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Keeping Snakes in Naturalistic Terrariums


Natural Snake ExhibitIn 1969, Carl Kauffeld introduced a generation of budding herpetologists to snake-keeping with his wonderful classic Snakes: The Keeper and the Kept. In it he laid out the basic principals that had yielded him decades of success while curator of the well-known reptile collection at New York City’s Staten Island Zoo – simple, easily cleaned enclosures that provide a secure retreat and basking site. Such became, and largely remains, the standard approach to snake-keeping in the USA.

European zookeepers and hobbyists, by contrast, favor planted, naturalistic exhibits, and it was to these I gravitated. Although not nearly as easy to maintain as bare cages, for certain snakes I find complex terrariums to be a very worthwhile undertaking.

Possible Pitfalls
Cleanliness and the control of excess moisture and parasites can be major concerns…one of my first mistakes involved keeping a banded watersnake in a filtered aqua-terrarium. The animal was not able to dry off sufficiently, and developed blisters. Then Bronx Zoo curator Wayne King (imagine the curator of a major reptile department personally answering a 10 year-old’s letter today!) suggested some changes, and the snake recovered.

Candidates for Naturalistic Terrariums
In my experience, small species are the best to start with when attempting naturalistic snake terrariums. Such animals are easier on plants and decorations, and secretive snakes really do seem much more “at home” in captive habitats that offer numerous burrowing and hiding opportunities.

DeKay’s (brown) snakes do wonderfully in forest-themed tanks, and often breed readily. Other favorites of mine include smooth and keeled green, garter, ribbon, ring-necked, red-bellied and tentacled snakes.

Larger species are more easily maintained in simple set-ups, especially if space is limited, but there are still some possibilities. Watersnakes will bask on branches over-hanging a pool, just as in the wild, and corn and various ratsnakes will utilize just about every bit of cage furniture provided. Shy or high-strung arboreal species, such as green tree pythons and Cook’s tree boas, also favor well-planted terrariums perched with natural tree branches.

The Staten Island Zoo’s Reptile House Today
In an odd twist of fate, I recently had the opportunity to help plan the complete renovation of Mr. Kauffeld’s amazing building. Having grown up near to and in awe of the man and the institution, it was quite an odd feeling, to say the least. I set up naturalistic exhibits for nearly all of the snakes, but a re-creation of Mr. Kauffeld’s office holds a number of terrariums set up as he would have wanted. I sincerely hope he approves! Please visit if you have a chance…I would greatly appreciate your comments.

Please Note: some of the photos accompanying this article feature venomous snakes. These are presented as illustrations of terrarium set-ups that might be useful for animals from similar habitats, not as an inducement to keep venomous snakes at home. Venomous snakes should never, under any circumstances, be held in captivity outside of a professionally managed scientific institution.


Many zoos use complex exhibits as a means of providing behavioral stimulation to snakes. Read more at:


  1. avatar

    Dear Mr Indiviglio
    My son has a corn snake, which I have adopted while he goes off to university. He and his father built a terrarium from an old display case, 6’x2’x2.5′. They built a raised area for one hide at one end and filled it with wood chips and another hide at the warm end, reptile bark in the middle, and course gravel at the end with the raised area. On the raised area is spaghnum moss we mist daily to keep the humidity up. A heat lamp is kept on 24 hours/day October-April and a plant grow lamp is kept on 12-16 hours/day year-round. I have placed a few plants in there as follows:
    coffee, three types of dracenea, china doll, parlor palm, some kind of spineless cactus, and another trailing plant whose name I cannot remember. This is the one I’m having trouble with.

