TECHNIQUE

Catching and Handling of Reptiles (Wildlife Casualty Management)

Summary Information
Type of technique Health & Management / UK Wildlife Casualty Management/ Techniques:
Synonyms and Keywords N.B. This information should be read in association with Wildlife Casualty Handling and Transport which contains background information together with links to the Electronic Library and Organisations (UK Contacts). The related Species pages contain similar linkages.
Description This page has been prepared for the "UK Wildlife: First Aid and Care" Wildpro module, and is designed for the needs of the following species: Coronella austriaca - Smooth snake, Natrix natrix - Grass snake, Vipera berus - Common viper, Anguis fragilis - Slow worm, Lacerta agilis - Sand lizard, Lacerta vivipara - Viviparous lizard.

These species are from the families Colubridae, Viperidae, Anguidae, Lacertidae

(Sea turtles are not commonly presented as wildlife casualties in the UK and their requirements have not been included in this module. If a live turtle requires rescue and rehabilitation, expert assistance should be sought from an organisation with appropriate expertise and facilities: Sea Life Centres, zoos (which may be contacted via the Federation of Zoological Gardens of Great Britain and Ireland) and large aquaria.))

  • Adders should be handled by experienced personnel.
  • Escaped exotic snakes should be handled as if venomous until positively identified as being of a non-venomous species.
  • Escaped exotic lizards may be quite large and capable of inflicting significant injury on the handler.
  • Reptiles should always be handled firmly but gently to avoid causing muscular bruising or other damage.
  • Wearing gauntlets for handling these species is not recommended as this reduces speed and dexterity and may give the handler a false feeling of security encouraging risks to be taken.

Catching:

Non-venomous snakes:

  • Arrange a suitable container such as a deep plastic dustbin with a close-fitting lid (this should be placed nearby) or a bucket with a lid, or a sack such as a pillowcase, held open attached to a solid object such as a fence.
  • The container must be sufficiently deep to allow it to be closed without risk of the snake reaching up and biting the handler.
  • Pick the snake up gently mid-body using a snake hook and deposit it in the bottom of the container.
  • Close the lid of the bucket/bin and secure with catches or bungee straps or similar as available to prevent escape, or tie the top of the sack/pillowcase with a cord.
  • Remember that snakes are escapologists and will escape rapidly from any non-secure container.(V.w31)
  • (V.w31, V.w32, V.w33)

Adder (Vipera berus - Common viper) N.B. POISONOUS:

  • Bites to humans usually cause severe pain and swelling with marked tissue damage. Rarely, bites can lead to death. 
  • Assistance should be sought from experienced snake handlers whenever possible.
  • Do not try to catch by hand.
  • Arrange a suitable container such as a deep plastic dustbin with a close-fitting lid (this should be placed nearby) or a bucket with a lid, or a sack such as a pillowcase, held open attached to a solid object such as a fence.
  • Pick the snake up gently mid-body using a snake hook (or a snake grasper if available) and deposit it in the bottom of the container.
  • Close the lid of the bucket/bin and secure with catches or bungee straps or similar as available to prevent escape, or tie the top of the sack/pillowcase with a cord.
  • The container must be sufficiently deep to allow it to be closed without risk of the snake reaching up and biting the handler.
    • A dustbin e.g. 2ft to 2ft six inches (60-75cm) deep would be suitable 
    • The lid should be close fitting to prevent escape and well-secured from the outside, but should not be difficult to remove or there is a risk of getting bitten while removing the lid.
      • A dustbin lid may be secured on the outside with e.g. bungee cords.
      • Bins are available about 2ft to 2ft 6 inches deep (60-75cm deep) designed with catches so that the lid locks into place when twisted but is easy to remove by turning back in the other direction.(V.w33)
      • (V.w31, V.w32, V.w33)
  • A pillowcase or sack should be at least two to three feet (60-90cm) deep so that the top opening can be fastened safely while the snake is in the bottom of the sack.
    • Adders are relatively docile and will tend to remain in the bottom of the bag allowing it to be tied shut.
    • Do not forget that a snake may strike a handler through the bag.
    • (V.w31).
  • Remember that snakes are escapologists and will escape rapidly from any non-secure container.(V.w31)
  • Avoid trying to pin down the snake and grasp it behind the head as the head is extremely mobile and there is a considerable risk of being bitten if this is attempted by an inexperienced handler.(V.w31).
  • Do not wear gauntlets.
    • These reduce the speed and dexterity of the handler and give a false sense of security. 
    • If the snake is allowed close enough to the handler to strike it may strike over the gauntlets. 
    • The aim should be to control the area in which the snake is allowed such that the snake is never within striking distance of the handler.
  • (V.w31, V.w32, V.w33)

Lizards:

  • May be picked up by hand, with care to avoid bruising.
  • Never catch by the tail - this may break off. This is known as autotomy and is a defence mechanism of the lizard to aid in escape from predators.

