(Rewritten… MY first experiences, July 1974… on Februari 21, 2013)
The early days
Where I grew up in the Netherlands reptiles were very rare. The only reptile living in my neighborhood is the Dune Lizard, but back in those days they were near extinction in the area. Ever since I was a child I was fascinated by reptiles and amphibians. My uncle kept some lizards and I liked that very much. For my 8th birthday he build my first terrarium and my parents gave me a pair of lizards. A few later I got my first garter snakes; the very dark Red sided gartersnakes (Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis) with little red spots on the sites from Manitoba, Canada. Back then these were imported by the thousands. Then for several years I focused on European Natrix species: N. maura and N. tessellata. The Viperine Watersnake (N.maura) also was the first species with which I had my first breeding success breeding in 1986. Later followed specimens of the North American genus of Nerodia, mostly N.fasciata and N.sipedon. I have also kept Asian members of the group of Natrcininae, amongst which Rhabdophis trigrinum, R.subminiatus and Xenochrophis piscator. Some of these species are very beautiful and colorful, but some of them also venomous.
Goal and ambition
I have always tried to keep the snakes in a way that closely mimics the habitat and year rhythm in the wild. Success for me means keeping them for many years in good health and eventually breeding the snakes. Getting healthy babies means that you have done (most) things right. While keeping them, observing them in captivity and making good notes one can gather a lot data about Garter snakes, which is much more difficult or close to impossible in the wild. In this way the hobbyist can learn a lot about the biology and ecology of Garter snakes and one can make a valuable contribution to science. I prefer to breed (sub) species that you can also can encounter in the wild. So breeding incidental color morphs gets less attention.
Breeding is an essential part of the hobby for me. I try to make many species available for the hobbyist. And to preserve them. The amount of different garter snake species available for the garter snake enthusiasts has grown a lot over the years. Before 2000-2002 only a handful of garter snakes species were available. Over the years I have seen species become popular amongst hobbyists, but a few years later some have become almost extinct in captivity. For instance hardly any of the original Redsided garter snakes from Manitoba (the almost black ones, with contrasting yellow stripes and small red spots) are available anymore. Even though they were imported by the 1000 in the eighties.
Preserving the species in captivity was one of the main reasons why we (R.Janssen, T.Bourguignon, the late Udo Strathemann and myself) founded the European Garter Snake Association (EGSA) in 1996. This Association is still very active and very much alive.
Preventing inbreeding is very important. But also breeding pure species and subspecies. Preferably I breed snakes that originate from the same population. Breeding pure subspecies is sometimes more difficult then it seems. That is one of the reasons why my collection exists mostly of snakes of which a known place of origin.
Original origin of the snakes
T.s.sirtalis for instance occurs from Canada with very strong winters of more then 5-6 months with snow into southern Florida with extremely mild winters. Without knowing the origin of T.s.sirtalis it is very difficult to decide how long and how cold they should be hibernated. Of some wide ranging and highly variable species (Thamnophis sirtalis is a prime example) proper identification of the exact subspecies is sometimes practically impossible without knowing the exact origin. Specimens of T.s.sirtalis, T.s.parietalis, T.s.pickeringii, T.s.infernalis and T.s.fitchi can all be very similar in pattern and coloration. I can always provide a “certificate of origin” or a “breeding certificate” with my snakes so information on exact origin and parents is provided.
Since the mid nineties my focus is on species of the genus of Thamnophis. I have been able to build up a collection of Garter snakes species from Canada, USA and Mexico. I also try to observe all the species that I am keeping in the wild. Observing snakes in their natural habitat adds an extra dimension to the hobby. It makes you realize the huge variation within the genus of Thamnophis, in coloration, pattern, body shape, behavior and habitat. Some species are highly aquatic, like Thamnophis atratus, T.eques,T. hammondii and T.melanogaster. Some live a much more terrestrial life like T.sirtalis, T.ordinoides and T.e.vagrans.They occus from high elevations to sealevel and from desert habitats to marshlands.