Husbandry


 
Wagler's pit viper in captivity

There are various attributes and statements that have been used to decribe Wagler's viper in captivity: docile snake, lethargic, beautiful but difficult to keep and feed, problems with lung infection, constipation etc.

All of these potential problems may arise, or not, depending on how one generally approaches husbandry of this snake. This snake, with exception to adult females, is primarily a lizard eater. Those who have ever experienced the speed with which this viper strikes at geckos (even following the prey if necessary) know its true nature.

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Eight-months old juvenile from Thailand swallowing a fully grown spiny-tailed house gecko (Hemidactylus frenatus). Young vipers especially react on typical movement patterns of lizards, rather than on odor or changes in temperature. This can be demonstrated by placing a gecko in a different container some distance away: vipers strike in direction of the gecko once it moves.

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Clearly, ecological pecularities like preference for certain food items and other things have to be considered right from the beginning if one wishes to be successful in keeping this snake healthy. Wagler's viper reacts very sensitive to alterations of climatic conditions. However, once these are taken care of properly, it can be kept healthy for many years. Then, the snakes may also breed regularly.

Let's go right into the matter and name the three most important points which have been cited by others, but are too often ignored by snake lovers:

- Tropidolaemus wagleri requires high humidity, 80% and up. Of course, not constant rain showers or wet resting places.

- This snake needs to drink water regularly. Drinking here means not just some drops at the wall of the container, but providing water as long as the animal wants to drink (by spraying droplets on the body and let the snake drink it, or applying water directly to the mouth using a pipette). Offering water in a shallow bowl may be accepted by some animals, but most don't!! Therefore, it is necessary to spend as much time as possible watering the snakes. This point is neglected by most keepers. Not doing so will result in digestive problems, ultimately clogging the intestine by dehydrated and hardened undigested matter. In the worst case, the intestinal tissue can stick to the fecal pellet. Wagler's viper needs a lot of water to discharge uric acid effectively. It is a myth that Wagler's viper cannot digest hairy prey: they just need enough water to digest it!

- Lots of fresh air, for instance by means of small electric fans (like the ones used to cool computers) installed in a large container, or by continuous operation of an air-pump (as used for the aquarium) in a small container. Electric fans should be time-controlled running for a few minutes each hour. Negligence of these facts results, sooner or later, to lung infections which are often due to the common soil bacterium Pseudomonas aeruginosa. As we discuss in the 'health' section, this still needs not be of much concern as it can be cured by putting an affected animal under the right environmental conditions. When bacteria reach other parts of the body, however, antibiotic treatment may be inevitable to save the animal.

Small fans, installed in ventilation slots or shafts of a container, and controlled by a timer, improve climatic conditions

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As T. wagleri is a lowland tropical rainforest inhabitant, temperatures of 28-32° C during the day are fine, and dropping down to 24-25° C at night (although this is by no means a rule in all habitats in the wild). However, keeping the snake constantly at 23-24°C, which has been recommended already, does certainly not reflect the natural situation. This may be suitable for animals from higher altitudes, however, then one should know the snake's exact geographic origin.

Trying to 'adapt' Wagler's vipers to any given condition is not a successful approach. Rather doing the opposite, fitting conditions to the particluar snake by especially maintaining a suitable climate (the two basic points!) is of prime importance. This includes constant checks on ventilation (and readiness to make immediate alterations if necessary) and daily observation of the behavior of the animal. A healthy Wagleri is usually recognized by an S-shaped resting position, being highly alert during night to movements or changes in temperature which are detected with its heat sensors hidden in the loreal pits.

Adult male from Sulawesi drinking water droplets attached to the wall of the container

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Spraying the (preferably dense) vegetation and the snake itself with water is highly recommended. The best time to do that is in the late afternoon or evening, shortly before or after the light has been switched off. Wagler's pit vipers do not like to become confronted with a beam of fine water droplets (then they shake their heads, a sign of distress). They prefer larger drops of water like in nature. Humidity can be kept high by using appropriate filling materials for the bottom of a container that retain water; e.g. porous clay or coconut shell.

Rainfall stimulates the animals to drink. They turn their heads towards the body, and start drinking water droplets attached to it. Do not expect a Wagleri to move to and drink from a small container filled with water nearby, they usually don't do that. It is advisable to replenish water as long as the animal is drinking. This may be a time-consuming activity. Be prepared of doing that for hours, depending on the size of your snake collection. How often a Wagleri drinks depends on seasonal factors, its health status, and whether or not is has to digest prey. Clearly, the snakes need more water when digesting prey and when they are ill. A healthy Wagleri may not drink much for several weeks, just to change that habit instantly, requiring large amounts of water.

