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Thursday, March 10

We reptile and amphibian keepers often get asked the same questions over and over. One of the all-time most common questions we get asked at Scaly Slimy Spectacular (especially at feeding time) is: “Why don’t we feed live mice or rats?”  Since this is such an awesome question and, since it’s one that we never get tired of answering, it’s a perfect topic for our blog.

There are many reasons why we don’t feed live rodents.  Before we go into the specific reasons, it is important to know exactly what and how we feed the animals in our care. Since the animals in the amphibian and reptile collection are so diverse, we need a variety of different foods to offer our snakes, lizards, turtles, toads, frogs and other reptiles and amphibians. Rats and mice are some of the most common food items we feed to our collection.  All of our rodents are offered frozen/thawed. They come in a range of sizes.  Because snakes vary in size, the food we offer also has to vary in size.  A baby cottonmouth eats a smaller mouse or rat than an adult. Large snakes like our reticulated python or green anaconda require the largest foods. Sometimes rats are not big enough. Instead, the largest reptiles may get offered assorted rabbits by weight. Likewise, we offer chicks (quail and chicken), adult quail, tilapia (Komodo dragon, turtles), trout and crayfish (caiman lizards).

Snakes eat the most rodents by far, and our large collection of snakes require a lot of food. With all that in mind, it’s a good time to offer the first reason why we don’t feed live mice and rats: ease of handling.  It is much easier to order, ship, and receive 1,000 frozen rodents, quail, chicks and so forth than handling live animals. We know, because before we made this switch years ago, we had to feed, clean, and water hundreds of live animals as part of our daily routine. Switching to frozen was a huge benefit. We simply thaw the frozen food items and feed only what we need. The myth that snakes require live food, or that they eat better with live food, is just that—a myth!

The second reason is risk of injury.  Let’s face it, as much as we try to recreate naturalistic habitats for our animal ambassadors, we are still keeping snakes in specific areas. Rodents are equipped with sharp incisors that they will use to defend themselves. If the snake isn’t hungry and the rat attacks, the results can be tragic. Ask any veterinarian to name a leading cause of injury to snakes in zoos: bites from intended prey. These bites can cause severe injury or death for snakes. The third reason not to feed live rodents is there is a negative perception for our guests. Watching a snake slowly stalk an unsuspecting live mouse might be fascinating to some, but not to others. We take pride in providing the very best guest experience at Zoo Atlanta. We have already established that most snakes in zoos do not need live food. Striving to exceed our guests’ experience is our highest priority.

These reasons are the top factors that determine our feeding protocol and decision to feed frozen/thawed rodents rather than live prey to our reptile and amphibian charges. The next time you are visiting Scaly Slimy Spectacular, don’t hesitate to ask the keepers questions like this one.  Even though we hear the same questions, we never get tired of talking with our guests and friends of the Zoo.  We love sharing our knowledge and experiences working with these remarkable animals.
Daniel Benboe
Lead Keeper, Herpetology 

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