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Basic racer and coachwhip care

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Posted by: 53kw at Fri Aug 10 19:52:31 2007  [ Report Abuse ] [ Email Message ] [ Show All Posts by 53kw ]  

The first racer I cared for was a wild caught animal from Long Island, where I grew up. The racer was a Northern Black Racer, about 30 inches long. I kept it in a 20 gallon aquarium with a screen lid and a small incandescent bulb for heat in winter. This animal was not brumated. From shortly after capture, it fed readily on live small mice, and lived for several years with little growth. It never developed any skin disease, and it remained nervous when handled.

Many years later, I now have a small shop outfitted with some basic power tools and I can produce my own reptile enclosures. I provide full-spectrum light, including UV light, for all captive herps, including snakes. Among other species, I keep a few Western Coachwhips, which I have had since they hatched in captivity, wild-caught Eastern Coachwhips, and currently several captive-hatched Black Racers less than one month old.

Additionally, a few months ago, I acclimated a pair of Blue Racers (Coluber constrictor foxi) for an acquaintance who has since accepted them for public exhibit.

Currently, racers and coachwhips in my care are housed in large enclosures. Mature (4-5 foot and larger) animals are maintained in 72 inch long cages that are 26 inches deep and 12 inches high. The cages are lit with fluorescent bulbs including at least one full-spectrum daylight bulb with a color temperature of at least 6500K and a Color Rendering Index of at least 80. My favorite bulb for this use is by Lumichrome, which has a temperature of 6800K and a CRI of 98. For a UV source, I use a 15 watt Reptisun 10.0 UV bulb, either T8 or compact. Only one UV bulb is placed in each enclosure, at one end, to allow the animals to move to the other end and escape the UV light if they prefer.

At one end of each enclosure there is an incandescent bulb providing a hot spot for basking. A vent in the side wall of the enclosure at this end allows for air to be forcibly drawn from the cage by an axial fan mounted on the outside of the vent. A passive vent on the far end of the cage allows replacement air to enter as the air is vented through the fan. The vent fan pulls heated air from the air column below the bulb, giving the animals access to radiant heat with no collateral heating of the air in the cage. I find that the animals bask daily, and spend considerable time either basking or active. The cage away from the basking spot remains cool. The basking spot reaches temperatures of 90-95 degrees while the rest of the cage maintains temps in the upper 70s. Racers and coachwhips have among the highest voluntary thermal preferences of any North American snakes, willingly self-selecting conditions that can bring their body temperatures into the upper 90s.

Juvenal racers are housed in 10 gallon aquaria with UV and daylight bulbs plus spot bulbs to provide warm basking sites. Hatchling Black Racers accept lizards, small frogs and small snakes as food for the first several meals, then seem to broaden their menu to include live pink mice. Some will take live pink mice right away. Although the literature mentions insects such as grasshoppers and crickets as food items for hatchling racers and coachwhips, I have never had any of my hatchlings eat a cricket or grasshopper.

Substrates are typically Cypress mulch or forest mulch with no added soil conditioners like Perlite or Vermiculite (it should be noted that Vermiculite is a very dangerous form of Tremolite Asbestos, and is best avoided in any use). An acquaintance who has sufficient resources to conduct clinical investigations has mentioned that when small numbers of snakes are kept on a mix of forest mulch and sand, bacteria in the bedding process waste and act as a biological filter, requiring only spot cleaning of stools and complete bedding changes two or three times per year. So far, I continue to use Cypress mulch or forest mulch and change bedding five or six times per year. Because the basking bulb dries out the bedding, I add some water to the substrate occasionally, being careful to produce a trace of moisture without creating a damp environment, as racers and coachwhips are susceptible to skin diseases, which are easier to control in a dry environment. Adult coachwhips and racers do not require much moisture in their substrate, and can be kept quite dry. Always have a water dish with clean water in the cage.

Recently caught racers and coachwhips may be uncomfortable with their captivity and may even feel threatened by confinement. Often, they start feeding on small mice or fuzzy mice for the first meal or several meals. Once they decide to feed, I find that wc coachwhips often accept defrosted mice placed at one end of the snakes hiding place. Partly shielding the basking area with brush or twiggy branches helps the snake feel concealed while basking. If a coachwhip or racer will bask, its native high metabolism combined with the heat will make it hungry in short order. In time, many racers and coachwhips accept killed prey off tongs, although some never lose their fear of the forceps. Although, as mentioned, some will accept motionless dead prey, it is common for captive snakes to prefer the dead prey be wiggled while held in the forceps to stimulate a feeding response. Racers and coachwhips are sight hunters and often show little enthusiasm for feeding by scent. I have found that before long, captive snakes will come to the front panel of their enclosure to see if the keeper has any food, and can recognize food being prepared for delivery (being held in forceps while the cage is opened, for example). Once acclimated, racers and coachwhips often eat frequently compared to other kinds of snakes, accepting meals every 2-5 days depending on the relative size of the meal.

The behavior of captive racers and coachwhips reminds me of the behavior of birds. It may be that these snakes possess intelligence equivalent to that of small birds, although it is difficult to evaluate the intelligence of a creature that does not respond to enticements that could be used to provide incentive to overcome intellectual challenges, a standard technique for intelligence testing. Whether intelligent or equipped with an extensive suite of complex instincts, racers and coachwhips are fascinating animals to keep and observe. With their needs for space and security, they are more of a commitment than some other species, but well worth the effort.


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