Penn State Researchers Successfully Train Venomous Snakes

by Caitlin Berard
(Photo by HRossD via Getty Images)

Animal training is nothing new. For a fee (and a few months of hard work), you can have the most well-behaved dog on the block. Horses, birds, chickens, and even fish and exotic animals like elephants, are also highly amenable to training. But training colossal reptiles and venomous snakes? That’s a different matter entirely.

Alligators, for example, have been (relatively) successfully trained throughout the years. However, even the most well-trained gator will never be pet material, as they are not, and will never be, domesticated. Alligator and crocodile handlers have lost entire hands and arms to their prehistoric friends.

This knowledge, however, did little to deter researchers at Penn State’s Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center. Joe Whitehead, coordinator of the amphibian and reptile program, and his colleague, Meredith Bashaw, are now award-winning authors, thanks to their time training venomous snakes and recording their findings.

According to Whitehead, their efforts began with an observation. Unlike their fellow residents, venomous snakes are typically handled with a hands-off approach in zoo settings. Because of this, there’s virtually no zookeeper-animal bond.

He also noticed, however, that similarly fearsome species such as raptors (eagles, hawks, falcons, etc.) benefitted greatly from positive reinforcement training. “We wanted to see if we would see that same benefits with our reptiles,” Whitehead explained to Penn State Outreach. “And particularly our venomous snakes.”

Researchers ‘Target Train’ Venomous Snakes

The Penn State environment center is home to three rattlesnakes and a copperhead, all four of whom participated in the training process. Don’t worry, though, the researchers aren’t attempting to train the venomous snakes to sit or roll over.

Instead, they “target trained” the snakes, meaning the snakes learned that following a ball at the end of dowel rod resulted in a treat.

In doing so, they can make care easier and safer for zookeepers. “Instead of using hooks to make them go to a part of the enclosure so I can clean it, I can use the target to ask them to go where I want them to go,” Whitehead explained. “I can use that target to ask them to come out of their enclosure, get on the scale, get in a travel bin, whatever we need.”

However, Whitehead and Bashaw always gave the venomous snakes autonomy. The training was never forced, giving the reptiles a “voice” in their own day-to-day activities.

“If they aren’t interested in performing the requested behavior, we let that be their decision,” he said. “We’ll just change our schedule around it. We’re giving them choice and control to be a participant.”

“As far as we know, if we’re not the first, we’re one of the first places to train rattlesnakes formally, in a zoo setting,” he continued. “There’s not really a training manual. We were making all this up as we went.”

Whitehead hopes that training the snakes provided a major step in the acceptance of venomous snakes. “What we’ve been able to show is that these are thinking animals that are making decisions and responding to you and how you’re treating them,” he said. “They’re not trying to harm you. If you’re being respectful of them, you’re able to live safely with them.”