When snakes are picked up, why is it by the end of the tail and not just behind the head?
Grabbing a snake by the neck is a nearly universal act of hostility by whatever creature is doing so, and is generally received as such by any snake that is seized in such a manner, regardless of intent. It is a default coup-de-grace by innumerable predators of snakes, ranging from raptors (Snake Eagle, Secretary Bird) to mongooses to honey badgers. Thus, the response from the snake will be equally hostile, even if the agitator does so in such a manner that the snake is unable to directly strike back. Constrictors such as kingsnakes will coil their bodies around your arm, forcing you into the difficult task of unwinding them and securing them with your free hand prior to releasing your hold on their neck (you will promptly be bitten otherwise). Many other species, such as rattlesnakes, are capable of twisting their heads around and wedging their jaws underneath the fingers being used to secure them. Groups such as Ringneck Snakes, Water Snakes, Garter Snakes, and Ribbon Snakes are notorious for emitting a very vile musk, and many other snakes will defecate on their handlers when moody or stressed. Even when employing the proper approach, the last two responses are a frequent possibility.
If you are caring for a snake in captivity, this is a permanent bond-breaker. Henceforth, the snake will have its guard way up whenever it even senses that you have entered the room, habitat, or containment facility where they are kept. Carrying out simple tasks like changing out their bedding or emptying and refilling their tubs will be a Herculean labor, because they will hiss, thrash around frantically if you have to move them, and often constantly strike at you when any part of you is within range. This behavior seldom fades – most snake species don’t really bond to particular people, even their most frequent handlers/caretakers (Ball Pythons are among noteworthy exceptions), but they nonetheless recognize individuals and are easily capable of identifying those that frequently abuse or mistreat them. Quite often, such actions can trigger aversion or open hostility towards people in general, and completely ruin the ease and enjoyment of studying and interacting with them. It also risks severe and often life-threatening injuries to them, such as broken ribs, kinked or snapped tails (which often necessitate euthanasia), damaged organs, or head trauma.
Moreover, such coarse and underhanded tactics are really unnecessary. Even in the wild, I’ve picked up and handled ribbon snakes, rat snakes, and water snakes without much trouble (rat snakes are frequent trekkers through my own neighborhood). Generally, as long as you make your presence known beforehand and make no sudden, sharp movements, the chances of provoking a negative reaction are reduced. Even picking them up by the tail should generally be avoided, due to the aforementioned injuries it can cause. Picking them up by the midsection or the rear sector just anterior to their tails is fine so long as they are provided with leverage soon afterward and their bodies are kept fairly level and relatively unsuspended.
Smaller snakes can be given full support by being cradled in both palms.
Picking them up by the rear section above the tail is an occasionally-used approach in order to safely gauge the snake’s response. Some groups common throughout the United States, such as Cornsnakes, Milksnakes, Garter Snakes, and Kingsnakes, can be prevented from reaching their heads back up toward your hand when in this position by simply rotating them, which momentarily disorients them without causing them any discomfort or agitation. A soft yet secure grip that leaves enough free space for the snake to wrap its tail around the wrist to ensure stabilization will provide reassurance for the snake while still affording a fair amount of control for the handler. Nevertheless, this should only be done for very brief periods in order to transport the snake short distances or remove it from harm’s way, and the snake should either be released or given additional support very soon afterward. Never seize or suspend small or baby snakes by the tail or neck at all – their bones can easily snap. Also, never simply pick a snake up by the end of its tail and keep it suspended. Many species, such as Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes and Black Racers, have the muscular structure to enable them to quickly raise themselves back up to the point of suspension (Note: Untrained and unauthorized personnel should NEVER handle venomous snakes, especially bare-handed). If uncomfortable or unsure of the proper approach bare-handed, use one of these:
Snake hooks made from steel or copper are durable, come in various sizes, and generally feature a tapered yet fairly blunt tip that can secure the snake without damaging its skin. They come in collapsible varieties as well, but as these tend to break, they should usually not be used. Typical full-length instruments are between 33cm and 48cm in length, and can be used for hoisting a snake between 1.3-3m (4–10ft.) in length up by the midsection, but the snake should be provided additional support with tongs or hands very soon afterward. They should also be held at an angle that puts them at a safe distance until secured. Constrictors within this size range, such as boas and pythons, can usually be handled with these as well, but larger snakes longer than 3m require assistance, the use of multiple instruments, and careful hand guidance.
Note that these instruments should be used with very delicate precision. Though most snake tongs have blunt rims, they nonetheless have a powerful grip and can harm the snake if excessive force is used. Full-sized tongs such as these should also not be used on small snakes shorter than around 1 meter in length. Tongs are typically not reliable in the field, and are generally useful only after a snake has been contained.
Bottom line: Always be familiar with the species of snake you are dealing with before approaching or handling it in any way.
Many venomous snakes can be mistaken for their non-venomous mimics, the most classic example being the coral snake and milk snake, respectively. Venomous snakes, in particular, are very unpredictable in their behavior, and are known for their sudden spontaneous thrashing fits and snapping tantrums soon after appearing stoic during encounters. It is very easy to underestimate a safe distance of approach or misjudge a snake’s tolerance level, and the degree and likelihood to which certain measures will unnecessarily provoke or agitate them are often difficult to gauge. Also, a snake will generally share the temperament of its handler at the moment. The more tense you are, the higher your pulse, and the more sudden, abrupt, jolting movements you make, the less cooperative the snake will be. Staying calm and giving proper support is paramount.
Reactions can vary, of course – different individuals have different personalities, including among members of the same species, and a docile or passive response is not guaranteed. What is guaranteed, however, is a completely unrewarding and unfulfilling experience for both you and the snakes should you resort to such crude measures because the only thing on your mind during your interactions with them is your own safety, or simply out of excitement or overconfidence. As mentioned, both wild and captive snakes will take being grabbed by the head or neck as a predation attempt, and respond accordingly. The throat and neck are the prime target areas of many predators toward prey in general (a classic example being the majority of cat species), and most non-domesticated vertebrates, especially reptiles and mammals, are wary of any contact with such a vulnerable area and are practically programmed to respond negatively to it. Basically, unless your intention is to kill the creature, don’t do it.