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Amphibians & Reptiles FAQs

Much more information on our Amphibians & Reptiles page. More about snakes on our Snakes in PA page. Regulations in our Summary Book.

Photos of snakes

 

SNAKES

1. What species of snakes are native or indigenous to PA? There are 21 species of snakes native to Pennsylvania.

Venomous

    • Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake
    • Northern Copperhead
    • Timber Rattlesnake

Non Venomous

    • Black Racer
    • Black Rat Snake
    • Eastern Garter
    • Eastern Hognose Snake
    • Eastern King Snake
    • Eastern Milk Snake
    • Eastern Ribbon Snake
    • Eastern Worm Snake
    • Kirtland's Snake
    • Northern Brown Snake
    • Northern Ring-Neck Snake
    • Northern Water Snake
    • Queen Snake
    • Red-bellied Snake
    • Rough Green Snake
    • Short-head Garter
    • Smooth Earth Snake
    • Smooth Green Snake

 

2. Are water moccasins found in PA?

Water moccasins or cottonmouths are not native to PA. They are found primarily in the southern states. Their range only goes as far north as southern Virginia. There are only three venomous snakes native to PA; the northern copperhead, timber rattlesnake, and eastern massasauga rattlesnake.

 

3. Do you need a permit to possess a timber rattlesnake or to keep one as a pet?

 It is legal to possess a live timber rattlesnake in Pennsylvania under certain circumstances. The person in possession of the snake would have to obtain a Venomous Snake Permit from the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission prior to obtaining the snake. The snake would then have to be legally collected from the wild in Pennsylvania during the open season and in compliance with size and possession limits. The possession limit for timber rattlesnakes is one. This is the only way to legally acquire a timber rattlesnake in Pennsylvania.

A timber rattlesnake obtained from the wild in Pennsylvania without a permit would be illegal to possess. Timber rattlesnakes may not be imported into Pennsylvania from other states or countries. It is illegal to breed timber rattlesnakes (or most other native reptiles and amphibians) in captivity in Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission does not recommend keeping venomous reptiles as pets.

 

4. I heard that black rat snakes and copperheads are breeding and their offspring resemble the black rat snake but are as venomous as the copperhead. Is that true?

No, that’s false. It is impossible for the black rat snake and copperhead to successfully breed. These two species of snakes have two different reproductive strategies. The copperhead give birth to live young encased in a sac while the black rat snake lays eggs which then incubate for two to three months. These two distinctively contrasting methods of reproduction make it impossible for these to species to breed.

 

5. I would like to purchase/sell/possess a venomous exotic snake. Do I need a permit to possess such an animal?

PA Fish and Boat Commission regulations only pertain to native species of PA. In other words, our regulations do not cover any species not found in PA. Therefore, you would not need a permit from our agency. However, you may want to contact you local municipal government to see if they have any ordinances in effect that regulate the possession of “dangerous animals” or exotic pets. Due to some recent high-profile cases in the news of non-native snake bites and snakes getting loose in neighborhoods additional municipalities are adding such laws.

 

6. What venomous species of snakes are found in PA?

There are three venomous species native to PA - Timber Rattlesnake, Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake and the Northern Copperhead. All three are pit vipers. Pit vipers have distinctive characteristics, which can separate them visually from the native nonvenomous species of snakes in PA. A complete list of PA snakes is listed in question 1.

 

7. How do I tell the difference between a venomous snake and a harmless one?

There are two main features on a venomous snake’s head, which can distinguish it from a nonvenomous snake. Keep in mind this only pertains to snakes native to PA. All three venomous snakes native to PA are pit vipers. Two facial characteristics common to all pit vipers are vertically elliptical (like a cat’s eyes in bright light) pupils and facial pits (indentations on the “cheeks” which aid in heat detection and locating prey). Facial pits are not found on nonvenomous snakes native to the commonwealth.