It is a convenient (for the snake keeper) and a healthy (for the snake) approach to keep a Wagleri in an aqua-terrarium. The water level should be quite low, about 5-10 cm, and branches of wood or stones should provide easily accessible resting sites. Water temperatures of about 25-30 °C are fine, and a strong air-pump should agitate the water providing fresh air. A large water body keeps humidity at the required high level (controlled by water temperature and ventilation), reducing the need of extensive spraying. This type of container is also advantageous because the snakes can take a bath which Wagleris actually do occasionally, especially after shedding skin. Once a snake enters the water it usually starts defecating. Wagleris that are kept under such conditions do not show constipation. This setup also reflects the natural situation, as the snake is often found close to streams or in mangroves. Of course, such a setting requires an easily accessible water container, as regular changes of water are necessary.

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This beautifully coloured female is kept in a well arranged aqua-terrarium. Note that the snake is just resting above the water surface.

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Portrait of a cage suitable for large temple vipers (terrarium of Ewald Toenjes). Note the dense vegetation, the horizontically arranged branches and that the floor is covered with porous clay balls, which aid in maintaining high humidity. Containers like this one require additional ventilation by small fans, as air-flow may become stagnant under plants or in other places providing suitable conditions for pathogenic bacteria to grow. Needless to say that regular removal of decaying plant matter or snakes' feces is mandatory.

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Dense vegetation that prevents visual contact among vipers is helpful to avoid stress induced by territorial behaviour.

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Laboratory-bred mice or rats are the most convenient food items for feeding snakes. Most Wagler's vipers accept rodents right away, or can be adapted to that diet. However, some adult male and juvenile temple vipers notoriously reject rodents. If there are no lizards available, it must be clear that some specimens need regular forced or assisted-feeding sessions. More on that in the 'breeding' chapter. This is the point, where this poisonous snake cannot be recommended to an inexperienced person. Although lizards or frogs may be highly accepted by the snakes, wild-caught prey poses a health threat as it could contain pathogens. We have experienced losses due to infections acquired through geckos.

Adult males can be tricked to accept food items by provoking a bite. Warm up a dead mouse or rat in front of a light source, and tip the snake with this on the tail. After some time, the viper will strike, eventually keeping hold of the prey. Checking this out requires time. Patience is necessary. Needless to say that these activities are only successful during night time, or shortly after the light has been switched off.

Assisted feeding: one way to raise juveniles and feed adults in captivity. A piece of a newborn mouse (usually a leg or a tail) is gently placed into a juvenile's mouth, hoping that the animal starts swallowing by its own. Well, this is often not the case, then you have to repeat the whole thing. Once juveniles grow larger they start to accept this procedure by becoming less resistant. Be especially patient with males!

Forced feeding, i.e. massaging whole pieces down to the stomach, is not recommended. Better, a mouse is chopped up into pieces using a pinky pump and the resulting pulp is inoculated into the snake's oesophagus using a very soft silicon tube.

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Healthy adult females are usually good rodent eaters, but tend to become overfed. Offering a mouse or small rat every 3 or 4 weeks (or even longer periods) is sufficient, given the highly sedentary lifestyle of this snake. Birds are also well accepted, and probably reflect the natural diet of adult females. Females can keep feces for months (up tp 6 months may be possible). Then, certain measures should be taken to stimulate defecation. Placing the snake into a shallow water bath for some hours may help (aqua-terraria provide this opportunity every day). If the snake still refuses to release feces, a gentle massage towards the cloaca should do the job.

The size of the container also influences the constipation problem: Wagleris should be given ample space, meaning that once these rarely moving snakes actually become active they like to wander around which often triggers defecation. Small containers (e.g. equal to or shorter than the snake's head-to-tail length) clearly limit this ability. Males behave differently, as they usually defecate after each meal.

Due to the wide distribution of this species, populations differ considerably with regard to food preference and general behavior (because they probably represent different species; see chapter 'Taxonomy'). However, the two main climatic requirements mentioned above usually apply to all of them. Philippine (Luzon) male and female vipers and juveniles readily accept mice and are quite agressive during day and night. This is also true for animals from some locations in Borneo. Vipers from the Malayan peninsular, in contrast, are usually quite docile (at daylight only!) and reflect much of the 'typical Wagleri' known by the reptile hobbyist community. Sumatran populations are similar in coloration to the Malayan form, but are usually more aggressive than the latter. Anyhow, when the right prey is in sight and climatic conditions are favourable, any Wagler's viper stikes with enormous speed and power.