Captive Care of the American Copperheads

by Lenny Flank


One of the most interesting and beautiful of the North American snakes is the Copperhead. Long a subject of folklore and myth, and known by names such as "Chunkhead", "Pilot" and "Highland Moccasin", the Copperhead is a widely misunderstood snake that can make a fascinating addition to a herper's collection.

A word of warning, though. Copperheads are NOT for inexperienced snake keepers. Keeping venomous snakes (in herper's parlance, a venomous snake is known as a "hot" snake) requires absolute concentration and attention which cannot waver for even an instant. No one is immune to the single momentary lapse which leads to disaster. In fact, a significant portion of all the snakebites reported in the US are the result of accidents while handling a captive snake.

Whenever someone asks me about keeping a venomous snake, I always respond by telling the potential keeper to first obtain a large aggressive nonvenomous snake such as a Water Snake or Coachwhip--something really mean and nasty--and keep it for a year. Feed it, change its water and clean its cage regularly. Every time the snake gets one of its teeth in you, write yourself a note saying "I could be dead right now, and if I survive I'll owe the hospital $30,000-plus", and tape it to your snake cage. After a year, decide if you really want to keep a dangerously venomous snake.

In some areas,"de-venomed" or "venomoid" snakes are available. These are venomous species such as cobras, vipers and rattlesnakes, which have been surgically altered by a veterinarian, usually by removing the venom sacs completely, but sometimes by making a small slit in the side of the snake's cheek and severing the duct leading from the snake's venom sac to the fang. This has the effect of rendering that particular snake incapable of injecting its venom.

Since the venom is a part of the snake's digestive process, this process of devenoming can have a serious impact on the snake's health. In general, vipers and pit vipers, which depend on their hemotoxic venom to break down body tissues for digestion, do not tolerate the operation very well, and many de-venomed viperids will stubbornly refuse to eat and die within months.

My own opinion is that the only justification I can see for surgically altering a venomous snake is when the animal is to be used for educational purposes (lectures and talks), where safety considerations and insurance problems can make using hot snakes impractical or undesirable. No snake should ever be surgically altered just to make a "pet" out of it.

If you absolutely must have a venomous snake (for use in educational exhibits and shows, for instance) and have the proper training and experience to handle one, it is best to start with those species which do not have very powerful venom and which normally do not threaten human life. These would include the Copperheads, a group of American pit vipers in the genus Agkistrodon. Although bites from these serpents can cause tremendous pain and local tissue damage, they are not usually lethal. Their relative safety, combined with their relative ease of handling, makes the Copperhead an excellent choice for the beginning venomous snake keeper.

The Agkistrodon genus contains ten species, three in the United States (including the Cottonmouth) and seven scattered across Asia and the Far East (including the Okinawan habu and the Himalayan Viper). The Australian Copperhead Austrelaps superbus is an Elapid and is not closely related to the American Copperheads.

The American Copperheads all belong to the single species Agkistrodon contortrix. There are four distinct subspecies, found throughout the eastern United States. The Northern Copperhead, Agkistrodon contortrix mokasen, is a medium sized snake, rarely exceeding three feet in length. It is rather thin-bodied for a pit viper. The common name refers to the burnished coppery color on the top of the head. The body has a background color of reddish brown, with a series of darker chestnut-colored markings shaped like hourglasses running down the back. This subspecies ranges throughout the northeastern United States.

The Southern Copperhead, Agkistrodon contortrix contortrix, differs from its northern cousin by its generally paler colors and more sharply defined markings. In some specimens, the "hourglass" pattern is broken along the spine, resulting in a row of dark triangular markings running down both sides of the body. The Southern Copperhead ranges throughout the southeastern United States.

The Broad-Banded Copperhead, Agkistrodon contortrix laticinctus, is darker in color than the Southern, and adults are usually also smaller in size than the Northern and Southern Races. As the name suggests, the markings form wide bands across the back which do not narrow at the spine. The Broad-Banded subspecies is considered by many to be the most attractively colored of the Copperheads. It is found in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.

The Trans-Pecos Copperhead, Agkistrodon contortrix pictigaster, resembles the Broad-Banded, but has slightly hourglass-shaped markings and usually sports a lighter-colored patch at the base of each band. Like the Broad-Banded subspecies, the Trans-Pecos Copperhead rarely exceeds 2.5 feet in length.

