my position on live-feeding is a culmination of a deep concern for the welfare and health of both species.
The first thing that proponents of live-feeding always bring up is how it is “natural.” You can’t know how many times I’ve had to hear the words “food chain” in conversations with these folks. I actually had one guy tell me that snakes have to be able to hear their prey’s heartbeat in order to feed. (Psst! Snakes can’t hear!)
Anyway, here are a few reasons why that line of argument is bullshit.
- You’ve got an animal in a glass box, on artificial substrate, with plastic logs and leaves, with an artificial light and heat source, and yet oddly you’re overly concerned with how “natural” their diet is? Mmkay.
- Snakes are ambush predators in the wild. They do not stalk and hunt their prey. They hide and when a prey item happens to walk by, they strike. If they strike and miss, they go back into hiding and wait for another opportunity. When you put a live prey item into a cage with a snake you are forcing a confrontation that would never occur in nature. There is nothing natural about that situation.
- Many times people who feed live prey will knock the prey item unconscious by swinging them by the tail into a wall or table, or break their spine or legs in order to avoid injury to their snake (more on that in a minute). So just how fucking natural is that? Sorry for the harsh language, but it really gets under my skin when these people dispassionately describe the torture they inflict on mice, rats and rabbits and then have the nerve to condescend to me about how “natural” their feeding method is.
When you point all of that out to them, the next thing almost all of them try to use as an excuse is, “But I tried to feed frozen/thawed and my snake won’t eat it!”
There are very, very few snakes that won’t make the switch to frozen/thawed prey if done correctly. Again, I have to point out that I worked at a zoo for three years and volunteered fostering snakes for seven years and didn’t once have a snake refuse a thawed mouse or rat. Many times when people tell me that they tried to feed frozen/thawed what they really mean is that they gave their snake a half-thawed mouse and it didn’t immediately strike and therefore they assumed it couldn’t be transitioned from a live prey diet.
If a prey item is properly heated and dangled a bit from a pair of tongs, almost 100% of the time a hungry snake will strike at it. Most times they don’t even require movement, the scent and heat of the item alone will entice them to eat. If they don’t accept the prey item immediately, particularly if it’s a snake accustomed to a live prey diet, remove the item and offer it again the next day. Again, almost any snake will eventually make the switch. Don’t tell me you made some half-hearted attempt and concluded it was futile.
Point #3: Rodents have teeth. And claws. Notice how the eaten areas are multiple and widespread? That's because if a snake isn't hungry it will not defend itself against an attack by a prey item. It'll attempt to find a spot to hide and curl up in a ball. They won't fight back. Rodents can do some real damage to your snake. I have seen snakes or heard stories about snakes with scale rot from infected bites and scratches, abscesses, severe wounds eaten down to the vertebrae, dislocated jaws, etc. Live prey items can also carry ectoparasites or internal parasites which can infect your snake. Feeding frozen/thawed is safer and healthier for your snake. And usually it’s a lot cheaper, too. Buying frozen in bulk usually costs about $25-$40 plus shipping for anywhere from 25-100 meals, depending on size. It’s very convenient, too. Just take one from the freezer, pop it into a bowl of hot water for a bit and you’re done. No trips to the pet store once a week.
And lastly, the general attitude toward rodents really irks me. The “Who cares? It’s just a rat!” attitude. Suggest feeding a 5-week-old puppy or kitten alive to a boa constrictor and most people will react with horror and disgust. Switch the species to a rat and suddenly it’s okay. However, there is absolutely no evidence that rodents are less capable of experiencing stress (psychological or physiological) or pain than other mammals. They aren’t less capable of hurting than your dog. So if they’re not less able to feel pain than species we accept as deserving of our best effort to prevent pain and suffering, why is it okay to allow rodents to suffer? Short answer; it isn’t. Either we have an obligation to try and minimize suffering in domestic animals or we don’t. You don’t get to cherry pick which species it’s okay to torment. That simple concept of unbiased animal welfare is why it’s illegal in the UK to feed any live animal to another animal.
Of course, none of this matters to a subset of the reptile owner population. In my experience talking with reptile owners and moving among various exotic rescue and owner circles, I have discovered that safety, health, welfare and humane concerns are unimportant to some people. Some people just want to watch an animal suffer and die. They think it’s cool. They got a snake in the first place so that they could watch it kill something. Nothing I say will ever sway them. When I run up against one of these types, I really struggle not to deliver a swift kick to their balls (they’re usually male).
Long story short, it’s healthier, less risky, cheaper and more convenient to feed frozen/thawed. Almost any snake can be converted from a live prey diet to a frozen/thawed one. And if you’re still feeding live despite all of the obvious benefits of frozen/thawed because you enjoy or don’t care about hurting rodents, fuck you.