snakes on the brain

Published 1:39 am Sunday, November 2, 2008

When Maurice “Buzz” Burchill takes his pets out for a walk, people he meets along the way give him all the space he needs.

After all, a man with a couple of snakes wrapped around his neck doesn’t exactly attract people to his side.

“When people first see the snakes, they move away,” Burchill said with a smile. “But, when they realize that (the snakes are) not poisonous and won’t hurt them, they are curious and come closer.”

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

That’s exactly what Burchill wants. He is a great fan of snakes and is anxious to introduce others to Houdini, Candy, Booger, L.B and Bandit.

The “fearsome five” corn snakes are the family pets of Burchill and his wife, Jamie. In fact, it was his wife who piqued his interest in snakes.

“Jamie already had Houdini, and I was fascinated with her,” the Troy resident said. “I started going to reptile shows and I got hooked. Snakes are incredible creatures, and I wanted to learn all that I could about them.”

Burchill joined the Suncoast Herpetological Society near his home in Tampa, Fla., and narrowed his focus to corn snakes.

“Corn snakes are non-poisonous snakes, and they are not aggressive,” he said. “They have many color variations and patterns, and they have personalities. Booger is docile and laid back while L.B. is constantly on the go. Houdini will let you ‘abuse’ her all day.”

Handling a pet snake is not like keeping company with a puppy or a cat.

“Snakes aren’t furry and cuddly,” Burchill said. “They have scales but not like fish. They are soft and feel good to the touch, but they aren’t going to sit in you lap and let you pet them. They stay on the move.”

As Burchill talked, he alternately wound Houdini around his arm, stretched her out on the table and wore her around his neck as a necklace.

“Although corn snakes are not poisonous, they will bite if they get upset,” he said. “The bite won’t hurt much, but it will scare you. My snakes have been handled so much that they hardly ever bite. Sometimes, when they have just been fed or when I’ve not washed my hands good enough to get the food smell off, they have bitten me – but not often.”

Because the snakes are easily handled, Burchill uses them to educate young people about snakes.

“It’s important for people to know about snakes and how to react around them,” he said. “They need to learn to recognize snakes because they are so important to the environment. They help keep certain species in check, including rodents which can spread diseases and damage food crops. You shouldn’t kill a snake unless it is a danger to you.”

When invited, he will speak to groups about snakes along with his able assistants.

“Once people get over their initial fear of snakes, they look at them in a different way,” he said. “But what I always stress to young people is that there are poisonous snakes around, and that they can be very dangerous. Most snakes just want to get away from you, but if they feel threatened they will strike. A snakebite can cause a lot of pain and even death, so you have to respect all snakes.”

Burchill said he teaches young people to tell their parents or an adult if they see a snake.

“Snakes are relatively inexpensive, low-maintenance pets that require little space,” he said.

“You can get a corn snake for around $50 at a pet shop or $35 or less at a reptile show. A baby snake can be kept in a shoebox but, when they get larger, they’ll need more space. A large aquarium will do.”

Burchill feeds his corn snakes frozen mice that he purchase.

“You can order the mice and they’re not expensive,” he said. “I thaw them before feeding them to my snakes. My corn snakes eat about every 10 to 14 days, and I keep a dish of water in their tank.”

He uses aspen bedding in the tank, which is changed every three weeks or so. “Snakes don’t require a lot of care but they are interesting pets to have,” he said.

Burchill is hoping to expand his snake pet family to include a king snake and, if he does, he’s going to have to make other living arrangements for his “slinkies.”

“I keep all of my snakes in one large tank,” he said. “It has trees and hiding areas for them, and they live well together. However, that’s not what is recommended. … Anytime that there’s ‘king’ in a snake’s name, that means it will eat other snakes. So, I’ll have to have a separate cage for the king snake.”

Burchill has no plans to welcome poisonous snakes to his reptile family.

“I know people who have poisonous snakes but they are professional handlers, and I’m not interested in doing that,” he said.

“I just enjoy my corn snakes and learning from them and sharing what I know. The more people learn about snakes the less needless fear they have and the more they can appreciate their beauty and usefulness.”