The Prelude: Intro to Cornsnakes as Pets
Quick - what is the most popular reptile in the reptile keeping hobby? If you Google the question you will see Bearded Dragons, Ball Pythons, Leopard Geckos, and Cornsnakes are all at the top. Why is this? Well, I will argue that marketing is the reason for the popularity of most of these species, as more and more keepers are realizing that all of these species require more advanced care than we initially thought. You see, often we mistake hardiness with ease of care, and all of these animals can live through a lot of abuse. I keep many reptiles, and by far the most needy and demanding reptile I have is our Bearded Dragon named Puff. He requires high temperatures, a strict feeding regiment, walks, lots of space, specialized lighting, and constant stimulation. The recommended care for these species has changed drastically over the last 10 years, with most pet shops (especially big box stores) falling really behind when it comes to updating information. Now, don't get me wrong, I love Puff; that said, I would probably not recommend a Bearded Dragon to a first time reptile owner. For similar reasons, I would not recommend a Ball Python for a first snake. It takes a lot of time, effort, and money to replicate the scrublands of Africa and Australia in our houses. Can you guess what is not so hard to replicate in a Virginia household? Virginia Woodlands.
I could go on and on, but I need to stop rambling on about why I think Cornsnakes are better than Ball Pythons, as that is not what this article is about, and I may cover it in another article.
The point of this section, which may seem a bit off topic at first, is to answer a question some people will ask when they get to the "meat and potatoes": Cornsnakes make great pets. They are active, intelligent, and come in a wide variety of morphs. People argue over what is the "best pet", with many thinking it is what is the most rewarding pet, or what is the easiest to care for. To me, the best pet is business like, and it comes down to what can I put the least maintenance in, and get the most reward for the animal. This includes money, as the more an animal costs, the more time you are putting in at work just to care for the animal. This answer will be different for everyone. Most people are thought to pay anywhere between $730 and $4,512 per year on a large breed dog (depending on the source). The reward of having a dog is worth that to them. That said, many people I have talked to are not that privileged. They cannot afford a dog, do not have room, are not allowed dogs in their living arrangement, or may be allergic to anything with fur (like I am). An animal that is much more reasonable for these people is a Cornsnake. You can buy a Cornsnake for well under $100, but let's just use $100 as a base line. The enclosure, a 4'x2'x2', will run about $300 from Dubia.com (not sponsored), or you could go to the hardware store and build one. Upfront cost for supplies such as the heat mat (~$20) with a thermostat (~$25), water bowl ($2 for a normal dog water bowl, you could even splurge for a more natural bowl, or use an old whipped cream container), UV lighting (~$40 for the fixture), and decor that you find outside and sanitize for free. Then every six to twelve months you will have to replace lighting (~$20), and every 7-14 days (depending on the age) you feed the snake. As of writing this, you can buy 100 frozen mice on RodentPro (not sponsored) for $29 ($.29 a peice). If we use 10 days are an "average" (which the true average is probably much closer to 14 days) that is $10.44 a year to feed your snake. If it lives 20 years, you will have spent total ~$887 for housing and ~$208.80 for feeding.
The "Meat and Potatoes"
I think it is clear, I love Cornsnakes. I love them like people love their dogs. Something that is unfortunate right now, is people buying pets for Christmas and then deciding a week later they no longer want it. Now, education is by far the best way to fix this problem, but that is not why we are here. Everytime we look for animals being rehomed on Craigslist, we always see several dogs, cats, and even Cornsnakes. I constantly have people come to me at programs and tell me they or their children are going to college and have to rehome their Cornsnake. When these animals cannot be rescued, it can lead to neglect of the animal and perhaps even the release of the animal into the wild, which can deliver diseases to wild populations. I would love to rescue another Cornsnake or two and maybe even foster some of these animals, but I can't. Not because I am limited on resources, but because of this regulation: 4 VAC 15-360-10 (if you want to read all changes in 2021, you can find them on the VHS website here) The regulation is titled: "Taking aquatic invertebrates, amphibians, reptiles, and nongame fish for private use." What the title does not make clear is that possession (and terrestrial animals depending on how you read it) is included in this regulation. This regulation says in the first paragraph, "It shall be lawful to capture and possess live for private use and not for sale or export no more than one individual of any native or naturalized, as defined in 4VAC15-20-50, species of amphibian or reptile per physical address." This means if you have two Cornsnakes under the same roof, you are breaking this regulation. Any animal that was possessed prior to this regulation change in 2021 had to registered with the Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR). That said, as this article from the Fairfax Chapter of Virginia Master Naturalist even states, "Cornsnake morphs (ghost, snow, fancy, and other nonnative variations) and albino animals do not need to be registered." This gave us all the impression that Cornsnakes were an exception to this, and why wouldn't they be. No one is poaching lavender Cornsnakes from Virginia and selling them in mass because there is probably not a single lavender Cornsnake living in the wilds of Virginia. That said, last summer while digging through administrative code to find information on captive Eastern Kingsnakes, I noticed there is no codes to backup this claim. So, you may very well have upto five unregistered Cornsnakes from prior to 2021 that were legal, DWR didn't want them registered, and now you could face animal trafficking charges for possessing them. Even more confusing to a ill-informed individual, is that if you Google "Cornsnake laws VA" the first thing that pops up is this post on a forum from 2005, as well as more outdated material. Now, I don't know if DWR would enforce this "one Cornsnake per household" regulation or not, as there is several regulations across many agencies that go unenforced. The issue with these unenforced regulations is that it could be enforced on someone who does not know they are in violation. I reached out in an email to DWR's permitting department and found I was interpreting it correctly.
