Snakes alive: research is vital to keep your scaly friend happy and healthy

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 July, 2011, 12:00am


Fung Wai-yuk remembers standing outside her Lantau house when she was five and hearing her aunt scream. She looked down and noticed a green bamboo snake was trying to crawl up her leg. Within seconds, Fung's father appeared and grabbed the venomous reptile before any harm was done.

'From what I remember, my dad and aunt thought I was very scared, but actually I wasn't at all,' Fung says. Instead of killing the snake, her father kept it as a pet to ensure Fung always felt comfortable around these slithering reptiles.

'When I was growing up, you used to see snakes around all the time,' she recalls. 'I would try to catch birds in the trees and, many times, I would find a snake instead. Or sometimes, I would just put my hand in the crevasse of a rock and try to pull out a snake.'

As a teenager, Fung used to help pythons cross the road. 'After a snake eats, it gets very lazy and lies on the road in the sun,' she says. 'I knew if a car drove past it would be killed. So, I would move it.'

Fung still loves snakes and owns a python named Snake-fee. She continues to teach her seven-year-old son, Toby, and 12-year-old daughter, Natasha, to respect and enjoy the rat-eating reptile.

Veterinarian Paul Essey, of Hong Kong Vet Services, says one of the biggest misconceptions about snakes is that they will bite you. 'If they don't see you as an aggressor and don't perceive you as a threat then, if you leave them alone, they will leave you alone,' he says.

The number of people in Hong Kong who are bitten is 'almost non-existent' and the number of fatalities from snake bites is 'practically zero', he adds.

An exception is the anaconda, which is naturally aggressive, according to the veterinarian. There are 14 venomous snake species in Hong Kong, including the Chinese cobra, king cobra, pit viper, bamboo snake and mountain pit snake, Essey says. Only six of the venomous species live on land while the rest call the sea their home.

If you are thinking about keeping a snake as a pet, Essey advises against it, saying many owners don't know how to take care of them properly.

'If a person is keeping a pet snake, as with most reptiles, turtles and geckos, 99 per cent of problems are related to husbandry,' he explains. 'Most of the time, people don't know what environment to keep them in, what is the correct food and other things like lighting.'

In addition, for those who are interested in picking up a snake from a pet shop, Essey recommends potential owners research whether or not the species is endangered. Most likely, rare ones have been smuggled into Hong Kong illegally, having been snatched from the wild, he says.

According to Essey, some common health problems include a bacterial infection in the mouth from a dirty environment; blister disease, which is blisters under the skin; and contacting mites. 'If owners just fix the husbandry issues, like how to feed them, what to feed and keep tanks clean, all of these problems are treatable and can be easily avoided.

'Most of the time, whenever we see a snake it's because the owner isn't properly looking after it, but there is so much information on the internet [about snake husbandry], all you need to do is search for a few hours.'

The most common species in Hong Kong, Essey says, are bald pythons, king snakes, corn snakes, milk snakes and Burmese pythons, the latter of which can grow to four or five metres long. From these species, the python is the easiest to feed. It needs to be fed on mice or hamsters, once or twice a week.

David Willott has been bitten hundreds of times by snakes, but only five times by venomous species. The professional snake catcher, based in Sai Kung, receives about 50 calls a year to remove snakes from populated areas. 'There are reports of snakes, but they are mostly gone by the time police get there,' Willott says.

'There are probably about 50 species in Hong Kong, but maybe only seven to eight are dangerous. Most bites are from Bamboo Snakes, but their venom is not usually lethal.'