Fascination, bordering on obsession...
General Care and Maintenance of the King Cobra, Ophiophagus hannah
It is commonly known that the King Cobra is the largest venomous snake in the world, that an adult possesses enough venom to kill and elephant (which occasionally does happen), and that there are few animals on earth that can be more intimidating. While everyone seems to know these common facts, even experienced herpetoculturists frequently have no real idea of how to successfully maintain and breed these magnificent snakes. They are equal parts brave and timid, delicate and tough-as-a-coffin-nail, easy and difficult, and everything in between. I have maintained a large collection of primarily venomous snakes continually for over 30 years. I never specifically set out to concentrate on Ophiophagus, but here I am, three decades after obtaining my first. I still gaze into my enclosures in bewilderment. Of all of the snakes, lizards, turtles, tortoises, crocodilians, and venomous species I have had the pleasure of interacting with; King Cobras alone have been my constant companions. To this day I am constantly learning from them, and consider them my life’s work. I owe the species an unpayable debt for the joy they have brought me. There is no more rewarding reptilian species.
Housing for Ophiophagus is a complex subject and can be a paper unto itself, really. I will break housing down into sub-groups based on size, and intentions, such as when attempting breeding, or housing a large group of hatchlings. That all individual cages should be securely locked, clearly labeled with information describing species and antivenin location, and contained within an escape-proof, locked room should go without saying.
Large Groups of Hatchlings:
Housing choice for hatchlings will depend on number of animals being maintained. My most recent clutch produced 47 healthy hatchlings, and presented some challenges. After years of trial and error, I have found that the most economical way to house a large group of hatchlings (up to about 7 weeks of age) is in 9.75 inch (24.8cm) x 3.5 inch (8.9cm) clear deli cups. I provide a 2.5 inch (6.4cm) layer of shredded aspen as substrate, with a single paper towel to hide under, and an 8 ounce (0.24L) disposable water dish depressed into the aspen to prevent tipping. A damp environment will rapidly kill hatchling Ophiophagus. Humidity will be addressed in another section. All of the contents of the “cage” are disposable and easily replaced. Daily water changes and meticulous cleaning are a must to ensure success with this species. Hatchlings have a very high metabolism, defecate a lot, and will frequently drink only very fresh water. Add LOTS of air holes as ventilation and air exchange is paramount. These containers should be housed in a snug fitting rack system that prevents the lid from being pushed open from inside. Never trust just a snapped top as appropriate containment. Even hatchling Kings are strong for their size. Redundant security should be practiced with venomous species of any size.
Hatchling and Juvenile Individuals, Pairs, or Small Groups
Now we will discuss ideal housing, and housing for snakes older than 7 weeks of age who have outgrown the caging outlined above. Baby Ophiophagus are essentially arboreal, as with Dendroaspis. Housing should be at least 12 x 12 x 18 inches (30.5 x 30.5 x 45.7cm), and increase exponentially as the snake grows. Lots of climbing opportunities, at levels up to the very top of the cage, and LOTS of real or artificial plants will ensure that the snake settles in, feels secure, and becomes a confident feeder. Add plants until you think you have enough, and then add 100% more. A thick tangle of plants will make or break feeding attempts, particularly if the goal is to convert the snake to rodents. Remember, in nature there are a myriad of other animals, snakes, and birds attempting to make a meal of a young snake – not the least of which are other Ophiophagus! The necessity of contact security cannot be overstated. A large water bowl and excellent ventilation round out the cage. Humidity will be addressed in another section.