That said, if the sellers have permits already, managing poaching would be no different than it is now. Poachers are going to poach animals whether you can legally own one, two, three, or even zero Cornsnakes. We see this with Wood and Box Turtles in Virginia where you cannot legally possess either, but DWR has busted several poachers in the past few years. The international market for these animals is far more profitable than local markets. In other countries, these are actually "exoctic animals", and because they are not a local resource, the value of these "goods" skyrocket. A captive bred Eastern Box Turtle in the US sells for about $350, while a wild-caught Eastern Box Turtle can fetch, the equivalent to, $1,500 in China. Outlawing these species doesn't stop the trade, rather pushes it to the black market, further raising the value of wild animals for criminals. This should incentivize us more to captive-breed these animals, and allow the free-trade of these captive-bred animals. Captive-bred is far better for keepers, animals, and their environments. When captive-bred animals are easier to obtain that wild-caught animals, this should be considered a huge win for everyone.
This means, within three months of hatching, a Cornsnake may be too long to sell. Many breeders like to hold hatchling at least a month, but sometimes more, just to make sure the animals are healthy and don't "fail to thrive". Sometimes, a breeder may want to hold back an animal to see what develops on the animal the first year as juveniles change drastically. Pet stores often struggle to sell some animals. I have noticed some animals sit in Petcos and Petsmarts for several months, including Cornsnakes. If a petstore gets a two-month-old from a breeder, and then they quarantine it (like they should), for a couple weeks, the store may have only a couple weeks to sell the animal. Furthermore, I, and many other herp keepers, like slightly older, more established individuals that we know are eating and healthy. These individuals are safer picks for new keepers as well.
These "Carolina" snakes are so rare and limited in Virginia, it wouldn't be worth a poacher's time to collect them from Scott Co. when they are found throughout the Tennessee and North Carolina mountains. The point here is DWR could easily protect wild Cornsnakes without hindering the hobby Cornsnakes.
My Proposed Solution
I am lumping in Eastern Kingsnakes as well, as they are currently under the same regulation, and one without the other just feels wrong at this point. That said, I don't want to get "in the weeds" as with proposals to make Florida Kingsnakes and Apalachicola Kingsnakes their own species, it could get its own article. I think what I am proposing is reasonable, down to earth, and I am going through great editing processes to insure our opinions as a hobby are heard.
1. Open all possession of non-native-type (Buckskin) Cornsnake (and Eastern Kingsnake) morphs.
These are not wild collected from Virginia, and therefore are not a threat to local numbers. If someone wants 10 lavender Cornsnakes and he/she is not selling any, it does not mean they are doing anything malicious.
2. Use a sales registry, and allow possession of native-type Cornsnakes (and Eastern Kingsnakes) as long as they have proof of sale paperwork and a month and year hatch date.
It is hard to outlaw native-type Cornsnakes all together, as breeding many traits can yield wild-types. That said, anyone selling Cornsnakes must already possess a permit and keep track of what and who they sell to. Use this to create a registry to keep up with breeders/sellers/hatch dates for each snake and use that to track if the snakes were captive-bred. Say I have a snake that is in question and I present the investigator the proof of purchase and a hatch date from a breeder or pet store; that investigator can then go back to that entity and pull their files and verify the snake was bred and sold legally.
3. Allow one native-type Cornsnake (and Eastern Kingsnake) to be possessed without record, but not to be sold.
Currently this is allowed under the statute 4 VAC 15-360-10. People may already have a snake that predates the new regulation and is in accordance with current regulations. The sale of snakes without paperwork undermines all of this and the conservation efforts we are working towards.
4. Strike the maximum sale size for all Cornsnakes (and Eastern Kingsnakes).
If there is a record for each snake, the size is just an extra hoop for the agency, buyer, and seller. Cornsnakes have an economic value, but the least valuable Cornsnake in the hobby is a wild-caught adult.
Quinn, J. (2021, August 10). Home. Fairfax. https://fairfaxmasternaturalists.org/2021/08/register-your-reptiles-and-amphibians/
Title 4. conservation and natural resources. 4VAC15-360-10. Taking aquatic invertebrates, amphibians, reptiles, and nongame fish for private use. (2021). https://law.lis.virginia.gov/admincode/title4/agency15/chapter360/section10/
Ty (the SnakeMan) Smith
Ty is a Master Naturalist (with over 1,000 hours of volunteer service), former State Park Naturalist, and Virginia Herpetological Society (VHS) member with an expertise in East Coast Herp identification and southeastern species habitat/distribution.