Hand-Feeding Wild Water Snakes

Tim Jones, a retired zoo director, has been hand-feeding the Diamond-backed Water Snakes (Nerodia rhombifer) that live in his private pond. The snakes have become so habituate to his presence that they’re comfortable taking food off his tongs. It doesn’t hurt that water snakes are rather food-motivated (which is a polite way of saying they’re extreme gluttons). You’ll note in the above video, along with shorter videos here and here, that they’re strongly directed by scent: if your fingers or pants smell like fish, it is by snake reasoning fish. Nom.

Now, Jones points out that this is a pond on private property; feeding wild animals is usually a no-no for very good reasons. You’d think that there would be little harm in habituating water snakes to human contact, or having them associate humans with food, and in a perfect world there wouldn’t be. It’s just that very few people would see an approaching water snake as friendly. Thwack. The end.

Some people might be surprised at the idea of tame water snakes, but I’m not. At one point, as some of you may remember, I kept three of them: two Banded Water Snakes (Nerodia fasciata) and a Northern Water Snake (N. sipedon), the latter under a provincial licence. They had insanely voracious appetites, but they were no less tame than any of my other snakes, and I put them to use in educational displays, where they wigged out people who believed water snakes were aggressive.

Basically, they’re just big garter snakes.

But mine were all born in captivity. That matters. It’s not reasonable to expect a wild animal to be friendly or tame: most will assume that a creature a hundred times their size is a threat to them. A snake has no idea that people are scared of it, or that being friendly and non-threatening toward people is a reasonable survival strategy. That’s counterintuitive.

Wild water snakes are bitey because they’re large enough for it to be a worthwhile defence strategy; smaller snakes of the same family, like brown and red-bellied snakes (Storeria), never bite, because there’s no point in doing so. Garter snakes are somewhere in between: some do, some don’t — it depends on the species, the individual and the circumstances.