Like many people, I maintained my adults in large python sized cages for many years. I am now of the opinion that the minimum sized cage for a single adult (pairs should only be housed together during breeding attempts) should be 10 x 5 x 6 feet tall (3.05 x 1.5 x 1.8 meter). Larger enclosures are encouraged. A size that works well for me is 16 x 7 x 7 feet (4.9 x 2.1 x 2.1 meter). While challenging when it is necessary to remove an adult snake, my cages are set up so the glass and door is at the front of the cage, and it extends 16 feet from front to back. This allows a snake to really feel like it can get away from me and the glass front if it chooses. A King in a very large cage is just a different animal from one in a tiny one, with regards to behavior. They will use every inch of the cage, and the magnificence of their intellect and individual personalities can only be fully appreciated when they have lots of territory in which to roam. I provide the same climbing opportunities as I do for hatchlings, and have securely mounted vining plants such as Pothos attached high on the walls and allowed to cascade down to and across the substrate. Provided with climbing opportunities, even a very, very, large King will spend vast amounts of time “in the trees.” Telemetry studies in India have revealed populations of very large adults who spend significant time very high off the ground hunting tree vipers, to the exclusion of ground dwelling prey species. Large cages and climbing opportunities help prevent obesity through exercise, and negate bowel impaction issues. I have hard-plumbed, programmable rain systems that water the plants, increase humidity, mimic seasonal changes, and stimulate breeding. Floor drains allow excess water escape. I realize this design is not an option for everyone. Spraying with nursery sprayers will accomplish the same thing, but with less water, and no issues with drainage. Full automation allowed me more time to enjoy my snakes, and less time cleaning. In very large cages it is possible to set up bioactive substrates that absorb most of the wastes. I also have free ranging Anole species that take care of any flies that may reproduce in the substrate. If deep layers of substrate are utilized, be aware that even very large Ophiophagus will burrow at times. It can be a bit disconcerting to peer into a cage and see no trace of a 14 foot (4.3 meter) King! The entire tops of my cages are of ½ inch mesh (1.3cm), allowing maximum air flow. While drafts are to be strictly avoided, excellent air exchange is important. Large water bowls are provided and water is changed daily, as with hatchlings. I realize there are many people successfully keeping Kings in significantly smaller enclosures, but my conclusions are based on 30 years with Ophiophagus, and supported by reliable, repeatable, reproduction. Keepers develop a relationship with Ophiophagus due to their intelligence, and this will only be maximized and made more enjoyable by providing the best environment for both the keeper and the kept.
Substrate breaks down into two categories: Substrate for bioactive enclosures, and everything else. A loose, absorbent, non-compacting substrate that is easily replaced and inexpensive is appropriate for all but bioactive cages. Shredded aspen, moss, non-treated mulch, and any of the many commercial bedding products are acceptable. Substrate should be deep enough to conceal the snake should it decide to burrow. I dislike newspaper and commercial cage liners due to the huge amount of liquid waste that Kings frequently produce. Absorbable bedding contains the mess until cleaned and prevents the snake from being completely covered in feces as it crawls through soggy, soiled, newspaper. The exception is during quarantine periods or when (God forbid) mites are being chased around a collection. My large, walk-in enclosures contain a bioactive substrate approximately 18 inches (45.7cm) deep. The floor is concrete, slanted front to back, with floor drains, and the progression from bottom to top is as follows: A layer of chicken egg sized rock; a water permeable sheet of greenhouse ground fabric; a 3 inch (7.6cm) layer of pea gravel; a 12 inch (30.5cm) layer of fertilizer-free garden soil mixed with vermiculite and fine grade perlite to ensure drainage; topped with a layer of hardwood mulch. The hardwood mulch does not absorb water and dries quickly. This is important when, during the “wet season,” I am raining on the cages 4 times per day for 1 hour per session. I want increased humidity, but do NOT want the snake in constant contact with a perpetually wet substrate, which can lead to skin issues. Gravid females are provided with the contents of 5-6 large trash cans full of timber bamboo leaves for nest building, which they happily utilize. Starter cultures of springtails and isopods (easily available from many sources) were initially added to establish and aid with waste breakdown. Florida native Anole and Eumeces eggs were accidentally introduced from potted plants brought in from my greenhouse. This happy accident eliminated any fly issues, and I have had several generations of both species reproduce and thrive entirely inside individual cages with no additional support whatsoever. It is always amusing to see and adult skink basking or sleeping within inches of the head of an adult King!
Lighting – Heating
It is debatable (either way) whether bulbs that mimic natural sunshine are required for successful maintenance. I can only offer what works for me. In the room I use “daylight” fluorescent tubes because I hate the light produced by “soft white” tubes. Over the large cages I use the same tubes, arranged to provide enough light that simple vining plants such as Pothos will grow and thrive. I regulate the temperature in the entire room, so I do not provide basking lights except to gravid females. My background temperatures average 82F – 88F (27.7C – 31.1C) depending on season. Raining lowers the temperatures briefly through evaporation. Hatchlings through very large adults experience the same temperatures. Gravid females are provided with spot lights that allow a 90F (32.2C) maximum temperature, and are arranged over a ladder of branches that allow the snake to thermo-regulate over a range of temperatures as she sees fit. That being said, my gravid females rarely, if ever bask.