In addition, rattlesnakes have rattles or the remnants of rattles beginning at the base of the tail. The northern copperhead has a single row of scales on the underside of the tail between the anal opening and the tip of the tail. Our nonvenomous snakes have two rows of scales under the tail.

Our “Snakes in PA” page contains illustrations that show the differences.

 

8. Can you determine the age of a rattlesnake by counting the rattles?

No. A rattlesnake develops a new rattle on its tail every time the snake sheds its skin. A healthy snake can shed its skin 2-3 or more times per year, each time adding a rattle to its tail. There is no visual method used to determine the age of a rattlesnake.

 

9. I saw a small black snake with an orange/yellow ring around the base of its head. What species of snake is it?

The snake you encountered is a northern ringneck snake (Diadophis punctatus). This nonvenomous snake can be found throughout Pennsylvania. Measuring 10-24 inches in length, the northern ringneck can be gray to black in color with a yellow or orange ring around its neck. The belly color will match that of the neck. This snake can be found resting under logs, stones and other debris. Ringneck snakes are one of the most common snakes to get into homes and basements. They are nonvenomous and harmless.

 

10. I have seen snakes in my yard. I heard placing ammonia or mothballs around the house/yard will keep the snakes away. Is this true?

Ammonia and mothballs are not an effective snake repellent. In fact, we know of no truly effective snake repellent that can be used safely without danger to humans and/or pets. If you would like tips on how to deter snakes from your home or yard read our “Snakes in Basements and Buildings” online article.

 

11. Are there puff adders in PA and are they venomous?

 When using the term “puff adder”, most herpetologists are referring to an African species. Some people, however, refer to the eastern hognose snake as a puff adder. The eastern hognose is a nonvenomous snake, which is easily identified by its upturned snout. It ranges from Somerset County in the southwest to Wayne County in the northeast with populations also found in the Lake Erie drainage. Its diet is primarily frogs and toads, but will also eat salamanders.

When threatened the hognose (although it is harmless) will flare its neck, inflate its body with air, hiss and may strike out toward the intruder. If this behavior fails to scare off the threat, it will "play dead," rolling over on its back remaining very still. If you would flip it on its belly, the hognose may roll over onto its back again, forgetting that it's "dead."

 

12. I found some white oblong eggs around one to two inches in length in some mulch around the house. What will hatch from them and when?

The eggs are probably those of a black rat snake, northern black racer or maybe an eastern milk snake. These species lay their eggs in mulch, sawdust piles or decaying vegetation where the decaying activity provides sufficient heat to incubate the eggs. Eggs may be laid during June or July and will hatch in six to eight weeks.

Once these eggs are laid, they should not be moved. Moving the eggs from their original orientation will affect their ability to hatch. Also, it is illegal to purposely damage or disrupt the nest or eggs of a reptile in PA. (Link to herp regs). The intent of the regulation is to aid in the reproductive success of PA’s native reptiles. These species are nonvenomous and are important rodent predators.

 

13. Do baby/juvenile rattlesnakes have venom when they are first born?

Yes. A neonate (newborn) rattlesnake possesses enough venom to subdue its prey and obtain its first meal.

 

14. How do I keep snakes away from my home and yard?

For tips on how to deter snakes from your home and/or yard please read our “Snakes in Basements and Buildings” online article.

 

15. Where can I find pictures of snakes native to PA?

We have some photos of PA snakes.

Other websites have more photos, we list a few at the bottom of our Amphibians & Reptiles page.

 

16. I found a dead timber rattlesnake lying on the road. Can I keep it?

A permit is required to hunt or possess a timber rattlesnake. The season for timber rattlesnakes runs from the second Saturday in June to July 31st. It is unlawful to possess a timber rattlesnake without a permit and a permit must be obtained prior to possessing a timber rattlesnake. Timber rattlesnakes found dead on the road during the closed season may not be retained and a permit will not be issued for their possession.

