Last month I had the opportunity to encounter some Blue Racers in captivity. They’re one of the many prides and joys of the Scales Nature Park, a small zoo just south of Orillia, Ontario, that focuses on Canadian reptile, amphibian and fish conservation. I’ve known the owner/operator for nearly 15 years.
Racers (Coluber constrictor) are interesting snakes: they’re fast, diurnal, visually oriented, and eat just about anything that moves. But they’re hardly ever kept in captivity, mostly because in addition to the above, they have a reputation for being extremely and repeatedly bitey. Which is kind of a disincentive (not that it’s ever stopped people keeping tree boas, but that’s a different story). I don’t necessarily have a problem with that: there are hundreds of kinds of snakes that would make better captives; keep one of those instead.
But captive racers can serve a useful purpose by assisting in their own conservation. While racers are fairly common snakes in the United States, they’re at risk in Canada.1 Snake conservation benefits from positive encounters from living animals. (For example, I used to have a tame water snake that I used to great effect with people who were terrified of encountering water snakes at the cottage.) It’s helpful to — I was going to say humanize, but that’s not right — at least put a face to the animal we’re trying to protect, and to do it with as many people as possible. Especially if the animal’s protected status has land-use implications: Blue Racers won’t be helped if the only people who ever see them have had their property values trashed by the snakes’ presence.
Of course, if said living animal tries to eat the face of every human being it meets, it’s not doing a lot of good for its own PR. Fortunately, the Scales Nature Park racers are mind-blowingly tame. (I don’t remember how they did it, but often it just requires effort, patience and indifference to pain. Having a snake that was bred or born in captivity helps: even corn snakes can be nasty little monsters in the wild.)
What’s it like to handle a racer?
First, keep in mind that despite their scientific name, racers are not constrictors. They don’t hold on like a ball python or a corn snake;2 they slide through your hands like a garter snake. Holding an active garter snake requires you to go hand over hand as it slides through your fingers. With a racer you’re doing the same thing, only faster. Much faster.
Because while racers might not live up to their Latin name, they sure as hell live up to their English vernacular name. Racers operate at higher temperatures than other snake species; when a racer’s warmed up, it’s like trying to hang on to an engine’s accessory belt at speed. Basically, take the quickest garter snake you’ve ever met, double its length, and replace its rough scales with smooth scales. Now add a turbocharger. Hang on, but don’t squeeze (remember, it doesn’t have a constrictor’s muscle tone).
And this is with a tame snake; a wild snake will be doing all that all while trying to make interesting red marks on your nose. If you encounter a racer in the wild, hope for cooler temperatures.
Anyway, it was a fascinating experience, quite different from other snakes I’ve encountered. I’ve always been interested in racers, but didn’t think I’d ever keep one, so I was grateful for the opportunity. (Here’s a page about keeping them in captivity, if you’re interested.)
Oh, and one more thing: they had baby Blue Racers:
(Yes, they look different as hatchlings. The other thing about diurnal snakes is that a side effect of being visually oriented is being extremely cute. Even when biting you in the face. Which again, these snakes weren’t.)