This article details the methods that were used to establish a fresh wild-caught Malaysian king cobra, Ophiophagus hannah. The king cobra is a large, aggressive species of venomous snake with demanding captive requirements, and accordingly should only be kept by highly experienced venomous snake keepers. Please note that any information mentioned here on using medications, was under the advice or supervision of an experienced exotic veterinarian. Please refer to a qualified vet before administering any medications to your animals.
Mid-November 2009, I received a call from a friend who said he was due a shipment from Malaysia that would contain several king cobras measuring between 8-12ft in length. King cobras are rarely offered for sale in the UK, and having been searching for one for a long time, I jumped at the opportunity. I was told the shipment was due to arrive early December, so this gave me plenty of time to prepare for the king cobra's arrival. This preparation involved not only setting up an enclosure, but obtaining as many frozen snakes as possible as a food supply. I decided to start the snake off in a 120cm x 60cm x 60cm vivarium; certainly not big enough to maintain a large king cobra long-term, but perfect for making a nervous species like this feel secure whilst adjusting to captivity. I used newspaper as a substrate, a hygienic option when trying to acclimatise a wild-caught snake, and I placed a large hide and water bowl into the vivarium. I kept the temperatures slightly cooler than I keep the other Asian elapids in my collection; the hot spot was set at 88F, and the temperature under the hide stayed at around 79F.
The shipment arrived at Heathrow Airport from Kuala Lumpur, Peninsular Malaysia, on 7th December 2009, and I drove down to Bristol the following day to pick up my king cobra. Three king cobras turned up on this shipment, and by the time I had arrived, two had already been picked out by other keepers. I was to receive the smallest of the three, measuring around 8ft in length. I pulled the snake from its enclosure, and immediately it hooded up, gaped its mouth and rushed towards me. This was a great sign that the king was healthy and, although a little underweight, I was very happy with its overall condition. We placed it into a trap box and headed home.
Upon getting back to my snake room, I placed the trap box on a set of digital scales so we could get a weight of the snake. This would be important when acquiring medication to worm it, but also so that I could monitor and ensure it was gaining weight. Minus the weight of the trap box, this king cobra weighed 1.73kg. It was then removed from the trap box and placed in a tub of luke-warm water for an hour and a half. To keep stress levels down to a minimum, the tub was covered over with a towel. Afterwards, the cobra was pinned behind the head, so that it could be sexed, and treated with frontline spray to remove any external parasites. Matt Minchin probed the king cobra and confirmed it was male, and it was then placed into a vivarium. Without hesitation, the snake disappeared under its hide, and remained there for the next two days. I covered the front of the vivarium with newspaper to keep disturbances down to a minimum, and left it to settle down.
The next day, i got in contact with my local veterinarian, and discussed a plan of treating the snake for internal parasites. The snake was unlikely to defecate, having not eaten for some time, which removed the possibility of having a faecal test done anytime soon. For this reason, the vet suggested a preliminary course of metronidazole (Flagyl). On 10th December, I started treating the king cobra with susp200mg/5ml formula of metronidazole, giving 2ml's once every two weeks, which would continue for four treatments. Treating the king cobra required two people; one to restrain the king cobra behind the head, and another person to place a catheter 20cm down the mouth of the king cobra and push the plunger on the syringe of medication. Although stressful for the king cobra, the whole process took no more than a few minutes, and it was immediately placed back into its vivarium.
One of the biggest issues that king cobra keepers face is obtaining enough food to keep a large animal healthy. In the wild, king cobras will feed almost exclusively on other snakes, hence the scientific name Ophiopahgus, which translates to 'snake-swallower'. This specialist diet can prove enough to give even the most dedicated keeper a headache, and adding in the fact that some king cobras can be fussy enough to eat only specific snake species, can make feeding them an expensive and time consuming task. On 12th December, four days after its arrival, I attempted offering it its first meal. I defrosted a frozen 60cm royal python, Python regius, and cut the snake in half to allow the blood scent to be more prominent. This meal was placed just in front of the entrance to the king cobra's hide, and left in over night. The next morning I hurried down to the snake room, eager to see if the food had been eaten, and was very pleased to see no signs of the dead snake. This meant I could avoid the somewhat unpleasant task of offering live snakes to the king cobra, although this would have been done if necessary. Two days later, i offered the snake a more substantial meal; it was given a large segment of a defrosted corn snake. Again, this was placed in the vivarium over night and had gone by the morning.