 

17. I killed a timber rattlesnake on the porch of my camp. Can I get it mounted?

PA Fish and Boat Commission regulations provide that a person may kill a venomous snake in defense of life and limb. This can be done regardless of the season. However, by law a person must report to the Commission in writing within 5 days, that such a killing occurred. Persons killing a venomous snake in defense of life and limb are not permitted to retain the snake. So, you would not be able to keep the snake and get it mounted.

 

VENOMOUS SNAKE PERMITS

1. What are the new (2007) size restrictions on hunting timber rattlesnakes?

The timber rattlesnake must be at least 42 inches in length, measured lengthwise along the dorsal surface from the snout to the tail, excluding the rattle, and must possess 21 or more subcaudal scales.

 

2. What are the possession limits and seasons to hunt timber rattlesnakes and northern copperheads?

The season to hunt both the timber rattlesnake and the northern copperhead is from the second Saturday in June to July 31.

The northern copperhead has an annual limit of 1. The timber rattlesnake has an annual limit of 1 but the snake must be at least 42 inches in length, measured lengthwise along the dorsal surface from the snout to tail, excluding the rattle, and must possess 21 or more subcaudal scales. Subcaudal scales are large flat scales that are located on the rear ventral portion (underside) of a timber rattlesnake between the vent (anal scale) and the base of the rattle. Males have 21 or more subcaudal scales, females have less than 21 subcaudal scales.

 

3. Is there a size restriction on hunting northern copperheads?

No, at this time, there is no size restriction on northern copperheads.

 

4. I heard that you couldn’t hunt timber rattlesnakes on the South Mountain located in southcentral Pennsylvania, is this true?

It is unlawful for a person to hunt, take, catch, or kill timber rattlesnakes west of Route 15 and south of Interstate 81 to the Maryland line where there is no open season. Thus, hunting timber rattlesnakes is prohibited on the South Mountain.

 

5. When are the report forms due for hunting timber rattlesnakes and copperheads?

Within 10 business days following the capture or kill of a timber rattlesnake and/or a copperhead. If no snake is captured or killed, then 10 days of the conclusion of the season (August 10 of the permit year).

 

6. When do I have to fill out a possession tag for a timber rattlesnake?

Once you take, catch, kill or possess a timber rattlesnake, you must immediately complete the possession tag that is attached to your permit and detach the tag from the permit in the field. The possession tag must be kept in a safe location so that it can be presented along with the timber rattlesnake to which it pertains upon the request of an officer authorized to enforce the code.

 

7. Is there a possession tag for northern copperheads?

No. While a venomous snake permit is needed to collect a copperhead, a possession tag is only for timber rattlesnakes.

 

8. How much does a venomous snake permit cost?

The fee for a venomous snake permit is $50 for non-residents and $25 for residents. The permit allows one to take, capture, or kill a timber rattlesnake and a northern copperhead. It does not apply to the eastern massasauga rattlesnake, which is listed as a state endangered species.

 

9. How do I obtain an application for the venomous snake permit?

You can obtain a permit application online.

 

10. Can I kill a timber rattlesnake or any snake with a firearm?

No, it is now unlawful to take, catch, or kill a reptile or amphibian through the use of a firearm.

 

TURTLES

1. I bought a turtle from a pet store. I want to let the turtle go into a pond. Is that legal?

Except for common snapping turtles, it is unlawful to take any reptile or amphibian from the wild in PA for sale, trade or barter. Therefore, all legally sold pet turtles cannot have been taken from the wild in PA. Thus, releasing a turtle obtained form a pet store would mean that you were releasing a species or individual that does not belong in the wilds of our Commonwealth. It is also illegal to release non-native species into the wild in PA.

