Melissa Kaplan's
Herp Care Collection
Last updated January 1, 2014

How to Hold Reptiles

©1996 Melissa Kaplan


This is drawn from a document I wrote as part of our herp society's volunteer orientation. It contains information useful for people who have never handled reptiles before as well as instructions useful when teaching volunteers how to hold reptiles and offer information to the public when doing hands-on education.


Pick them up gently. Support their body weight in your hand/arm.

If one snake is wrapped around or underneath another, gently unwrap/unbury them as you lift the one you want out.

When holding out for people to touch, keep control of the snake's head - cup one hand under it so that you can gently direct it away from the person if they appear nervous.

When placing a snake, especially a large one, (relative to the size of the person holding it) on someone, place it around the back of their neck and back. Stand behind tall people to do this; with small kids, you can stand in front or to the side and lift the snake over their head. Drape the snake's midsection down the back somewhat from the person's shoulder, with the tail and the head ends down in front of either shoulder. Let them know which side the head is on. If need be, control the head for them.

Watch for heavy breathing on the part of the snake. Watch for signs of nervousness on the part of the snake, particularly around people who are nervous.

Try to put each snake away for 5-10 minutes every 45 minutes to an hour or so for a rest period.

Interesting things to point out:

  • immovable eyelids and the fact that they shed the skin covering their eyes (called the "spectacle");
  • lack of ears (they didn't need them or the eyelids when they evolved from above ground lizards to snakes living underground);
  • the use of the tongue in smelling (many people think the snake is trying to "sting" them with its tongue);
  • how the tongue works (the forks are filled with molecular chemical receptors with, when filled, is pulled back into the mouth and stuck into the Jacobson's organ in the roof of the mouth--many animals, including many mammals, continue to use their Jacobson's organ...humans, however, have lost the use of theirs);
  • where they "do it" - many people are interested in where/how they go potty, mate, have babies or lay eggs - show them the vent;
  • show the spurs on the pythons and boas, and the fact that you can sex them by the fact that the females have spurs that are so tiny you can barely see them at all; explain that the spurs are what is left of their legs from when they evolved from lizards. Only boas and pythons have these vestigial legs and pelvis bone.


Pick up the lizards by cupping your hand under their bellies, with your index finger up towards their neck between their forelegs, their rear end resting on your wrist/arm.

If the lizard has a long body, be sure to support that body with your hand or arm when holding it or passing it to someone. Make sure they do the same.

If the lizard has a tail which can hurt if it whips, take care to keep it away from the faces of small children; use your other hand to gently guide it away from the small kids.

If the lizard starts to thrash and roll, do not restrain it by holding it tighter! Let it roll around in your hands, holding it slightly away from your body about chest high, and keep it away from kids faces. Hold it straight up in the air if necessary until it calms down.


Turtles and Tortoises
Turtles should be picked up with two hands, with fingers both on top of the carapace and underneath the plastron to support.

"Swimming" in the air is not cute - it is a sign of stress in the turtle - they need to feel something under their feet - even if it is just your fingers or palm.

As much as children love them, they are a little nervous and hold them with two fingers on the edges of the shell. Explain the proper way to hold them. If the child cannot or will not do it, they are not to hold a turtle or tortoise. The risk of it being dropped - and injured or having its shell broken - is too great.


General Handling Guidelines
Tell people to pet or stroke in the direction of the scales - from head to tail, not tail to head.

If people start wriggling their fingers like they are trying to get the reptile's attention, ask them what they think their fingers might look like to the animal (correct answer: live food). If that doesn't stop them from doing it, then nicely ask them to stop. If that doesn't work, remove the animal from the child's area/reach. This goes for all reptiles.

If people are nervous and make several quick attempts to reach out and touch which results in many rapid, forward-and-backward movements, explain that they are communicating their nervousness to the snake or lizard, and that they may end up making the reptile more afraid of them than they are of the reptile. Invite them to come in on a single smooth approach - offer them the less intimidating part of the animal to pet first (body, tail, leg). This goes for all reptiles.

If someone is phobic, ask them, in a conversational tone, why they are afraid (it is usually because someone shoved one in their face or down their shirt when they were kids), try to get them to focus on one particular feature: the eye, the ear, the pattern of scale on one particular place of the body or neck or feet, then move to another feature. This helps them see the horrible scary dangerous reptile as an individual work of art, of nature. At this point they should be breathing easier and ready to look at the animal as a whole, and even to reach out and touch.

Assume nothing! Including assuming that when a child doesn't want to hold an animal any longer that he or she will give it back to you. Many kids, when tired of holding a snake, lizard, turtle or tortoise, will just drop it and walk away, or just put it down anywhere, then walk away - under the table, on the ground in the middle of a crowd of people - I mean anywhere!!!

Anyone observed holding a reptile up to another person's face in an attempt to scare them immediately loses holding rights. Too many people are made afraid of reptiles through such negative encounters and remain afraid for the rest of their lives. Holding the reptiles is a privilege granted only to those who do some properly and with the proper respect for others.

A minimum of 4 medium-sized kids needed to hold Bertram (a very large Burmese python). Once they get situated, control Bertie's head.

If the temperatures get too warm (and anything over 88-90 can be too warm for most of the reptiles, including the desert animals who, after all, spend the hottest parts of the day underground!), spray them regularly with water, and make sure each enclosure has shade, either a box inside or a towel draped over the top.

Place off-exhibit animals under the tables or in the back of the booth, anywhere where they will be out of the way and relatively out of sight and inaccessible to the public. If the enclosure is left on the display, cover with a towel and place the "Nap time" sign on it.


General Security Precautions
Keep an eye on your designated animals and/or materials. It is your responsibility to make sure that they do not come to harm and that they do not walk away.

Make sure all animals are handed back to you or, if appropriate, allow the child to place the animal back in the enclosure.

Routinely check the enclosures to make sure they are locked/latched properly (sometimes the animals get a hankering to take off and see the sights...) and that all animals are accounted for on a regular basis.

All books present for reference only should be clearly marked with the owner's name to ensure no one thinks they are free for the taking or for sale. (I have had self-adhesive address-type labels made in bright colors that say: Melissa Kaplan - Not For Sale) that go on the outside cover of all books I typically take to education events.)

If any visitor is seen to mishandle any animal or artifact, they should be requested to stop; if a child, the article or animal should be gently removed from their hands.

Feel free to ask kids to stop yelling; tell them that it is upsetting to the animals who have very keen hearing. If that doesn't stop them, ask them to leave. If they don't, ask their parents to remove them. If they don't/won't, let me know.

The primary focus of any encounter is education through exposure to information augmented by contact with live animals. The animals should not be put at risk, nor should you. It is a privilege to handle our animals and artifacts, not an event-goer's or friend's or acquaintance's right. If they are unable to respect our guidelines, they may move on to someone else's booth.

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