The ultimate aim for almost every king cobra keeper is to end up with a rodent feeding king. Although this is mainly for the convenience of the keeper, preventing the stress of obtaining a constant supply of live or frozen feeder snakes, it also reduces the risk of introducing any pathogens to the snake; after all, its not always known what caused the death of the snakes in the freezer. On 17th December, I stitched a 1.5 inch section of corn snake onto the nose of a washed medium rat, and using another 1.5 inch section, rubbed the scent and blood of the corn snake onto the rat's body. In the same way I had fed the king cobra the previous two times, I placed the rat just in front of the king cobras hide and left it in over night, and much to my surprise, found it to be eaten the following morning. This happened just nine days after its arrival into captivity, and was certainly much sooner than I was expecting. I used this same method of feeding again with success on 24th December.
On 29th December I weighed the king cobra for the second time since acquiring it. This time around, it weighed 2.065kg, and increase of 373 grams; not a huge amount, but it was a good sign that the king cobra was settling down and the wormer was doing its job. That night I offered the cobra a washed rat that had been scented with snakes blood, but did not attach a piece of corn snake. Again, this was offered in the evening and had been eaten by the morning. This was fantastic, but the best was yet to come. The following day, on the 30th December, I spent the evening feeding the rest of my collection. One of my adult monocled cobras, Naja kaouthia, refused its food, so instead of throwing the rat away, I washed it in warm water and placed it into the king cobra enclosure with a 'let's just see what happens' attitude. The following morning, I headed down to the snake room fully expecting to the see the rat in the same spot as I left it the previous evening, but luck was still on my side and the unscented rat had been eaten. This meant that the king cobra had gone from a fresh wild-caught snake to a rodent feeder in a period of just over three weeks, a great end to the year. It did make me think - if I had offered a rat for the first meal, would it have been eaten straight away?.....
On 29th January the king cobra was placed on the scales once again, and this time weighed 2.37kg. A faecal sample was taken to the veterinarian so a test could be done to see if further medication was required. The metronidazole had been doing its job and there were few signs of a heavy parasitic infestation, however, there were signs of tapeworm eggs in the fecal sample, and so two injections of praziquantel (Droncit) were prepared for me to administer. The final 2ml metronidazole dose was to be administered on 8th february, and so it was decided to wait until then to give the first praziquantel injection, rather than having to restrain the king cobra two ti
mes in a week. The second Praziquantel injection was given 2 weeks after the first had been administered. I then waited a further two weeks before another faecal sample was sent off and king cobra got the all-clear for internal parasites.
By this time the king cobra had settled down well and was feeding on two medium/large rats every week. It was time for the king cobra to move into a larger enclosure, and so I purchased a 200cm x 60cm x 60cm vivarium. I used the same hide and large water bowl, as was being used in the 120cm vivarium, and decided to stick with the newspaper substrate. This was mainly due to the fact that, like most elapids, king cobras defecate regular and so require cleaning several times a week.
A year on, and the Malaysian king cobra continued to do very well. It grew quickly, reaching approx. 10ft in length, and weighed over 4.5kg - a dramatic increase in size and weight from when it first arrived in the UK. Acclimatising this king cobra into a captive environment proved to be a straight forward task, however, this does not always prove to be the case. You must be willing to offer the king cobra any source of food it wishes to eat and most importantly, show a great deal of patience; king cobras are a nervous species that do not respond well to constant disturbances and handling.
Eco Animal Encounters - An article detailing the methods used to establish a fresh wild-caught Malaysian king cobra, Ophiophagus hannah, including information on husbandry, medication and feeding.