Snakes have a lot of bad PR to overcome: Fomenting humankind's fall from grace isn't something even a James Carville can fix overnight.
But devoted snake keepers will tell you their slithery sidekicks don't deserve the bad rap. Like many other reptiles, snakes make good companions, provided you choose carefully.
With newbies, bigger is definitely not better, says herpetologist Danny Mendez, president of the New Jersey Herpetological Society and a breeder of annulate tree boas (for a look, visit www.urbanjungles.com).
"Unfortunately, one of the most commonly available snakes is the Burmese python," he says. "They can get to 18 feet with no problem. And it becomes a safety issue."
The rule of thumb, says Mendez, is any snake over 6 feet long should not be handled without someone else in the room.
"Snakes are very primitive animals, and certain triggers set them off," he explains. "So if you eat a steak and forget to wash your hands, your snake might mistake you for prey. That's no problem with a small snake, but even an 8-foot animal can overcome an adult."
Another (hopefully) obvious no-no are venomous -- also called "hot" -- snakes.
Since a snake can be a decades-long commitment, be scrupulous about where yours comes from. Purchase only captive-bred animals; wild-caught snakes will have difficulty adjusting to captivity, be tougher to tame and can carry parasites that compromise health.
Here are some suggestions for "starter snakes," loosely listed by ease of care.
Garter snake. Yep, that old garden standby. Native snakes are ideal for novices because they don't have the complicated temperature and humidity requirements that exotic species do. Garter-snake breeders are creating all kinds of color variations, including albinos and "snows."
Another plus: small size, up to 4 feet. And the squeamish will be pleased to know garters can eat earthworms and goldfish -- no MiceCapades here.
Your new garter might exhibit some initial nervousness -- whipping around, emitting musk. But Mendez says that will fade with careful and deliberate handling.
Corn snake. A "step up" from the garter snake in terms of difficulty of care, corn snakes get a little larger, to 6 feet. These rodent feeders, named for their kernel- shaped skin patterns, are a type of rat snake and are available in a number of vibrant colors.
"They're very tractable -- and famous for having very friendly dispositions as far as reptiles go," says Mendez.
Rat snake. Like corn snakes, most rat snakes top out at 6 feet, although Mendez says 4 feet is the average. As its name implies, the rat snake eats rodents.