Non-native species, which have been released into PA and have become nuisances. They compete with native species for habitat; food resources, nest sites, etc., often out-competing the native species. For example, red-eared slider turtles are not native to PA. These turtles were widely purchased in pet stores throughout the state especially during the 1960s and 1970s. Once the owners no longer desired these turtles as pets they released them into ponds, wetlands or streams. Presently, red-eared sliders have established populations in southeastern PA and are competing many of our native turtles for habitat and food, including the PA threatened red-bellied turtle.

 

2. My child found a turtle and brought it home. Can we keep it? 

As of Jan. 1, 2007, a possession permit is required to possess a live reptile or amphibian that is in compliance with possession limits in effect up to Dec. 31, 2006, but not in compliance with possession limits in effect on Jan. 1, 2007. This is required for continued possession for the remainder of the reptile or amphibian’s life. This is a one-time permit and must be submitted no later than June 30, 2007.

See the Reptiles and Ampbibians section of the PA Summary Book for complete regulations.

 

3. The local pet store is selling baby turtles. Isn’t that illegal?

There are federal regulations in effect that pertain to the sale of turtles with shell lengths of less than four (4) inches. With some exceptions, turtles offered for sale are supposed to have shell length greater than four inches. These regulations were created a number of years ago to address concerns that small children, who may acquire these turtles as pets might put them into their mouths and contract Salmonellosis. Salmonella bacteria can sometimes be found on turtles that have been kept in captivity. The US Food and Drug Administration and the US Fish and Wildlife Service can enforce these federal regulations. The Fish and Boat Commission does not have authority to enforce these regulations.

 

4. There’s a very large turtle in the mulch of my flower garden. What is it doing and how do I make it leave?

During May and June, snapping turtles leave the lakes, rivers and wetlands and go onto land in search of suitable locations to lay their eggs. Railroad grades, roadsides, sand traps at golf courses, and mulched flower beds are all places where nesting may occur. Successful sites will be in full or almost-full sunlight and the soil media is usually dark to absorb the heat needed for proper incubation. Female snapping turtles often move on rainy nights and may still be found nesting during the early morning hours. When they are finished with egg laying, they will leave to return to the water. Thus, if a turtle is encountered in the garden it will no doubt leave on its own within a few hours. If left alone, they will finish egg-laying more quickly than if bothered. It is not advisable to attempt to remove such a turtle as they may become agitated if they are interrupted or threatened.

After the eggs are laid, the female does not return to the nest. Many nests (3 out of 4) are preyed upon by foxes, raccoons, and skunks soon after the eggs are laid. Incubation takes between 60 and 90 days depending on the air and soil temperatures. The hatchlings typically emerge from the nest between mid-August and mid-September and head towards water. Under Fish and Boat Commission regulations, it is unlawful to disturb the nest or eggs of a reptile. Moving eggs after they have been deposited in the nest can prevent the eggs from hatching.

 

5. I found a turtle crossing the road, should I take it to a pet shop or nature center?

No. If you see a turtle crossing a road and want to help it, check carefully to make sure it is safe for you to enter the roadway, and then move the turtle across the road in the direction it was traveling. Putting a turtle on the side of the road it was coming from will only cause it to re-enter the roadway. They have strong homing instincts and it will no doubt continue its efforts to cross the road. Turtles seen on roads should not be picked up to take to a nature center or pet shop. Turtles taken from their native habitat often cannot be released to the wild because their exact origins of capture are usually not conveyed to persons at the receiving end. For a number of reasons both ecological and legal, these turtles may then become destined for a life in captivity. Thus, if you want to help a turtle cross the road, do so but don’t take him/her from the site.

 

6. What are turtle hooks? 

Turtle hooks are the only hooks a person is allowed to use to take, catch, or kill a turtle with. These turtle hooks must be at least 3.5 inches in total length with at least a 1-inch space between the point and shank.

 

7. What turtles can I collect from the wild? 

You are allowed to possess one of each native species not listed as threatened/endangered or as a species of concern.

