Genetic Provenance, Insanity, and Spoiled Milk
Genetic Provenance, Insanity, and Spoiled Milk
“Because they know all they sold ya’ was a guaranteed piece of shit. That’s all it is, isn’t it? Hey, if you want me to take a dump in a box and mark it guaranteed, I will. I got spare time.”
Several weeks ago I read posts on the Burmese Python Forums (Small Burms and Fake Hypos) that discussed sellers on some notable reptile classified web sites offering both dwarf and hypo Burmese that really were not what they claim. Apparently someone was selling hypo-like animals that were not genetic hypos and dwarf burms that were not genetic dwarves. This sort of stuff is fairly common and I see it every now and then in the ball python market. I’m sure it happens in every little crevice of the reptile world. Less than scrupulous people are willing to stretch the truth, tweak the photos or flat-out lie in order to extract a few extra dollars from a sale. It’s a bane of the business, an unfortunate feature of the reptile trade. People in-the-know see these types of ads and react with laughter and general disdain. A tiny handful will take time to contact the seller to tell them that their misrepresentation (intentional or accidental) did not go unnoticed. An even smaller number of us will contact the administrator of the site on which they happen to be listed in an effort to get the ads removed. But most of us either don’t notice or don’t care. After all, only two people will be hurt by such listings; the seller (in the form of his diminished reputation) and the buyer (being unnecessarily parted with his cash). That’s true, right? I’m not selling and I’m not buying so it doesn’t effect me, does it? I say it does, actually. Possibly profoundly so.
As much as I don’t like it I recognize that a large number of breeders figure out how to price animals by seeing what others are posting on reptile classifieds. I have reflected more than once on the stupidity of such behavior. When someone misrepresents an animal on a classified site and sells it for a discount it influences prices. This is true even when the animal is not a legitimate example of the morph. When people see the animal being sold and the price being asked they begin to think that the animal must be worth that much. The simple presence of the ad starts the cycle of people saying, “I saw them on a reptile classified site for $_______.” Because price is such a focal point for people the lack of genetic authenticity is lost in the shuffle. This is also true of genetically accurate animals that are poor examples of the morph. The discount Internet seller, even the illegitimate one’s, gradually erode the value of an animal.
A large number of people who love herpetoculture can’t resist an apparent good deal. While there are many who look for quality animals first and let price come in a close second, most of us don’t. Like it or not, price is usually king. Quality is a novelty for many, a thing for people of more discerning taste. If someone is selling any particular morph or species locality for an oddly low price people won’t hesitate to jump on the deal. They simply can’t pass it up. Their Spidey-senses are tingling as they do it but they want to believe they are getting a deal so badly that they let good judgement go by the wayside. Needing to convince themselves of their own buyer’s-vigilance they interrogate the seller with a standard array of doing-your-homework style questions. Questions like:
- Where did the animal come from?
- Who produced it?
- How long have you had it?
- Is it feeding? If so, what is it eating?
- Why are you selling it?
- Why is it so cheap?
- Are the genetics certain?
- Do you offer a guarantee?
As long as the answers are somewhere in the realm of plausibility the desire to believe that the deal is a good one allows them to rationalize and internalize any answer. With apparent due diligence having been performed they drop coin on table and complete the transaction. At that moment they are proud of themselves; they have just beat the system by getting an animal for way less than the going rate. Basking in their own fabricated bliss they proudly pat themselves on the back for their shrewd acquisition. They think they have an animal that carries some particular gene but it doesn’t. They just don’t know it yet. Did the seller make an honest mistake or was it an intentional fabrication? Who can say for sure from one deal to the next. But one thing is frequently true regarding these unfortunate transactions: It will likely be YEARS before the buyer realizes he didn’t get what he paid for. And by the time he does, the opportunity for legitimate recourse has become painfully limited. Let’s explore.
Suppose it was you who bought one those codom hypo burmese pythons mentioned earlier. It will likely be a few years before it reaches an appropriate size for breeding but eventually it will happen; oviposition, incubation and hatching. And …oops! No hypos! What are the odds of that happening? Assuming it was a large enough clutch of eggs (Burmese pythons tend to have significantly larger clutches than ball pythons) the odds are reasonably small that you will completely miss. If there are 25 eggs and not a single hypo is in the clutch there is a pretty strong case that a mistake was made (or a ruse perpetrated) regarding the genetics. Could you have missed on 50/50 odds 25 times in a row? Sure. But it’s not likely. There is a 1 in 33,554,432 chance that you can flip a coin 25 times in a row and have it comes up heads every time. For comparison, there is a 1 in 64 chance that you will miss every time on 50/50 odds when you have only six eggs. Don’t be confused if those numbers seem a bit backwards. I’m talking about the likelihood of completely missing on the odds, not hitting the odds. If the genetics are correct your odds of hitting increases with the number of eggs.
If the buyer thinks he didn’t get what he paid for he has to contact the seller to talk about it. But keep in mind that it is quite likely that several years have gone by since you made your purchase. While you are far from done with the results of that transaction the seller mentally washed his hands of it a few minutes after it was completed. Can the seller even be found? People come and go in this business with speed matched only by frequency. Assuming the seller can be found it is likely that he will be reluctant to admit fault and offer any form of compensation. Inaction on his part is defensible on many possible fronts:
- You, the buyer, must have mixed up your animals during breeding. This is an especially easy argument if it comes to light that you have multiple animals.
- Because there is no photographic history of the animal the seller has no way to verify that the animal in question was even sold by him. For all he knows you got this particular animal from someone else and are now representing it as the one he sold you.