Humidity of 70% or higher is a requirement to avoid dry sheds and eye cap retention problems. This can be tricky with hatchlings and very young snakes. Given the geographical range of Ophiophagus, it would seem that hatchlings in particular require misting and a moist cage. Nothing could be further from the truth. While hatchlings do require high humidity, as with adults, they need DRY cages. Misting is to be avoided except perhaps the day or two before shedding, and even then, sparingly. Frequent misting of young animals is a recipe for disaster and death from respiratory infections. There is information out there to the contrary, but this is from authors who have speculated as to proper care, rather than applied hard won practical knowledge. You have been warned!
A snug hide box into which the snake can just fit should be provided. If housed in very large cages, they will rarely use them. I use this as a tool to gauge a snake’s happiness/security within its surroundings. Snakes kept in too small a cage will use the hide box the vast majority of the time. Digestive issues from lack of exercise may arise as a result. If the cage is large enough, the mere knowledge that the snake has the ability to escape to a hide box if it desires is usually enough to prevent it from going into one except rarely. These are fascinating, complex animals. Trap boxes are recommended as a hide, and should be utilized if the snake uses it. This minimizes exposure for both parties. Newly acquired animals, or animals moved into a new cage will usually go through a period of time where they hide a lot until they survey the new surroundings and settle in. This is critical to minimize stress levels.
King cobras, especially hatchlings, require clean, fresh water on a daily basis. Adults can drink enormous quantities after feeding. Some hatchlings will irreversibly dehydrate and die if water has bits of substrate in it, or is changed infrequently. This is one of the reasons imported hatchlings historically do so poorly – they are set up for failure before the shipment ever lands at its destination port. Water containers large enough to contain the size of a given snake to allow it to fully submerge should be provided. Interestingly, in my large cages that are rained on frequently, my adults never, ever, soak in a water container. Never. As initially stated – water should be changed every day.
Cages should be cleaned fully as soon as possible after being soiled. Hatchlings are very susceptible to failure if not kept in meticulously clean cages, and adults produce so much liquid with their feces that they can quickly contaminate an enclosure. This is particularly true of smaller than acceptable cages. In large enclosures with a bioactive substrate, full cleaning may be unnecessary for months at a time, with only spot cleaning required. This is, of course, individually based on enclosure size, amount of time the substrate has had to mature, number of plants, and overall carrying capacity of the microbes present in the soil. When in doubt, clean the cage.
Feeding could also constitute its own very lengthy paper, so I will offer broad strokes, and important points. I will break this into sub-sections for hatchlings/young animals and adults. Pros and cons of a rodent only diet will be addressed in the “Potential Health Problems” section.
This year I converted, or rather started, 47 hatchlings on pink mice, starting with ½ of a pink mouse, and small rat tails. Hatchlings have incredible metabolisms and are designed to constantly process small food items. Hatchling corn snakes are frequently used due to availability, but many regurgitate whole corn snakes as they are too large. Only a few episodes of regurgitation induced dehydration can put them into a fatal tailspin. For the first 10-12 weeks, daily feeding, except when totally opaque, is required. Some may scoff at this, but I have not lost a single snake, and success with raising hatchlings only began once feeding frequency was finally figured out. In nature they need to get big quick to survive. A baby fed inappropriate amounts will cannibalize its own muscle and tissues in an attempt to fuel metabolism, ultimately killing the snake. This is primary reason number two that imported hatchlings typically fail to do well. Initially, I also feed small rat tails, large end first, every 3rd or 4th feeding. Since rat tails have texture, and are snake shaped, I believe it gets the process of swallowing food down to a routine faster. The texture gives purchase, so it stays down better. I abandon rat tails around week 3. After the first week, they graduate to whole f/t pink mice and are fed one each day until week 8 or 9 when they are then ready for 2 pinks at a time. Initially, I take a 6 inch (15.2cm) long piece of clear plastic restraining tube of sufficient diameter to allow the snake to swallow, but just tight enough that it cannot turn around once inserted. I slide to snake almost to the end of the tube and hold it there. I then introduce a f/t unwashed, unscented, pink mouse with a pair of forceps. A slight tap may be required, but most will grab the pink by