My personal relationship to puffing snakes.
I first learned about the existence of Spilotes sulphureus in 2006, after seeing posts on the kingsnake.com forums from a few folks who were keeping them. At that time kingsnake.com was a bustling hub of dialog, and sulphureus was still classified as Pseustes. I was fifteen years old, but had already been keeping snakes for over ten years and was particularly drawn to large, neotropical colubrids such as Drymarchon, Spilotes, and Chironius. I lived well below the poverty line with my mother, in a trailer park in my hometown of Santa Rosa, California, and keeping and tending to snakes was my primary source of solace in what was often an incredibly challenging and toxic environment. Through successfully breeding some of the species I kept, I was able to support the hobby despite having very little in terms of financial resources, but more importantly, with each egg that successfully hatched in my care, the mysterious magic of life was affirmed in me.
In 2007, I had the opportunity to acquire a pair of recently imported Spilotes sulphureus when they showed up in the classifieds, being sold by Dan Scolaro. I immediately wrote to Dan and said that I'd like nothing more than to purchase them, but would need a bit of time to come up with the money. Fortunately for me, Dan agreed, and before long I was staying home from school one day, unboxing the pair of snakes - unsure of entirely what I was about to see. As I opened the carefully tied cloth bags, I could barely believe my eyes - from one unfurled an eight foot long, solid yellow colubrid with heavily keeled scales, and from the other a lovely olive, gold, and black one, more slightly built, but no less impressive.
Soon after, it became clear that the female sulphureus I had acquired from Dan was actually gravid, and having only bred and hatched lizards at that point, I was filled with an enlivening mixture of excitement and nervousness at potentially being in a position to hatch eggs from such an obscure species. I had learned of only a single other person to hatch eggs from sulphureus and as a sixteen year old kid in a trailer park, I felt like I had received the greatest privilege imaginable. I bought a cheap Hovabator chicken incubator from the local feed store, and meticulously began tinkering with the thermostat until I could achieve a pretty stable temperature of 78 degrees Fahrenheit. A few days later, she laid eight perfect eggs, alongside two slugs. It would be 97 days of anticipation, anxiously checking the incubator three times a day, before they would hatch, but all eight eggs produced immaculate little snakes, clad in scales of grey and black - all more or less the same, and hardly resembling their colorful parents. The day the eggs hatched was easily the happiest and proudest moment of my life up to that point. In the following months, I would raise them up, sadly losing two along the way for reasons unknown to me. Simultaneously, conditions at home were worsening, and a combination of cascading factors began to make it clear to me that I needed to move out on my own. Unfortunately, it was also clear that was something I couldn't do with even a modest collection of reptiles, making only minimum wage and living in one of the most expensive places in California.
Embarrassed by my circumstances, I silently withdrew from the online community of like-minded keepers and began quietly dismantling my collection, selling or gifting some snakes to trusted friends and urgently wholesaling others out to the nearest big reptile shop. It was one of the most painfully difficult decisions I had ever made, and it was exacerbated by losses of the some of the more sensitive, imported species I worked with. I often thought to myself that I would never keep animals again.
For the following decade, that would be true. I focused myself on healing from the traumas I endured through my younger years, and intuitively invested much of my energy in spending time outside. I began to learn about local ecology, and the lines between myself and my environment began to blur. My relationship to snakes continued to deepen, but largely by the process of seeking and observing them in their natural environments and learning to see them for their ecological relationships and value. I started to see them (and myself) as expressions of the land and relationships from which they emerged, and I learned that the more I learned about them, the less I really knew.
As these inquiries continued on into my adulthood, I came to recognize just how vital of a role snakes had played in my development as a young person and in my identity. I realized that much of the reason why I had made it through the challenges of my younger years was because of my relationships to the more-than-human world - and particularly to the snakes I kept at home. It was their presence, and the presence they demanded from me, that made all the difference. And to be true, after more than a decade away from the practice of keeping snakes, I missed the experience of daily tending to wild animals living with me at home.
After a few months of quiet deliberation and internal discernment, I decided to look around and see if I could find anyone who might be working with Spilotes sulphureus. A quick internet search led me to Jason Hood, who was achieving consistent success breeding the species in captivity, something that no one was managing to do back in 2006. I emailed him, asking him about his animals, and off-handedly asked him to pass my email along if he knew John Andermann, one of my old acquaintances back in the day. As luck would have it, he and John were well-acquainted and we were put back in touch. Even more, John had ended up with one of the sulphureus I had hatched back in the day, and the snake was now a ten foot long, gorgeous black and yellow specimen. And even more, John was considering parting with the snake to make more space to focus on his other projects. To make an even longer story short, I would end up with the opportunity to acquire that snake, the same one I had hatched over a decade prior, and within a couple months he was back under my care. The timing of it all could not have been more perfect - it's enough to almost make one superstitious. And although the herpetoculture community is typically pragmatic and reluctant to embrace sentimental or unscientific perspectives, I have no hesitation in saying that the arc of this story is a familiar one for me and one whose subjective value resists tidy objective explanations.
May it suffice to say I feel deeply grateful for the privilege to work with snakes again, however imperfect the circumstances of captivity may be, and I feel a kind of tenuous trust in the timing that has brought me back to this endeavor. My intention with this website is to offer some small effort toward enhancing captive care for this species, and ideally generate contributions for conservation of their native environments, which are imperiled by extraction. It is one small way to give thanks for the profound impact these snakes have had on my own life.