Handling:

Non-venomous snakes:

  • May be held by hand, with care to avoid bruising.
  • Hold just behind the head, and support the weight of the snake's body with the other hand.
  • (B169.48.w48)
  • A snake hook may be used to lift the snake onto a piece of foam rubber (sponge) about 2ft (60cm) square.
  • The hook is then used to pin the head of the snake down onto the foam.
  • The handler then uses their index finger to push down on the top of the head and grasps the head on either side with the thumb and third finger (hand facing forwards). 
  • Once the handler has firm grip on the head the hook is removed and the other hand is used to support the body.
  • In the case of grass snakes the back end of the snake should be kept pointing away from the handler or other carers.
  • (V.w31, V.w32, V.w33)

Adder (Vipera berus - Common viper) N.B. POISONOUS:

  • Handling by persons not experienced at handling snakes including venomous snakes, should be avoided.
  • Inexperienced handlers should seek help from experienced personnel.
  • Pinning down with a hook into foam as described above for non-venomous snakes should be used only be personnel experienced with handling venomous snakes.
  • (V.w31, V.w32, V.w33)

Lizards:

  • May be held by hand, with care to avoid bruising.
  • Grasp firmly just behind the head with one hand and support the body with the other hand.
  • Do not hold by the tail - this may break off. This is known as autotomy and is a defence mechanism of the lizard to aid in escape from predators.
  • (B169.48.w48)

(B169.48.w48)

Appropriate Use (?)
  • Catch only if necessary.
  • Handling of wild animals should be minimised.
  • Consider design of accommodation and timing of treatments to minimise requirements for capture and handling..
  • Consider whether physical or chemical restraint is more appropriate.
Notes
  • Always support the body of a snake in addition to holding behind the head. Snakes have only a single occipital condyle (articulation at the neck) therefore careless handling risks cervical (neck) dislocation.
  • Wearing gauntlets for handling these species is not recommended as this reduces speed and dexterity.(V.w31, V.w32)
Complications/ Limitations / Risk
  • Adders (Vipera berus - Common viper) are venomous and precautions should be taken to avoid anybody being bitten.
  • All snakes may bite.
  • The grass snake when threatened (e.g. by capture and handling) is likely to discharge foul-smelling liquid from the anal gland over the handler.
  • Lizards must not be held by the tail as they may shed the whole tail in order to escape; this is known as autotomy and is a defence mechanism of the lizard to allow aid in escape from predators.
  • Too firm a grip on a reptile is likely to cause severe bruising.
  • Excessive pressure with a snake hook may cause serious damage, including spinal injuries.
  • A snake held without the body supported may thrash around sufficiently to cause itself severe injury.
  • Escaped exotic snakes should be handled as if venomous until positively identified as being of a non-venomous species.
  • Escaped exotic lizards may be quite large and capable of inflicting significant injury on the handler.
Equipment / Chemicals required and Suppliers
  • Snake grasper for catching/handling adder (Vipera berus - Common viper).
  • Snake hook for catching/handling non-venomous snakes
  • A snake hook may be improvised from a long piece of stiff wire (e.g. an opened-out coathook) bent into an appropriate hook at one end, or a piece of thick wire attached to a broomstick.(V.w31, V.w32, V.w33)
  • A piece of thick foam (about 2ft by 2ft square)
Expertise level / Ease of Use
  • Experience is advantageous when handling reptiles and is required for safe handling of venomous snakes including the adder (Vipera berus - Common viper); advice and assistance should be sought for handling this species.
Cost/ Availability
  • Snake hooks may be available from specialist suppliers, veterinary suppliers or some good pet stores.
  • There are variable costs associated with the purchase of equipment such as a snake hook or snake grasper
Legal and Ethical Considerations
Author Debra Bourne
Referee Becki Lawson and Suzanne Boardman
References

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