In the wild, the Northern Copperhead prefers rocky forested hillsides with a southern exposure. The Southern race is a lowland snake, and is often found in swampy areas and river beds. The two Western subspecies are adapted to dry arid areas, but are still not often found far from a source of water.

Although Copperheads often figure prominently in local scare stories, in reality they are shy and nonaggressive. When encountered in the wild, they are apt to lie motionless in a "pancake coil". When lying on a forest floor among dead leaf litter, their superb camouflage can make them incredibly difficult to spot. (I can attest to this from personal experience: a few years ago, while hiking along a trail in Pennsylvania, I inadvertently stepped on a juvenile Northern Copperhead resting in a patch of leaves. Fortunately for me, the young snake's fangs were unable to penetrate my hiking boots.) However, if threatened, Copperheads can strike quickly and forcefully. They account for the majority of snakebite cases in the United States.

Like all pit vipers, Copperheads are solenoglyphs and have long fangs which are folded against the roof of the mouth when not in use. The venom is not particularly potent, and has an estimated lethal dose of around 100mg. Since an adult snake can only produce around 70mg, a Copperhead bite is not normally life-threatening to a healthy adult human being (although it can be dangerous to the very young or the very old). In one study of over 400 Copperhead bites, it was found that only two of these cases were fatal, and both of these involved bites from several snakes at the same time. In most instances of Copperhead bite, no antivenin is administered; instead, the patient is given pain medication and supportive care.

Nevertheless, the bite of this serpent should not be underestimated. The venom causes severe pain and swelling which may persist for over a week, as well as localized tissue destruction. Secondary infections are a real possibility. A portion of the population may be allergic to the venom, which could produce a life-threatening case of anaphylactic shock. All captive venomous snakes should be treated with a healthy respect.

Keeping Copperheads, as with any venomous snake, demands the proper equipment. Cages must be strong, reliable and absolutely escape-proof. A number of cages are commercially available which consist of a single piece of molded plastic or fiberglass, with a sliding glass or plexi front which can be securely padlocked. These are light, strong, easy to clean and, most importantly, virtually escape-proof if kept properly locked. The cage should be clearly labelled with both the common name and scientific name of the reptile it contains, along with the phone number of the nearest hospital or poison control center.

The cage should be kept in a special snake room. This room must be absolutely escape-proof---no air grates, heating ducts or screen windows. The door to this room should be locked at all times and, if possible, it should have a window to allow the keeper to view the cages before entering. The light switch should be located just inside the door (if you should have an escape, the very last thing you want is to have to walk across the room in the dark to reach the light switch).

A snake hook is an absolute necessity for safely handling hot snakes such as Copperheads. When the hook is slid underneath the body of a venomous serpent, the snake may be safely lifted and carried about. Since Copperheads are heavy-bodied and lethargic, and since they are afraid of falling, they usually hang on tightly and make no attempt to get down or climb up the stick.

One technique that is often seen is to pin the snake's head to the ground using a hook and then grasping it with the hands just behind the jaws. This procedure is sometimes necessary for "milking" hot snakes of their venom for medical research. Most keepers, however, should have no reason to handle a snake in such a manner. Not only does it unnecessarily expose the keeper to the risk of a bite, but it can also damage the nerves and blood vessels of the snake's neck and cause serious injury or death.

The best method to handle venomous snakes during routine tasks is a "capture box". This is a hide box that has a clear glass or plexi door that can be slid over the entrance and locked into place, preventing the snake from leaving. Once the capture box is secured, the keeper can proceed to remove it and clean the rest of the cage.

Another method is to lift the snake out of its cage using a hook and place it in an escape-proof container (I use a deep plastic garbage pail) while the cage is being serviced.

The husbandry requirements for the American Copperheads are not much more complicated than for any other snake. The Northern Copperhead is not very demanding in its environmental requirements. A daytime temperature in the high 70's is suitable. The other races require somewhat warmer conditions. Subdued lighting is preferable, but a warm spot must be provided for basking. A water dish is necessary, and this should be large enough for the snake to submerge itself completely. Shredded tree bark or aspen chips can be used as a substrate, but the most practical and simplest substrate consists of a few sheets of newspaper, cut to size.

