The Care and Keeping of Racers and Coachwhips
Can you imagine a large, attractive, rodent-eating snake (native to North America, no less) that hasn't had much impact on the pet trade? Amazingly enough, there are two - Coluber constrictor and Masticophis flagellum, the racer and coachwhip, respectively. These two species (some suggest they should be lumped together into a single genus) have received more degrading comments by "sophisticated" herpetoculturists than any other rodent-eating snakes.
The major gripes are that these are nervous snakes which can't adapt to captivity, and just don't tame down, biting at everything they see. Because this is a "family-friendly" web site, I won't tell you what I really think about these comments. Instead, I'll attempt to show that these beliefs are unfounded, and that these snakes can make satisfying captives (with some patience and common sense), while providing some husbandry tips that hopefully will be useful. At present I have a two northern black racers, a southern black racer, a western yellow-belly racer, an eastern coachwhip, and four western coachwhips.
First, are racers and coachwhips nervous snakes? Sure. There are, however, simple measures that can be taken to ensure that they remain calm. The key is to keep the cage away from flurried traffic. This does not mean you have to keep it away from all traffic or even keep the cage covered (as I've seen some people recommend). I keep all of my snakes in a single room that doesn't have much traffic, but it isn't solely a "snake room," so it is used fairly often by my family. I've seen my female coachwhip (in a stacked cage about 7 feet off the ground) peering down quite often, just watching to see what's going on. Most of my racers don't mind traffic at all, while some will adjust themselves by slipping under the newspaper substrate. Occasionally, an individual animal may strike at someone walking past, but that is usually when it's pre-shed and becoming irritable, or if it has been recent captured. I do suggest that if you don't use a newspaper substrate, you should place a hide-box within the cage.
When keeping racers, it's usually suggested that you keep them in relatively small cages (i.e. young ones in 10-gallon tanks, etc.) This seems to work, and may aid in taming the snakes down quicker. I will say this - if you are going to keep a racer, do it and yourself a favor and tame it - a nervous racer is going to be stressed out all the time, and it's just a matter of taking the time to tame it that will allow it to adjust to captivity. Anyway, smaller cages are also easier to clean - this is an important point in racer husbandry. Like a few other notorious snakes (like Indigos), racers can be messy. You will have to keep a sharp eye on them and clean the cages more often than you might other snakes.
Coachwhips are usually supposed to be kept in relatively larger cages. I'm not sure whether that's necessary, however. I keep my adult eastern coachwhip in a 3-foot melamine cages, but the westerns are in 3 foot "see-through" Sterlite brand boxes. I haven't had any problems with these setups.
Can these snakes adapt to captivity? I've had my northern black racer for about 4 years, and the others for varying period since then. All of my racers and coachwhips, except for the yellow-belly racer which is a new addition, eat thawed (previously frozen) mice. A few of them are downright pigs. I'm not going to say that every racer or coachwhip will be perfect feeders, though. I've had babies that refused to eat insects, rodents, fish, and lizard-scented foods. I've had adults that refused to eat, and a friend of mine had a coachwhip that would only eat lizards. That's when you have to hope that scenting tricks work. You'll just have to take the time to look up the native foods for your particular subspecies. With babies, you may have to force-feed. (Live rosy reds, the feeder fish, and waxworms work great to start.) Keep in mind that some adults will go on occasional fasts, especially prior to brumation.
I've heard it said that racers and coachwhips have to be fed more than other snakes due to a "high metabolism." As far as I've been able to tell, this isn't true for adults, though it may be true for younger snakes. I don't feed my adults any more than my other species, and they do fine.
I do brumate my healthy adults. These are all wild-caught animals, and have already become accustomed to brumating in the fall. I'll give it two or three months at around 55°F. For breeding, brumation is a necessity. Keep in mind, though, that wild-caught animals are subject to who-know-what kinds of bacteria and parasites. I lost a beautiful red western coachwhip during brumation a few years ago. I had only had it a month, and it wasn't feeding, so I decided to go ahead and brumate it. A month later I found it upside-down (not a good sign, for you novices out there). It still had good body-weight, and there were no apparent injuries, so I suspect that it had some sort of bacterial or viral infection. (By the way - ALWAYS maintain some sort of quarantine for a couple of months before placing these animals in your regular collection. These snakes are great mite-carriers.) I know that you can get your snakes "wormed" at your local vet (if he/she does reptiles), but there's not much they can do to prevent microbial problems. Just make sure the cages (and whatever the snakes brumate in) are kept dry and clean with good airflow. For some reason, racers seem particularly susceptible to blister disease. Contact a vet when that occurs.