    Last fall I decided the plants had been in there for a year and needed fertilizing (I wish I had contacted you then…). I didn’t want anything that would harm the snake and decided Knox Gelatine would be best. Soon after, that wonderful little yellow fungus showed up on the dirt of the above-mentioned nameless plant. As long as it stayed on the dry side, no problem, and all was well. Then this year I decided we needed to replace the moss, it had been allowed to dry out too many times and was getting sparser and sparser. I had a little more than I needed and used the extra to cover the dirt in each plant pot, thinking that would mean I didn’t have to water as often. Right away, the next morning after I watered everything, this wonderful yellow stuff turned into a mushroom. I removed it and thought, good, it has exposed itself and now it’s gone for good. I’m sure you already know the outcome of that…

    So, I have now three questions:
    1. What can I do to get rid of this yellow mushroom? Or do I need to bother? I’m more worried about the snake than about the plant, and I will remove it if necessary.
    2. What can I use in future to fertilize my plants that won’t hurt the snake? (or grow mushrooms)
    3. Is the plant grow light good enough for my snake or does he need the proper uva/uvb reptile light? (we just switched over last month cuz having a hard time finding the reptile light in our small town)

    • avatar

      Dear Ms. Pinske,

      Frank Indiviglio here. Thanks for your interest in our blog.

      You are yours are to be commended…an enclosure of that size and complexity is quite an undertaking, and just what the snake needs. You can allow the temperature to dip a bit during the winter if you wish, but such is not absolutely necessary.

      The spores of mushrooms and other fungi are amazingly adaptable. They are, quite literally, everywhere, just waiting an opportunity (conveniently supplied in your case by moisture and nutrients!) to show themselves. Some can remain dormant for years.

      I find it quite interesting that the mushrooms are doing so well in your terrarium…often people who try to cultures them in amphibian terrariums run into difficulties. No need to worry about the snake – the fungi that attack snakes are fairly specialized, and usually secondary to an injury or other problem. However, do watch that the snake has an opportunity to dry out…if confined to an overly-damp enclosure it can develop skin blisters and other problems. Some dampness is fine, as long as the snake basks and is able to stay dry.

      Any sort of fertilizer or organic material that is in the terrarium can likely serve as food for the mushrooms, although there are some specialists. Typical household fertilizers are often safe to use with snakes (but not with amphibians). If you would like to be extra cautious, you can use Flora Pride Aquatic Plant Food at half the strength recommended on the label for aquatic plants. I like to a mix few dead leaves or leaf mulch and, for certain plants, coffee grounds, into the soil as well.

      Corn snakes do not require UVB as far as we know (a few species, such as keeled green snakes, may) but full spectrum lighting (containing all wavelengths) is a good choice where snakes and plants are kept together. UVA is becoming recognized as important in promoting natural behavior, reproduction and good health – not critical to corn snake survival, but useful. The best bulb for a planted snake (or amphibian/tarantula) terrarium is the Zoo Med Reptisun 2.0. It provides UVA and low levels of UVB. We can easily ship one to you if you are unable to locate a local source.

      I hope this has been of use…good luck, enjoy and please keep me posted on your progress and that of your mushrooms (and snake, of course!).

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  2. avatar

    sorry, hit enter accidentally. I wanted to finish off by saying thank you so much for keeping a blog so newbies like me have a place to find educated help they can trust. 🙂

    • avatar

      Hello Ms. Pinske,

      Frank Indiviglio here.

      So nice of you to take the time to end with those kind words, much appreciated.

      Please keep me posted, and be in touch if you need any further information.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  3. avatar

    Hi there,Frank Indiviglio.Had a question for you,wasn’t sure where to post it(months ago we spoke of isopds as turtle food)Anyways,I am caring for two juvenile Blandings turtles housed in a 4ft.length 2.5ft.height and 2.5ft.width enclosure,two days ago i caught an Eastern Garter snake(1.5ft.)and placed him in the enclosure with the Blandings.The snake has been on the land portion of the set-up.The turtles have been in the water section. Is this a good idea to keep them all in the same enclosure? Have you heard of this?I really appreciate any comments!
    Scott Cannon

    • avatar

      Hello Scott, Frank Indiviglio here. Nice to hear from you again.

      It is not a good idea to house a garter snake with Blanding’s (or any) turtle. Several amoebas and other micro-organisms that inhabit the intestinal tract of most turtles (usually without incident) nearly always cause fatal infections when they become established in snakes (usually via shared drinking/swimming water). We learned this the hard way in zoos…turtles used in mixed exhibits these days must be carefully monitored.