 

8. What turtles am I not allowed to collect from the wild?

The following turtles are protected (no take, catch or kill) in Pennsylvania:

  • Bog turtle (endangered)
  • Red-bellied turtle (threatened)
  • Blanding’s turtle (candidate, species of concern)
  • Spotted turtle (species of concern)
  • Wood turtle (species of concern)
  • Eastern box turtle (species of concern)

 

9. I want to collect a snapping turtle for a pet/dinner, do I need a snapping turtle permit?

You do not need a snapping turtle permit if you are collecting a snapping turtle for your own personal use. As long as you have a valid PA fishing license, an individual can collect 15 daily and have a total of 30 in their possession.

 

10. Who needs a snapping turtle permit?

Anyone wishing to sell, barter, or trade snapping turtles or their parts needs to have a snapping turtle permit. These permits are $50 for residents per year and $100 for non-residents per year. This permit must be possessed at all times while hunting for turtles. You can obtain a permit application online.

 

11. Can I release my pet turtle into the wild?

It is illegal to place into the wild any species that are not native to Pennsylvania. It is also illegal to release any native species of turtles taken from Pennsylvania unless:

  • The turtle is released at the point of capture.
  • The turtle is released within 30 days of capture.
  • The turtle is released between May 1 and September 31.
  • The turtle is in good health.
  • The turtle was not in contact with other reptiles or amphibians while in captivity.

 

SALE or PURCHASE of REPTILES & AMPHIBIANS

1. Is it legal to buy/sell/own an alligator, cayman or crocodile in PA?

The PA Fish and Boat Commission’s regulations do not regulate possession of non-native species of reptiles and amphibians. So long as these animals are not released into the wild, there are no state regulations regarding their ownership. Likewise, there is no state permit required to possess these animals. However, there may be local municipal ordinances, which regulate the ownership of “dangerous animals” and you should check with your local government before purchasing such an animal.

 

2. I want to propagate bullfrogs. Where do I purchase a permit?

The Department of Agriculture is responsible for issuing permits for fish propagation, which in this case also includes bullfrogs and green frogs. You can reach the Department of Agriculture at (717) 772-2852, their website is www.pda.state.pa.us.

 

3. I want to sell reptiles and amphibians. Do I need permit from the Fish and Boat Commission?

Our regulations require that with the exception of common snapping turtles, no reptile or amphibian may be taken from the wild in PA for sale, trade or barter. To sell a snapping turtle, you would need to have a commercial snapping turtle permit (link to permit) Also, it is unlawful to possess, import or export species listed as endangered or threatened by the Fish and Boat Commission.

 

4. I want to catch timber rattlesnakes and copperheads and milk them so I can sell their venom. What permits do I need?

It is unlawful to offer for sale, trade or barter reptiles and amphibians (except snapping turtles) taken from the wild in PA. This includes the animals alive or dead, whole or in parts including eggs or any lifestage. Venom is a “part.” Thus, it is unlawful to milk our native snakes and sell the venom.

 

5. I caught a male and female hognose snake and they mated in captivity. Can I sell the offspring?

No. See also question number 3. The purpose of our regulations regarding the sale of reptiles and amphibians is to minimize exploitation of wild populations by eliminating a profit motive. Catching gravid females and/or captive breeding of wild caught specimens to produced young for sale goes against our philosophy of not permitting the commercial use of these species.

 

Miscellaneous 

1. I often catch crayfish in a stream near my home to use as bait. I've noticed that there seems to be more than one kind. How many different species of crayfish are there around Pennsylvania?

Unfortunately, the information that we have about the current status of crayfish species occurrence and abundance is limited. No comprehensive statewide surveys of crayfish species have been completed since the turn of the century when A.E. Ortmann recorded much of what is now the historic baseline data for PA crayfishes. As far as we know 13 species may occur in Pennsylvania. All are of the family Cambaridae. (At the end of this document is a list of the likely species.)