the head. A percentage will swallow it right down, but most will not. I perform this procedure over a 2 foot (61cm) square open top frame made of opaque PVC, 12inches (30.5cm) high. Once the snake grabs the mouse, I allow it to crawl through the tube and into the containment frame. I freeze completely still. Most will drop the mouse right away, and I will repeat the process. Some will eat. I repeat this as many times as necessary. Snakes that fail to eat this way are placed in the tube and when it grabs the mouse I apply a bit of pressure to the back end of the mouse with forceps. Then I wait. And wait. Eventually the snake will start swallowing. This is not force feeding, mind you. This is a labor intensive process and is more refined than space allows here, but the techniques work. If you have a huge supply of small snakes and want to start wth snakes, the process is the same. After a period of time you can move the snake to the plant-filled cage outlined above, and give it a few days to settle in without being molested. Food items can then be offered to the snake. If it fails to grab the food item, show it to the snake, let it sniff it, and then rub it down the plants to the bottom of the cage, producing a scent trail. Leave it in the cage and leave the room for several hours. Food snakes may also be ground up in a blender, frozen in ice cube trays, and used as scenting on washed pink mice. I’ve tried, successfully, to eliminate this part, but there is nothing wrong with it. Force feeding is a last resort and should be avoided at all costs. Patience is rewarded. Hatchling Kings are thin by nature due to the rate of growth (the exception are Chinese Banded Kings, which are much more stout and different from Indonesian and Malaysian Kings). They will completely process and eliminate a pink mouse in 12 hours or less. They grow very quickly and may reach 6 feet (1.8 meters) or more in 12 months if fed properly. Using cotton thread or absorbable suture material to sew a tiny piece of snake to a pink can also work, but again, I’ve tried to eliminate the process of scenting. Feeding during daylight hours is significantly more successful than nocturnal feeding. This was an interesting realization as the opposite is true for most other snakes.
Adults, Including Recent Imports
Some adult Ophiophagus are garbage cans and will eat any snake placed in front of them. They are the simple few. Others may prefer live over dead snakes, or have species preferences. Radiated rat snakes, Coelognathus radiatus, are the historical species of choice, but many fresh imports will still refuse them. Xenopeltidae may also entice a non-feeder. If I have one thing to impart to an audience with regards to feeding and establishing adult kings it is the following: Gonyosoma, Gonyosoma, Gonyosoma! Set up in a proper cage, with proper temperatures, I have NEVER had a king refuse a Gonyosoma for more than an initial meal or two, and the vast majority jump right on them. The only exceptions have been animals that landed in the worst of health that ultimately did not survive. I have had many, many, fresh imports take unwashed rodents with just a small cube of f/t Gonyosoma sewn to the head end. They can be expensive for a food snake, but an average adult can be cut into 30 or more cubes and lasts a long time. After a period of time, the cubes can be used to scent food items and reused many times. The action is similar to chalking a pool cue! Most of my snakes are primarily rodent eaters as it is just more convenient, economical, and practical. Solid feeders may be fed snakes during warmer months when they can be collected or scavenged as fresh road kill. I have one male that loves adult Crotalus adamanteus, but also eats rats. Be aware, however, that some snakes initially converted to rodents may be difficult to get back on rodents if fed only snakes for a period of time. They are all a bit different. A word about rodents is in order. Many armchair experts or people with limited experience preach that a rodent diet limits lifespan, causes digestive problems, and is otherwise unhealthy. This is nonsense as long as certain rules are followed. Overfed adult Kings will rapidly become obese, which is to be avoided – just as with humans. Digestive problems are typically the result of the snake being maintained in a cage that is too small and does not allow for the proper exercise required for good muscle tone and digestive health. True, some Kings do not digest rodent fur well, and may occasionally regurgitate a large hair ball, but there are many 15-20 year old Kings in captivity, properly maintained, who know nothing but a rodent based diet. This is not open for debate and has simply been repeated so many times that people assume it is fact. Follow the rules, and your snake will live a long, happy life. If you are really concerned about the hair, hairless rodents are now available in most places across the globe. If you’ve tried everything outlined and a King still won’t eat, re-evaluate caging, temperatures, etc. If heavy parasite load is suspected, take a fecal sample to a veterinarian and treat accordingly.
