Feeding a venomous snake mice

A biologist holds a six-month-old red-tail boa constrictor

A biologist holds a six-month-old red-tail boa constrictor on exhibit at the Butantan Institute in Sao Paulo, Brazil. (Sept. 29, 2008) (Credit: AP)

Q: We have a male red-tail boa. He's almost 2 years old. He's very docile. Originally, my husband and son fed him frozen mice. Then, about a year ago, they started feeding him live mice. I would like to know if you can go back to feeding frozen mice after he's become used to live mice. --Laura Sherwood, Madison, Ohio

A: Definitely go back to giving him pre-killed mice that were frozen. There are very few species of snakes that will eat a mouse that is still alive. A venomous snake will bite a mouse and then wait for it to die and a constricting snake will suffocate a mouse and then also wait for it to die. They do not eat it until the mouse is motionless and cold. So feeding snakes mice that have already been humanely killed is not unnatural at all.

Even in the wild, these snakes would have eaten a mouse that was dead already. In addition to it being much more humane for the mouse, there is less of a chance of the snake getting bitten.

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In the wild, snakes are ambush predators. They lay in wait and strike while the prey is unaware of the snake's presence. When you put a live mouse or rat in an enclosure with a snake, that rodent knows what is happening and the snake has lost the element of surprise. Many vets have been forced to treat pet snakes for bites inflicted by rodents. So, if you stop feeding your snake the live mice, it is a win-win situation.

Q: My son and daughter-in-law use a shock collar to control their very active pit bull. I feel it is wrong to give jolts to control the dog. Yes, they should do something to control him, but I feel it's an easy way out. Is it abuse to do it that way? --Ted Jonak, Minneapolis

A: A shock collar does not shock a dog. I have put them on my own neck and pressed the button on many different models, and it is more of a surprise than a shock. Smoke never came out of my ears or anything. It was more like the charge you get when you rub your shoes on a rug and then touch something metal.

So a shock collar is a tool more than a torture device -- but like any other tool, it must be used correctly. When training a dog, the whole idea is to keep its attention focused on the trainer. Treats, clickers and praise are among many different things that get dogs' attention, but there are some high-energy dogs that react faster than they think. These dogs are the ones shock collars work best on.

Years back, I had an adult male Cairn terrier foisted on me. This dog had lived in a barn and was a great killer of vermin. When he moved in with us, he had to live in a suburban home that had bunnies and ferrets roaming about at will as well as ducks and chickens wandering in the backyard. The dog was convinced that all these animals were there for the killing. A shock collar was the only way I could get his attention off killing the smaller animals when he was stalking them. When the collar stopped him and he looked at me, heard my call and saw I was holding a piece of cheese, it took no time at all for him to realize that when he got called away from the prey animals, a good thing was going to happen to him.

So you see, the collar was not to punish the dog -- merely to get his attention. It actually worked so well that in two weeks, the dog would allow the chickens to walk up to his dish while he was eating and share his meal.

Q: To my surprise, when I went out to get my newspaper early this morning, I saw a mallard duck and his lady walking around the neighboring lawns. He dutifully followed her as she wandered, and the only time I heard them was when she ventured into the road and he quacked at her from the shoulder. When I checked again shortly after, they were gone. Were they hungry, thirsty, injured? Any suggestions as to what I should do, if anything, if I am privileged enough to see these waterfowl again? --Rosanna Dev, Islandia

A: Actually, they were house hunting without a real estate agent. Ducks have a pecking order. The females that have the highest status get the pick of the best nesting sites. The best sites are the ones closest to a pond or lake so that ducklings can be safely and quickly led to it right after they hatch.

The lower-ranking ducks are forced to seek out nesting areas in less-than-perfect spots, and this is what those two were doing.

Female mallards in such a situation will be forced to choose a nest under a shrub or a secluded corner far from a pond. They are so secretive about laying their eggs there and incubating them that nobody ever knows there is a duck nest under their juniper bush.

When the eggs hatch, however, the mother duck is stuck with 10 or 12 ducklings in an area far from a natural body of water. That causes all sorts of drama. The mother does her best to lead the ducklings to a pond on foot, but there are fences, roads, storm drains and swimming pools along the way, and the ducklings get trapped by all of these obstacles.

If there is no pond or lake in a direct line from your neighborhood and you see her walking around like that again, the best thing you can do is to gently shoo her away so she looks for a better area to lay her eggs to prevent problems on the day the ducklings hatch.

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