At the Commission's urging, there are two research projects by the Wild Resource Conservation Fund that will begin to address the lack of information regarding these important crustaceans. One will attempt to develop a photographic key to the Pennsylvania species for use by persons such as yourself. The other project would involve researchers in a coordinated effort to determine the statewide distribution of crayfishes in Pennsylvania and compare that to the early 1900's data.

Across North America most researchers are beginning to realize that aquatic invertebrates are the most endangered of all species due to alterations of the aquatic environment. Freshwater mussels are highest on the list of concern but crayfishes are running a close second. We expect to see increased interest, studies and new information about these species becoming available in the next few years. For now, if you wish to attempt identifications the best source may be to check out a copy of "Freshwater Invertebrates of the U.S." by Robert W. Pennak. A university library is your best bet.

Species in the Family Cambaridae likely in Pennsylvania

    • Cambarus b. bartonii
    • Cambarus bartonii carinirostris
    • Camabrus diogenes
    • Cambarus dubius
    • Cambarus monongalensis
    • Cambarus robustus
    • Cambarus thomai
    • Orconectes limosus
    • Orconectes obscurus
    • Orconectes propinquus
    • Orconectes rusticus
    • Orconectes virilis
    • Procambarus acutus

2. Is it my imagination or are am I seeing more snakes than normal lately? I live in a semi-rural area, so it's not that unusual to come across a snake now and then in the woods. But the last couple of weeks it seems like there have been more around, especially near my house and down by the local creek.

Your observations of local snake populations are probably right on. This doesn't mean there are more snakes, it just means they are being seen in different areas and at different times.

Many species of snakes common to Pennsylvania, such as eastern garter snakes and eastern milk snakes, frequent lowlands and grassy areas. During hot, dry weather - especially in the drought conditions like much of Pennsylvania often experiences in summers - even species that typically prefer forests and rocky hillsides (timber rattlesnakes and northern ringneck snakes, for example) begin to move toward valleys and stream bottoms.

Some people think this movement is prompted by a search for water. This explanation is only partially correct, however. The snakes themselves are not necessarily looking for sources of water, but the small animals (mice, chipmunks, toads, etc.) that snakes feed on are. The "additional" snakes you are seeing are merely following their food sources. As cooler fall temperatures arrive, theses snakes will gradually move back into the areas you are more accustomed to encountering them.

Although you have noticed snakes more frequently of late, you might be surprised to learn how many more snakes are actually around but you are not seeing. To combat excessive heat, many species of snakes at this time of year limit movement to the relative cool of the nighttime and therefore are rarely seen by most of us. Eastern kingsnakes and northern brown snakes are typically most active during the day are almost exclusively nocturnal during the hottest days of summer. The eastern worm snake deals with heat in a different way; it burrows deep into the soil to stay cool.

In addition to seeing more snakes, you might also begin to see numbers of very small snakes. Young snakes are usually born or hatch in late summer or early fall. Snakes give birth in one of two ways. Species that lay eggs, such as the black rat snake, are termed "oviparous." Other species including queen snakes and northern water snakes, give birth to live young and are termed "ovoviviparous."

All snakes are an essential component of Pennsylvania's wildlife resources. Fear or negative attitudes about snakes often stem from a lack of knowledge of their habits and role in the ecosystem. A person's attitude about snakes appears to correlate to the relative nearness of a snake at any given time. For example, some people do not think twice about snakes until they show up in their backyard, shed or house. The majority of snakes appearing in these areas are nonvenomous, harmless and usually beneficial to man. Increased awareness of snakes and their habits usually leads to a new appreciation of them and their part in our world.

Visit the "Snakes in Pennsylvania" section of our web site for more information about snakes, or our amphibians & reptiles page for links to other snake pages.

Field guides and life history books are great tools for bridging gaps in knowledge. The book Pennsylvania Amphibians & Reptiles is published by the PFBC and is available for purchase online at the Outdoor Shop.