Now, what about getting bit by a racer or coachwhip? I took one of my racers to a vet a while back. The vet immediately reached out to grab the snake, and I cringed as the racer turned around and nailed her on the hand. The vet seemed surprised and spent the next 5 minutes cleaning her hand with alcohol, iodine, and who-knows what else. First rule with working with these snakes: DON'T grab for their heads if you aren't wearing leather gloves. They don't like that. When picking up a snake from its cage, let it see you first. When a racer first spots movement coming towards it, there is an instinctive urge to bite. Once it sees you and recognizes that it's not in danger, that instinctive urge goes away. (Then you just have to contend with a snake that LIKES to bite. That's a different urge.) If it's a nervous snake, gently place a piece of newspaper over its head ("hooding" the snake) and pick up the body. If it hasn't been tamed down, use leather gloves. No big deal. Their teeth are small, and a bite really doesn't hurt. Occasionally, you'll get a "chewer," but that's not usually a problem. (A bite may bleed, but that's not what creates a "bad bite.") Coachwhips are a bit different - their tendency can be to bite and pull back, creating "rips." Fortunately, I've never been bitten by a coachwhip, though I've been bitten by racers several times with little problem. When you first get a new snake, spend at least 5 minutes a day for a week just to handle it with gloves. After a week of biting at the gloves, they generally stop and can be free-handed. If you handle them, don't grasp their body to keep them still - allow them to move freely, but under your control, by letting them slide through your hands. If you need to hold it still, slide one hand up to hold the neck and keep the other hand mid-body to keep it from twisting and stretching its neck.
I'm not going to say that you can tame down every single snake. There are snakes in every species that are untamable. But I will say that more often than not, those who complain about the snakes never really took the time to work with them.
Honestly, the griping about racers that bite is irrelevant, anyway. How many other snakes in the pet trade have a reputation for being unfriendly, but are still popular? Anyone heard of green tree pythons or reticulated pythons? Compare the size of an emerald tree boa's teeth to those of a coachwhip and tell me which you'd rather have bite you (Having been bitten by an emerald, I've got my own answer to that). That hasn't kept emeralds off most herper's wish lists.
I have to admit that I think these snakes are gorgeous. (Of course, I like snakes with an attitude.) A recent article in Reptile Hobbyist showed some of the variations of racers (that's about the only good thing I have to say about that article), and some of them are very pretty. I'm still looking for buttermilk racers. My eastern coachwhips are the envy of some of my friends (those that like snakes, anyway), and my northern black racer attracts quite a bit of attention at my local herp society's exhibits. (Doesn't hurt that it's Ohio's state reptile.)
A last word should be said about these snakes' intelligence. Many authors have mentioned that these snakes seem more alert and possibly more intelligent than most other snakes. There's a good story about a trained racer in Raymond Ditmars' The Reptiles of North America (Doubleday: 1945):
"After a few weeks in captivity, these snakes lose their nervousness and feed readily. They display rather more intelligence than do most serpents and will quickly learn to come to the hand that feeds them. The author once witnessed a remarkable performance on the part of a captive specimen. This snake had been captured more than a year. Taking the serpent from its glass-fronted cage, the owner placed it upon the floor, and taking a dead mouse by the tail, offered it to the snake, although he warily kept the rodent about a foot from the reptile's jaws. Holding the mouse the same distance from the snake, he retreated across the room, the shining creature following in graceful undulations, with head upraised. Up a ladder leading to a loft went the man, the snake ascending the rungs; and then describing a circle on the floor above, the man descended the ladder, the snake sliding after him. Once more in the room, he held the mouse some distance from the floor, shaking it vigorously in one hand, while with the other he reached for his pet, which ,quickly climbing to the coveted mouse, seized and began swallowing it while yet in the master's hands. Throughout the entire performance the snake displayed nothing but eagerness for the mouse - and no fear of the actions of the man."
Anyone want to try that with their Burmese? My female N. black racer will occasionally "play" with a dead mouse by whipping it around the cage, and carrying it from one side to the other before settling down and eating it.
Surprisingly, (or not) I've met a number of herpers, some fairly well known, who have enjoyed keeping racers or coachwhips. I wonder why they haven't bothered to try breeding them? Most of the problems associated with these snakes would disappear with captive-born offspring. This is a good opportunity for those of you looking for a new project. The field is wide open.
Hatching Note for Masticophis taeniatus
I acquired a female Striped Whipsnake in the early part of June of 1997. On June 26, I found three eggs in the cage, and immediately placed them in an incubator. The eggs were incubated at approximately 80°F until two eggs hatched on August 29, and the third hatched on August 30. This was a total incubation time of 64 and 65 days, respectively. All three snakes were healthy, immediately flicking out their tongues and within moments attacked my fingers.