There is much myth and tales of harrowing experiences with shedding problems and eye cap retention that goes back to before the Raymond Ditmars era. Fresh imports frequently have dry sheds and retained eye caps and must be soaked in water for a period of time to facilitate the shedding process. Never attempt to remove dry eye caps or dry skin. Eye caps can be gently removed with forceps, but many snakes are adept enough that they will shed the caps off if soaked long enough and supplied with a cage with branches and rocks allowing proper rubbing surfaces. Snakes properly housed, with proper humidity shed fully with no more problems than any other snake. As with most things, proper husbandry is the key. It is also worth mentioning that a King should never be soaked in a garbage can that does not lock securely. Never, ever, trust the locking handles on the top as they come straight from the store. Peering into an empty trash can that earlier contained a soaking adult Kings is disconcerting, to say the very least.
I’ve taken several deep breaths, and started and deleted this section twice. Handling Ophiophagus is a complicated thing to articulate into words. Hatchlings do not ride hooks well due to their speed. The novice should perhaps gently use padded large forceps as when moving large Tarantula species. Juveniles and snakes up to about 9 feet (2.74 meters) are the most agile and dangerous sizes to work with. They move like a mamba, but have the fearlessness of a very large snake. The speed that an agitated snake can achieve can be awe-inspiring. These snakes should never be outside of a locked cage or handled anywhere but in an escape-proof room, with plenty of working space, and no distractions. I am a strong supporter of each keeper stocking an appropriate quantity of antivenin as well – either Thai Red Cross King Cobra Monovalent, or Neuro Polyvalent also from the Thai Red Cross. 10 vials at a minimum, with 20 or more being better. Adult Kings are among the most awe inspiring creatures on earth. They can hood up to 4 feet in height, hiss, and growl like a dog due to a uniquely configured trachea. If you are timid, they will take advantage of this and bully the keeper during handling, but overconfidence and bravado is not acceptable either. Respectful confidence and laser concentration is required to ensure that every interaction is performed as safely as possible for all parties involved. While the volume of venom an adult snake can deliver is simply staggering, and they are certainly extremely dangerous animals, adult Kings just don’t appear to really want to bite humans in most cases. I always pause before that statement because I don’t mean that liberties can be taken with them. They recognize a confident handler who is gentle, yet stands his (or her) ground and cannot be bluffed into retreat. They will mock charge, head butt (quite hard at times), and strike with a closed mouth the majority of the time. The trick is knowing when they will do what. They can and do have bad days and will test you at times when the mock charge is not a mock charge at all. One can learn and accurately predict the behavior of a given individual after a long period of interaction 95% of the time – but it’s the other 5% where you predict incorrectly that can ruin your day or end your life. Do not take unnecessary liberties, and the odds are in the keeper’s favor the majority of the time. While I would never recommend “free handling,” the sheer length and weight of a large adult necessitates a degree of hands-on interaction. One hook of sufficient length (but not so long that it is more cumbersome than useful) should always be employed, if for no other reason than to reposition, guide, and block charges. A second, experienced person can be very helpful, standing out of range, and distracting the snake from what you are doing. A person providing distracting by waving something like a baseball hat can go a long way. If the snake will use a catch box, use it when you can. If it is necessary to restrain the head, the good news is that the head of an adult is relatively rigid and immobile, and the fangs are fixed. The bad news is that they are INCREDIBLY strong! Use clear plastic tubes whenever you can. Traditional pinning, as with a viper, is virtually impossible with an adult and will send them into a rage if attempted more than once. With extreme care a snake can be positioned to crawl over the lip of a trash can or over the edge of a table whereby the neck “hooks” over the edge to gain purchase to allow the snake to advance forward. There is a split second while this is happening where it is relatively easy to gently, but firmly, catch the snake by the neck, immediately behind the head. Another technique is to slowly reach over a fully hooded, standing snake and touch it just behind the head. The snake will many times allow the head to be gently pushed down from the back to a point where the hand can then catch the snake by the neck. This is not an endeavor to be entered into lightly, and not without significant experience. When the snake reaches that split second position where it can be caught behind the head, you must commit and act – a nanosecond of hesitation