3. While fishing on the Susquehanna River we observed a semi-buoyant blob about the size of a large raccoon but shaped like a big kidney bean or a human stomach. It was colored like everything else in the water. Using a stick, I coaxed it over to a rock and broke it open. It was gel-like inside and had a foul odor. What is it?

You have described a bryozoan which can range in size from a tennis ball to a muskrat up to apparently even a raccoon. Seriously, this is the third bryozoan report that I have had this summer, which is probably due to the low and clear water conditions that we have seen around the state due to the drought. They've always been there but now they are more visible to people.

Bryozoans are animals related to jellyfish and other primitive invertebrates. The animal itself is actually a colony of many individual bryozoans. The green color is due to the algae that also colonize the bryozoans. In fact just the name itself gives a clue as to the relationship between these two organisms; "bryo" refers to plant and "zoan" refers to animal. Bryozoans are usually attached to the substrate, often around submerged twigs or sticks. Sometimes they break away and then may settle wherever they come to rest. Breaking the colony up can result in new budding and growth and result in new colonies forming. They eat microscopic plankton and protozoans.

This animal is so unique it is classified in its own phylum. So, what you have seen has been around all along but now you know the rest of the story. Its nice to hear that you were on the river with your kids and now they have an opportunity to add to their knowledge of the river and aquatic life. Thanks for your inquiry.

Andrew L. Shiels
Nongame and Endangered Species Unit

RELATED LINK

4. We found what we believe to be a black rat snake. What I would like to know is: 1) is it legal for me to keep this snake? 2) will this animal thrive in captivity (it's just a baby and may become prey)? 3) IF it is a good decision to keep this snake; what should we feed it, what is the best living arrangement, heat rock?, and what type of materials should be in its habitat, etc.? I have read that in captivity they can live beyond 20 years.

It is legal to catch and keep a black rat snake taken from the wild in Pennsylvania. However, as stewards of Pennsylvania's native reptiles and amphibians, the Commission does NOT encourage people to remove snakes and other herptiles from the wild for pets. They serve a valuable purpose as prey and predator in their natural habitat. You indicated a reason for keeping this animal was because you were concerned that since it was a baby it would become a meal for some other animal. That could very well be the case; or, it could grow up to become a very effective natural predator on rodents such as mice and rats thus serving one of the purposes for which it has evolved. Snakes of all sizes can become prey. Such a threat is not reserved only for juvenile snakes. Therefore, I wouldn't keep a healthy animal in captivity because I was concerned for its safety in the wild.

You also acknowledged that there are many things to be considered in order to keep a snake healthy in captivity such as feeding, housing and heat considerations. You are correct. When an animal is confined it has to rely on its keeper to provide all of the needed environmental and dietary requirements necessary for its survival. In the wild, the same snake would move around seeking out ideal conditions until it found them. Once again such a wild animal will do better in the wild on its own rather than in captivity.

Furthermore, you mentioned that this snake could live for up to 20 years. The next question is, what will you do with it when you no longer wish to buy mice every two weeks or your children grow up and move out of the house, or you just plain get tired of it. Unfortunately, release to the wild will no longer be an option. A snake kept in captivity for much longer than thirty days often begins to load up with various parasites which are easily able to infect and re-infect it due to the confined living conditions. Also, a snake which has not been forced to find and hunt its own food or select a proper over wintering location is unlikely to do well if released into the wild. While its out there trying to find a place to hide or food to eat, it will be more susceptible to predation than its wild raised cousins. That brings us right back around to the reason why you wanted to save the snake in the first place, to protect it from predation.

My recommendation is that you release the snake where you found and allow it to live out its life, however long that may be, in the wild. If you still wish to keep a snake as a pet, I would go back to the pet store and purchase a species recommended by the staff as an "easy keeper" which has been captive-bred and is already feeding well. They can also direct you to specific books and guides which will describe the requirements needed to successfully keep that species. There is literally a book on care already written for most of the more common captive bred snakes popular in the pet trade.