The African rock python (Python sebae) is a large snake with care requirements similar to those of the Burmese or the reticulated python. While many people have satisfactory experiences with these large pets, there are a number of cases on record in which people have been killed or attacked. Many of the attacks are in connection with poor feeding procedures. Others have happened when the large python was allowed to roam freely through the house. The bottom line is these snakes can be unpredictable.
Keeping a large constricting snake requires a strict attention to housing and safety principles. They should not be allowed to roam freely. They are wild animals with strong instincts and can attack unexpectedly if they feel threatened or smell food on or near a human. Because they grow so large so fast, they have a voracious appetite. Holding food back from them to keep them from growing so fast just makes them hungry and irritable.
Rock pythons, which grow to 16-20 feet long, should be respected for their strength and treated accordingly. When it is necessary to handle them like when cleaning their cage, it is important to have another experienced person to help. This is especially true for all larger snakes. It is recommended that you have one handler for every five feet of snake.
A large African rock python is also strong enough to get out of most enclosures. It needs the strongest of escape-proof cages, and for safety, this should be kept in an escape-proof locked room.
One reason the rock python is dangerous around feeding time is that it doesn't see well. They use their sense of smell for finding prey. If the keeper has the smell of food on him or near him, the snake is likely to assume the keeper is food. The instinct to constrict its food and eat is so reflexive that it can kill you before it realizes you are too big to swallow.
Experienced snake owners call unsafe feeding practices "Stupid Feeding Errors" or "SFE's." These are almost always involved when there is a report of a large snake attacking its owner. Proper feeding requires that you wash your hands before feeding the snake, and then use long handled tongs to hold the pre-killed prey. Any warm blooded animals, such as cats and dogs, can set off the feeding instinct, and should be kept at a safe distance.
In addition to these considerations, the rock python can live for 25 years. If you get one and find out after a few years that it is more than you can handle, you will not have an easy time getting rid of it. They may seem "cool," but not that many people want the job of taking care of a big snake.
The best way to get used to all of these routines is to get your snake while it is very young. This way you can learn how to care for your snake correctly while the risk is still fairly small. Handling a young snake properly will help it be less defensive later on. Correct feeding methods should always be used even when it's small. Never handle the snake when it is in a mood to eat or right afterwards.
When you first bring a rock python home keep it quarantined from any other snakes you may own for at least a month and maybe several. There is a virus called IBD that is fatal in pythons and can affect boas as well. The symptoms include regurgitating, mouthrot, loss of appetite, and respiratory infections. In addition, they might assume contorted positions. Unfortunately, sometimes even snakes from the pet store are already infected with this virus. It's one more reason to take time watching the snake you hope to get for a while before buying it.
While a 55-gallon aquarium can make a suitable starter enclosure, it won't be long before you'll be forced to build your own large cage. There is a smaller species, the Python sebae nattilensis, which "only" grows to 12 feet. For the big ones a walk-in closet can be converted to a pen. The important thing is for it to be completely escape-proof. These snakes are extremely strong.
Substrate, or floor covering, for the vivarium can be newspaper, paper towels, or butcher paper. When you've made sure the snake doesn't have mites and it has settled into its new home, you can use bedding in the cage. Don't use cedar or other wood shavings as bedding though because the oils can adversely affect the python's health. Soiled bedding needs to be removed and replaced with clean material. Also, Astroturf can be cut to fit the cage. Have two pieces of Astroturf ready, and you can use one while washing the other.
A rock python will appreciate having a hiding place in its enclosure. This can be as simple as a cardboard box with a door cut into the side. Pet stores carry half-logs and other decorative hides for snakes. It will also like a large natural rock to climb on.
The temperature inside the snake's enclosure should have a gradient of temperatures from 80 degrees Fahrenheit (27 degrees Celsius) to 92 degrees Fahrenheit (33 degrees Celsius). There are a variety of ways to add warmth to the pen. Light bulbs can help, but they have to be kept away from the snake to avoid burns. They also need to be turned off for 12 hours a day. Some owners like UV light, but it should not be used if the snake is an albino. A good option when the snake is large is a veterinary heating pad called a "pig blanket." This rigid fiberglass mat can be equipped with a thermostat.
A rock python will enjoy soaking in its water bowl. It will need a tub when it gets bigger, and may eventually have to be bathed in the bath tub. Be sure to follow safety precautions if this is necessary, including having a willing partner or two to help handle the big snake. Bathing is particularly helpful during shedding. Make sure you keep the snake's water bowl clean with fresh water always available.
Your young rock python will benefit by having a short daily period of handling, but keep in mind that these can be very aggressive snakes. Don't start these handling sessions until it has settled into its new home, and never handle it after eating. Always remember it will slither away and escape when it can, so keep track of it. Move gently and never suddenly. If the snake wraps around you, start at the tail end to gently unwind it. Try not to let it wrap around your neck. Keep disinfectant available for the occasional bite most large python owners eventually get.
While these snakes are awesome beautiful creatures, think twice before adopting an African rock python into your home. They should not be brought into any home with young children or elderly people in residence. The responsibility of keeping a potential killer is tremendous. To keep things in perspective, however, it's worth noting that more people are killed by Rottweilers and German Shepherds than by large pet snakes. Still, getting one is not a decision to be made lightly.