The cage must also be provided with a hide box. If possible, this should have a cover that can be slid over the entrance and locked, allowing the whole thing to be removed with the snake inside. Since no "capture boxes" are available commercially, you will have to make one of these yourself.

In the wild, Copperheads feed largely on small rodents, lizards and frogs. Warm-blooded prey is detected and tracked by the two heat-sensitive pits on the front of the face. Young Copperheads have also been observed feeding on large insects such as cicadas or grasshoppers. Captive juveniles will accept small lizards, pinkie mice or sometimes goldfish. Young snakes should be fed every four or five days. Adults will do well on one good meal a week.

All snakes should be fed pre-killed prey exclusively. Food animals should be offered using long tongs or forceps to allow the keeper to stay out of the snake's striking range. Some snakes will accept thawed prey that is warmed and placed on the floor of their cage. Other snakes prefer their prey to be moving--by jiggling a thawed and warmed prey item on a pair of forceps, the snake can be enticed into striking and envenoming it.

The various races of Copperhead are bred often in captivity. Captive- bred snakes are to be preferred to wild-caught ones, as wild snakes often carry heavy parasite loads and are vulnerable to the stress of capture and confinement. Often, wild-caught Copperheads will refuse to feed (or they may strike and kill food animals and then refuse to swallow them). In some areas, Copperheads are legally protected and cannot be taken from the wild. The Southern and Trans-Pecos subspecies are most common on dealers lists. Since venomous snakes require special packing for shipping, you can expect to pay several times as much to have your Copperhead delivered from a breeder than you will pay for the actual snake.

Like all pit vipers, Copperheads are live-bearing. Breeding takes place in the spring after the snakes emerge from brumation. In the northern part of the range, females may breed only every other year. A litter of 6-12 young are born in late summer. The young Copperheads are around ten inches long at birth and look much like their parents. Neonates have bright yellow tails, however, which they use as a lure to attract frogs and other prey animals into striking range. There is no parental care of the young.

It is widely believed that young snakes have more powerful venom than the adults, but this is not true. However, since young snakes do not have as much muscular control over the amount of venom they inject, they usually introduce a full load of venom with each bite. Neonates should be treated with caution; they are capable of striking and injecting venom from birth.

Copperheads are the subject of much folklore and misinformation. They are widely feared by uninformed people even though they are shy and secretive (most people have never even seen a Copperhead in the wild, much less have been bitten by one). In my local area, each summer the police receive calls from distraught people about "Copperheads" in the backyard. Invariably these turn out to be harmless Eastern Milk Snakes (Lampropeltus triangulum triangulum). Although the woods and hills surrounding my hometown are prime Copperhead habitat and I have often encountered these snakes in the wild, only one local hospital could recall an instance of a snakebite, and that was over two years ago.

One myth that is peculiar to the eastern United States is the idea that Copperheads have a strong cucumber smell when they are ready to bite. There is a tiny grain of truth to this story. Copperheads, like many snakes, have musk glands near their cloaca which can expel a foul-smelling fluid when the snake is threatened. It would, however, require quite an imagination to describe this musk as "smelling like cucumbers".

Another story that is often heard in the northeast is the "hybrid black copperhead". According to this tale, Northern Copperheads will sometimes interbreed with Black Rat Snakes (Elaphe obsoleta obsoleta) to produce hybrids that have the plain black coloration of the Rat Snake but the fangs and venom of the Copperhead. These hybrids are said to be particularly large and aggressive. Needless to say, these two species of snakes are not capable of breeding and this story is nonsense.

One of the local names for the Northern Copperhead is the "Pilot Snake". This is a reference to yet another bit of folklore. According to this story, Timber Rattlesnakes (Crotalus horridus horridus) are always accompanied by a Northern Copperhead that acts as a "pilot" or lookout, warning the rattler whenever danger approaches. The rattler, according to the tale, repays the favor by sharing its food with the Copperhead (this, of course, would be rather difficult since snakes swallow their food whole). In another version of the story, it is the Black Rat Snake which serves as the "pilot" for both the Timber Rattler and the Copperhead. This tall tale probably got its start from observations that Copperheads, Black Rat Snakes and Timber Rattlers all share the same habitat and often spend the winter in the same hibernation dens.

The Copperhead is an interesting and intriguing animal. When kept by an experienced and properly-trained keeper, it can make a worthwhile addition to any herp collection.


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Last Updated: February 12, 2007