      Although your enclosure is quite large…ideal for raising the turtles, it would be stressful for the snake to be housed that close to these active creatures. Also, the turtles will eventually latch onto the snake when it enters the water. Even young ones are capable of inflicting injuries….fatal ones as they increase in size.

      Please let me know if you need advice on setting up a terrarium for the garter snake. Wild-caught adults tend to remain high strung for a time, but they make otherwise fine captives…easy to feed, and can be kept in either a simple or planted enclosure.

      Good luck and please keep me posted.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  4. avatar

    Hi Frank,
    Ended up letting the Garter go in the backyard where it was found,no sense in letting the little guy get sick and die.He seemed like a great snake.There isn’t much room here for another terrarium set-up.That is why he was going to be kept with the Blanding’s turtles.I appreciate and trust your advice on this subject.
    Thank You Very Much!

    • avatar

      Hello Scott, Frank Indiviglio here.

      Thanks very much for the update and vote of confidence. You made the right choice – I wish more people acted in such a responsible manner!

      Good luck with your turtles, please keep me posted.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  5. avatar

    Thought you’d like to see a pic of the snake and terrarium you helped me with a while ago:


    There are more pics there, and I will send you the link of the album if you’re interested.

    • avatar

      Hello Laurel, Frank Indiviglio here.

      Nice to hear from you again….thanks very much for sending the photo. It looks like
      you have done a fine job. Hopefully other snake enthusiast will be inspired – so few keep snakes in planted terrariums these days.

      40 C (104 F)!! – It has been a cold, wet spring and summer here in NY…I’m sure the snake is looking for a cool spot!

      Yes, please send the link for other photos when you have a moment, thanks.

      Good luck and please keep me posted.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  6. avatar

    well, we haven’t quite hit 40 yet, just threats! 😀 We had a winter that never seemed to end, so no locals are complaining about the heat this year.
    Here are the rest of the pics posted to facebook:

    Totally forgot, part of the reason I took that first pic I sent you was because when I was misting the plants I didn’t know he was there and misted him as well. He didn’t seem to mind, and I was wondering if he might actually enjoy it?

    Thanks again for the great support.
    Laurel 🙂

    • avatar

      Hello Laurel, Frank Indiviglio here.

      Thanks for sending the photos. As long as he has an opportunity out dry out, misting the snake is fine.

      Good luck, enjoy and please keep me posted.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  7. avatar

    I thought I should reassure you about his being able to dry out! 🙂 We live in a desert, and it is all I can do to keep the spaghnum moss moist. I must mist it daily. The temperature did hit 40C and our humidity is rarely over 30% even outside after the sprinklers have been on all night. The entire top of his terrarium is covered by two hinged particle board doors that are too heavy for him to lift, and that also soak up a lot of moisture. I can tell when I’ve got the humdity right, apart from the little gauge on the glass, when the corner by the couch has lifted enough for me to see in. So, result is lots of air flow, impossible size for a five-foot snake to escape through, and no possibility of too much humidity in the rest of the enclosure. Plus, when I sit down at my computer, I get the added advantage of that lovely smell of a well-balanced and healthy eco-system. 🙂 Thanks again for your valuable advice!

    • avatar

      Hello Laurel, Frank Indiviglio here.

      Thanks for the feedback; sounds like all is well.

      Here in NY we’ve had the wettest, coolest spring/summer on record…I have to use Lysol to remove mold from things stored in my basement, despite running a de-humidifier, so moisture is on my mind these days!

      Good luck and please keep me posted.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  8. avatar

    Hi Frank!