can get you killed. If you fear hesitation may be an issue, do not attempt to restrain the snake. You are not ready yet, and there is no shame in that. The bravest person is not the one who is over-confident and sloppy, but the person who exhibits patience and restraint and knows his or her limitations. I have complete respect for the person who stands down before a potential accident can happen and recognizes the need to invest more time into training and experience. These are the qualities that make a safe keeper, and these people are an asset to the hobby, rather than a liability. Another technique is to employ a large snake bag affixed to a fish net hoop frame. I use a bag made of heavy black material that measures 5 x 2 feet (152 x 61cm) that is permanently attached to the frame. The frame is attached to a 5 foot (152cm) handle. The bottom of the bag is open just like the top. I use two zip ties to securely close the bottom. It is a simple matter to drop the bag over a hooded snake, lift it up, and feed the rest of the snake in. A quick twist of the handle closes the top. The snake can be grabbed through the bag, the cable ties cut, and the snake’s head transferred to the other hand. Clear restraining tubes can also be inserted into the end and cable tied into place. Transfers to portable snake bags or boxes are also easily accomplished. With plenty of working room, this is perhaps the safest method to manipulate Kings. I strongly caution against using these bags on a snake still inside of a cage, however. They feel cornered and view this as a huge threat and react very, very strongly.
Potential Health Problems
Hatchlings are very susceptible to fatal respiratory infections if maintained in a wet environment, such as one that is misted daily with poor air circulation. Elevated humidity is required, but so is dry caging. Adults do not like to be in constant contact with wet substrates and can develop skin issues if not provided a means to escape wet flooring as in cages that are being frequently “rained on” to simulate seasons during breeding attempts. Imported snakes can be plagued by mites and ticks. Ticks are easy to remove manually (assuming experienced assistance is available for restraint) and both mites and ticks can be eliminated and controlled using any of the common commercial products. Povent –a- Mite or generic active ingredient equivalents can be used to treat the substrate and have excellent residual properties. As with all medications and pesticides, manufacturer’s instructions should be strictly followed. Many keepers in Europe are having excellent success using predatory mites from the agriculture industry. Imported adults will sometimes have external scars and wounds from rough capture techniques. These should be cleaned to prevent infection. King cobras have an amazing ability to heal and it can be simply astounding how a snake improves with each successive shed, frequently to the point that what originally appeared to be permanent scars can completely disappear within a year’s time. Oral issues, such as mouth rot, should be treated with the assistance of a qualified veterinarian. Prophylactic worming of imported snakes is a controversial subject. Many advocate immediate worming whether by injecting prey items with appropriate agents, or via oral tube introduction in non-feeders. Personally, I do not immediately worm animals that appear in reasonable health. While I realize this is tantamount to herpetocultural heresy to some, I have maintained many imported animals that were NEVER wormed that thrive and breed to this day. Worming a snake that is stressed, scared, weak, underweight, and dehydrated can cause more harm than good, and has killed many snakes, in my opinion. To worm or not to worm is ultimately up to the beliefs of the individual. I choose to worm very sparingly. It goes without saying (or should) that imported animals or animals new to a collection, should be subject to at least a 90 day quarantine period away from the main collection. This in itself self-limits most issues. Obesity is to be avoided at all costs, just as in humans. A snake’s scales should not be separated to the point where you can see the skin in between, except just after feeding. These are not pythons and even very large, heavy snakes are relatively thin compared to their length. An all rodent diet must be monitored closely and adjusted depending on the way the snake looks. Use your good common sense, and set a goal to have a fit snake, rather than a fat one.
While Ophiophagus can be challenging to set up and maintain properly, there are few snakes that are more fascinating, interactive with the keeper, and rewarding to study. Each snake has a distinctive personality and set of behaviors that can only be attributed to a level of intellect that few reptiles possess. In very large and heavily planted enclosures, their personality truly shines as they become a more naturally active, rather than reactive animal. 30 years into my relationship with King Cobras I am still in awe of their magnificence, and notice new facets of their intellect with regularity. I have been changed for the better as a result, and I believe you will be as well.