Disclaimer: I wrote this post a long time ago and have gone back and forth over whether or not I should ever post it. On one hand it brings up a topic worthy of discussion amongst responsible reptile breeders. On the other hand it can serve as ammunition for those who think that people shouldn’t own reptiles. But in the end I decided that reptiles who suffer horrible fates are no different than dogs, cats, ferrets, rabbits, or any other animal kept as a pet. People are diverse in many ways; their ability and willingness to care for animals being just one of them. Here goes:
From time to time I get calls from local people who want to sell me their snakes. I also keep an eye on local classifieds, looking for good deals that might come along. Over the years I’ve met some cool people this way and usually enjoy seeing how fellow herpers set up their animals. Necessity is the mother of invention and I’ve seen how limited budgets can help people come up with some really cool husbandry solutions. I’m also often intrigued to see what animals people have in their collections; many are a potpourri of stuff as random as you can imagine.
But… sometimes I go to houses that make me sad. Like a few nights ago, for instance. Someone posted some snakes in a local classified ad and I decided to call and talk with them about what they had to offer. The person gave a compelling description of the animals, describing how wonderful her animals were, how much she loved them and how it hurt her to have to part with them (she claimed to be broke). So I took the time to drive over and check things out. It was a catastrophe. The snakes had one of the worst mite infestations I’ve seen in years. Anemia was a given; the animals were emaciated, ridge-backed, listless and in all around poor health. And to top it off they weren’t even what she had advertised them to be. These animals needed to be rescued from their owner. I know it makes me a jerk but I’m not in the animal rescue business. I don’t have the time, space, or ability to take on rescue projects. Those animals are more than likely doomed and they don’t deserve it. They were some of the unlucky few to be picked by people unqualified to own reptiles. I left feeling sad for the animals but it’s not something I haven’t seen before.
None of these animals were high dollar animals when they were healthy; maybe $65-$100 each when they were purchased at a snake show or a pet store. And on my way home I thought about two things: The first was that I wanted to burn my clothes and take a bath in Nix to clean any mites off me and the second was a sad realization of something I have known for a long time but have chosen to not really acknowledge.
What realization? Well, have you ever known something for a long time but subconsciously chose to never really let it come to the forefront of your thoughts? I’m sure you have. We all do. After almost 20 years in the snake business I’ve seen some horrible things done to snakes. The neglect, the poor husbandry, the lack of feeding, the untreated illnesses; I’ve seen it all many times over. It comes with the territory. But it’s not just reptiles. I’ve seen it with dogs, cats and many other types of animals. For most of my years I chalked it up to that small portion of people in our business who basically just suck. They have no business owning a reptile (or any other animal) because they aren’t willing to take the time, put in the effort or spend the money to give the animal the care it deserves. Fortunately for the snakes, most of us aren’t like that.
But the revelation I had that night was not that it’s just that some people suck and don’t deserve to own a reptile, it’s that some snakes are actually too inexpensive and it’s their low price that dooms them just as much as the idiots who buy them. A normal ball python costs $25 or less at a reptile trade show. Corn snakes are often less than that. There are an endless number of snakes that cost basically nothing to buy. And if something costs next to nothing there is a greater degree of likelihood that a person won’t give it the care it deserves. It’s financial value makes it disposable, not worthy of any real effort or caring. “My $25 snake got sick and died? Oh well, I’ll just buy a new one.”
There are exceptions to every rule, of course. There are always are. A friend and fellow breeder named Carl Gilmore (www.suffolkselects.com) recently spent many hundreds of dollars in vet bills to treat a normal ball python who had developed some medical problems. The money he spent was multiple times over the value of the animal. But he did it because he believes that a snake held in captivity deserves the best care its keeper can provide, regardless of its financial value. As much as it hurts the bottom line its the right thing to do. Not all of us are so honorable. Carl has my complete respect because he always does the right things when it comes to his animals. Their financial value isn’t part of the equation when it comes to their maintenance.
How often do you see high-end ball pythons, say a Ghost Mojave, in a mite-infested, emaciated state? Pretty close to never. Why? Because that animal costs a lot of money and someone willing to spend the money to buy it is going to be much more likely to give it the care it deserves.
I know it will never happen but wouldn’t the overall state of reptile health be light years better if a normal ball python was $400. People would not buy them on impulse and because they had a vested interest in them they would be much less likely to neglect them. It wouldn’t be a perfect system, of course. Again, exceptions to the rules always exist. But let’s compare it to the world of home ownership. Banks want you to put at least 20% of your own money into the deal before loaning you the other 80% to buy a house? It’s not because the bank can’t afford to loan you the whole 100% (all jokes about the current state of the financial industry aside); it’s just that they know that if you have a vested interested in the house you’re more likely to take care of it. That provides a measure of protection for their portion of the investment. They know you are less likely to trash the house and let it fall into a dilapidated state because you have a vested financial interest in its continuity.
It’s a bit idealistic for me to even think of it but wouldn’t it be cool if breeders required their customers to put more into the purchase of an animal to increase the likelihood that the animals would live a long and healthy life. Sadly we’re on the opposite side of that particular coin. It’s all about money and most of us will sell a snake to anybody waving cash in front of our face. I know I have sold snakes to people who weren’t ready. I talked with them about how to take care of the snake, I encouraged them to buy a book about successful husbandry of their animal and I always make myself available after the sale for advice. But I can’t be judge and jury when it comes to selling an animal. In the end I have to expect people to be accountable for their own actions. I’ve been hearing a lot of chatter lately about making animal sellers more accountable. But how? Should I interview a customer’s neighbors before selling a snake? Should I schedule a visit with their pastor or preacher to talk about what kind of person they are? Should I make them provide references from former employers and school teachers telling me how responsible they are? Seems silly, doesn’t it? I don’t want to sell a snake into certain death. I love these animals, even the $5 ones. But how do I discern the responsible from the irresponsible? I can’t. Now, in my defense, there have been a few times when I knew the person I was talking to was going to kill the snake within hours. Their stupidity was just too obvious. On those few occasions I did talk them out of buying one from me. But they may very well have moved to the next table and picked up an animal there.
Few people love capitalism as much as I do. But nights like the other night make me momentarily guilty, knowing that those low dollar animals I sell to people are occasionally going to meet a terrible end.
Not so cheery,