    I’ve kept amphibians for the past two years and am in the process of switching them over to more of a vivarium setting (i.e. with live plants). I just took on a young (~1-1.25 ft), speckled kingsnake (L. getula holbrooki), and was hoping to do the same thing with her. However, I’m concerned that my current set up wont be the best for her. Let me describe the set up: A 10 gallon tank (for now) with a 1 in. drainage layer, ~4 in. of soil, and then a thin layer of bark chips. I’ve got a lycopod growing in the corner and a water bowl next to it. On the side opposite the lycopod is part of a plant pot that I intended her to use as a warm hide and basking spot. The side with the lycopod provides a cooler hide out. I’m concerned because she burrows into the soil and I doubt that I’ll ever see her! She is shy and not used to being handled, but she doesn’t strike. It has only been her first day in the tank, but if this isn’t the best set up for her, I want to fix it so that I can then leave her be to get used to her new surroundings. I was considering taking out everything, having a shallow bark chip substrate, putting plants in pots, and giving her ample hides that I could more easily check. Would that be a better set up?

    • avatar

      Hello Jen, Frank Indiviglio here.

      Thanks for your interest in our blog. The basic set up sounds about right, but it is easier, when first setting up a new snake, to keep it as you are considering – a bit simpler (some snakes, such as Smooth Green Snakes, need “complicated” habitats right away, but kings do fine as you describe in your last sentence). This will allow you to monitor feeding and behavior, so that you’ll know the snake well before moving her into another type of enclosure. If you plan on handling the snake, it’s usually easier to start off in a simple terrarium; with substrate, you’ll need to dig the animal out often, which may upset the snake and slow down the process of adjustment to captivity and handling.

      Also, even for small snakes, a larger terrarium is better suited for plants and substrate; in a small tank, its difficult to balance the plant’s needs with the snakes – substrate may easily become too wet, for example.

      Good luck, enjoy and please keep me posted.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  9. avatar

    I forgot to add that I have a good basking lamp that gets her basking spot into the low 90s.

    • avatar

      Hello Jen,

      The basking temperature is fine, but keep in mind that in a 10 gallon terrarium you may wind up with that temperature throughout (take temperatures on the cool side to check). A larger, longer tank would allow you to keep 90 F at one end and 75-80 at the other.

      If you need to stay with the 10 gallon, you might try using an elevated basking site – by raising it closer to the bulb, you’ll be able to cut back on the wattage and possible lower the temperature on the non-basking side.

      Good luck and please keep me posted.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  10. avatar

    Thanks for the quick reply! I was already beginning to think that I needed to follow my gut and simplify the tank, especially because it stresses me out to have to dig her out. I like your tips, especially the elevated basking site idea. I’m also a fan of the idea of raised hides (where you can bend down and kind of see into the hide, but its still small enough to let the snake feel secure). I’ll get to work on it as soon as I can and will definitely keep you posted.

    On a side note, I’ve read that it’s best to give them a few days to adjust to a new tank before trying to handle them? My goal for this snake is that she not only live comfortably and that I have the opportunity to interact with her, but that she also serve as a teaching animal.

    Thanks again!

    • avatar

      Hello Jen,

      Thanks for the feedback and kind words. Yes, let the snake settle in a bit; good species choice for an education animal, and definitely better in a simpler setup when using for teaching and such.

      Once you’ve worked with her awhile you may be able to experiment with a planted tank f you want.

      Good luck, enjoy and please keep me posted.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

About Frank Indiviglio

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Being born with a deep interest in animals might seem unfortunate for a native Bronxite , but my family encouraged my interest and the menagerie that sprung from it. Jobs with pet stores and importers had me caring for a fantastic assortment of reptiles and amphibians. After a detour as a lawyer, I was hired as a Bronx Zoo animal keeper and was soon caring for gharials, goliath frogs, king cobras and everything in-between. Research has taken me in pursuit of anacondas, Orinoco crocodiles and other animals in locales ranging from Venezuela’s llanos to Tortuguero’s beaches. Now, after 20+ years with the Bronx Zoo, I am a consultant for several zoos and museums. I have spent time in Japan, and often exchange ideas with zoologists there. I have written books on salamanders, geckos and other “herps”, discussed reptile-keeping on television and presented papers at conferences. A Master’s Degree in biology has led to teaching opportunities. My work puts me in contact with thousands of hobbyists keeping an array of pets. Without fail, I have learned much from them and hope, dear readers, that you will be generous in sharing your thoughts on this blog and web site. For a complete biography of my experience click here.
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