The illusions surrounding the live animal business can readily be compared to the old saying that ‘you shouldn’t sit up front at the ballet'; get too close and the magic vanishes, the harsh realities revealed. Despite our best intentions something changes when we take that which we love and turn it into a commodity. Tending to the day-in, day-out needs of live animals is neither elegant nor glamorous work, especially when it is done in quantity. The reptile’s comparatively infrequent elimination of bodily waste seems to become a non-stop fecal barrage and feeding time, once a source of intense fascination, shifts to a relatively emotionless event with speed and efficiency being the motivating factors. The rare loss of an animal shifts from being a time of sadness to one of cleaning, sterilization and a double-checking of proper husbandry techniques. You know, asset management and risk mitigation.
Fortunately, most of us keep perspective and never forget that this particular commodity is a living thing and is deserving of necessary care and attention. Despite giving each animal what it needs to thrive the reality doesn’t change; many breeders of reptiles have multiple dozens, hundreds, thousands or even tens of thousands of animals in their care. When the volume gets high the inability of a single individual to adequately tend to the health of the animals is compensated for with manpower. We task our staff with creating a physical environment in which the animals can thrive. The never ending needs of the reptiles are satisfied. In exchange for this wonderful and diverse volume of creatures we, the one’s who love reptiles so much that we decided to dedicate our lives to breeding them, generally give up the chance at making any sort of connection with individual animals. Don’t get me wrong, though. As much as I love them I do not believe that reptiles have the ability to form bi-directional connections the way humans and dogs can. Reptiles are satisfied when their physical needs are taken care of and they associate their owner more along the lines of “he’s not going to eat me” rather than, “he’s my friend”. Humans, however, are not so callous. Our tendency to anthropomorphize allows us to establish bonds with the pets in our lives, regardless of their ability to reciprocate. They become important to us beyond any financial value and when lost, we hurt.
Over the past twenty years the total number of snakes I have owned numbers in the multiple thousands. Through them all I vividly remember the first one. It was one of the only snakes I ever named. Like so many others it was a ball python. He was the first snake I ever watched feed, my nose an inch from the glass. He was the first snake to bite me (my mistake, not his) and despite his meager financial value he was the first snake to which I ever felt a personal attachment. As soon as I made the mental shift to ‘breeder’ I stopped thinking of the animals as pets and began to think of them more as mechanisms of profit. That’s not as emotionless as it sounds. I still have a passion for reptiles, I’m just not passionate about any one reptile.
Some of my reptile breeding peers have lingering warm sentiments toward a select animal or two. I know a few breeders with collections many of us can only dream about that still have their original male pastel or their original het albino male. The animals no longer serve a purpose in their collections but they still can’t bring themselves to let them go. Whether its an emotional attachment or an unwillingness to sell an animal for a few dollars that they probably paid several thousand for isn’t something on which I can speculate. I just know they still have them and won’t let them go. I don’t have any such animals right now. And it has been a long time since I felt connected to any particular python. I know another breeder whose original leopard geckos are over nineteen years old. Those animals mean something to him; something more than any possible money they could bring.
Last week I was in New York for a reptile trade show. We always drive up the night before and stay with some friends. Ever since we have been going up to that show my friends have had a prehensile-tailed skink in their living room. This time, however, the cage was in its usual place but the skink was gone. They explained that after more than 17 years, the skink had passed away. As they told us the story of how it died I caught the two of them briefly make eye contact and in that moment I caught a glimpse of just how sad they were at the loss of their pet. They reflected on the little things the skink had added to their lives, how it had been a fixture of this and several previous living rooms; living rooms that spanned almost two decades. They talked about how the now absent sound of the timer that controlled the cage environment had been a source of comfort in the house; a sound of safety and of home. Their words were not emotional but I could feel their sense of loss. And as much as I could see that they missed their pet I became keenly aware that I have not felt that way about a reptile in a long time. And that has caused me to do a lot of personal reflection. You see, I don’t have any reptiles in my home and it has been that way for a while. I made the decision several years ago to move my entire operation into a facility separate from the place where my family spends its time. At the time the decision was a practical one; reptiles have a distinct smell, the caging I used was not terribly decorative, and I was tired of balancing the environment needs of animals with those of my wife and daughter. I had plenty of reasons. But now I think I need to reconnect. I need a reminder of what it means to have a pet reptile rather than a reptile business.
But even as I type this I wonder if that’s the best thing for me to do. I already have a dog and she is my friend and constant companion. I often lament on how dogs live just long enough to become an incredibly important part of your life and then emotionally rip you apart when they die, frequently by your own decision to put an end to suffering that old age brings them. I constantly wonder if the years of joy they bring to my life is worth the pain I feel when they are gone. Isn’t it easier and less painful to just not have one in the first place? I guess my answer resides in the fact that my dog is lying next to me as I type. As bad as it is going to hurt when she is gone I am glad for this moment right now. But dogs are special. Comparing their capacity for emotion to reptiles is unfair. But remember, it isn’t reptiles who are forming the emotional attachment: we are. And it’s us who will feel the pain of their death. My friends skink lived for 17 years. That’s got to be a lot of hurt. I’ve never had a dog that long. Despite the possibility of pain I think it’s time for me to add a pet reptile back to my life. It’s been too long without one.