- The female must have retained sperm from the previous breeding season. This can and does happen. I know multiple people, myself included, who have produced animals from the male who was used two breeding seasons ago.
- You were just unlucky and missed on the odds. Try again next year.
- You are the only person who has contacted the seller with this problem so it must have been a mistake on your end.
- The seller insists on the genetic certainty of the animals he sells. It must have been the other animal in the pairing who didn’t carry the gene (this is especially effective when addressing het-to-het pairings). Yes, I know this does not apply in all genetic pairings.
- It is also quite common that the person from whom you bought the snake actually bought it from someone else. You got the snake from Luke who bought it from Aaron. Who knows where Aaron actually got it. If the genetics aren’t right who is responsible? I can assure you that in almost all cases your conversation with the person from whom you bought the snake will end with him washing his hands of the situation by giving Aaron’s contact information. Unless there is an existing relationship I can also promise that contacting Aaron isn’t likely to yield any results. The genetic provenance of second-hand animals is almost always completely unverifiable and equally indefensible.
With a little creativity we can continue to add to the list of reasons why the seller is going to be reluctant to accept responsibility. Unless the person who sold you the animal has a tremendous amount of personal and professional integrity (and assuming you are also a person worthy of trust) you are unlikely to get anything. When the seller is unwilling to make things right you are left with four mechanisms of recourse:
- File a civil suit. Take your case to the courts and have a jury listen to your arguments. A civil suit would be interesting and I am aware of only a handful of cases dealing with reptile genetics that have been taken to civil court. I am also aware of the ease with which these suits can be filed. Educating a jury about reptile genetics might be a tough job, though. A healthy portion of our population is so misinformed about the true nature of reptiles that an impartial analysis of the facts is not guaranteed. Fortunately, civil suits do not require proof “beyond a reasonable doubt”. Instead they only require a “preponderance of the evidence”, which basically means that your argument must be more compelling (e.g. more likely to be true) than the opposing party. Translation: Document, document, document. The one who keeps the best records wins. This makes it very easy to win as most reptile breeders keep notoriously bad records.
- Take your case to the Board of Inquiry (BOI) on the faunaclassifieds.com web site. This is tantamount to taking your case to the “court of public opinion”. I believe that taking your gripe to the BOI is a waste of time. Many will disagree with me on this point. The BOI is only examined by a tiny subset of the reptile community (and an even smaller portion of them care what is written) and if the seller logs on to the forum to defend himself in a reasonably professional manner he will be able to cast an equal amount of doubt on you. If you follow “bad guy” posts on the BOI you have seen how the OP (original poster) often finds himself in the hot seat rather than the supposed “bad guy”. In the end you will likely accomplish little more than further alienating the seller, making him even less likely to do anything for you. Yes, a well-articulated BOI post will cause a handful of people to shy away from the seller but it won’t do any real (long term) damage to their business. There is a long list of people who are regularly ‘BOI-bashed’ but every single one of them continues to sell tons of animals. It is blatantly obvious that the BOI posts don’t negatively impact their sales, isn’t it? If not from new sales gone bad where else do the fresh negative BOI posts come from? If the BOI had any real weight in the industry we would not keep seeing the same names over and over because their lack of sales would drive them out of the trade. Pay attention and you will see that many people in the reptile community can’t learn from their own mistakes, much less the ones made by others. Seller’s with less than stellar reputations are constantly given the benefit of the doubt by buyers lured in by low prices. The cycle is simultaneously depressing and hilarious.The buyer’s ability to talk himself into a purchase is predictable. They see an animal on a classified site and then check the BOI to learn more about the seller. They discover that there are some negative posts. Unable to walk away from such a good deal they convince themselves the seller will be different this time. But what are they really telling themselves? Something like this: Yesterday someone left a note on the refrigerator saying, “Milk is spoiled! Do NOT drink!”. “Hmmph.”, they say. “That note is from yesterday. It doesn’t apply to me. Today I’ll bet the milk will be better.” No matter how much you think the rules don’t apply to you, milk doesn’t fight through bad and turn good again. And neither do shady reptile sellers. Things are what they are. Complaining about getting suckered when all the warning signs were right in front of you isn’t going to change the fact that you let a cheap price twist your otherwise good senses. And in the end your BOI post is little else than your own effort at personal catharsis. In the long run you will do better to stand in your back yard and scream until your throat hurts.
- Use Twitter, Facebook, Internet forums and your personal blog as a platform to rail against the seller. I’m a big believer in the power of words and the Internet is nothing less than amazing for its ability to disseminate information. That being said I have seen many sites with many messages about some of the more nefarious names in our industry and the volume of what has been written about them would be damning in many other lines of work. But they are still here. The Internet has desensitized us; it usually takes more than a forum post to touch the masses. But sometimes the words you write can become viral within the community. They can quickly spread from site-to-site and from mouth-to-mouth. Blog posts automatically update Twitter and Facebook and followers and friends cross-post your messages on other sites and in a very short amount of time you can reach a lot of people. The speed with which your words can be seen across the Internet is amazing. While the Internet is a great way to spread information nothing has as much impact as sharing your experience with friends who are also in the trade. Think about it: if there are (in theory) fewer than six degrees of separation between you and every other person on this planet imagine how few people there are between you and every other person in the reptile community.
- Physically threaten and/or assault the person you feel has cheated you. While quite possibly the most therapeutic, this is the least intelligent thing you can do. Everybody sues everybody in our society these days. Resorting to threats and/or violence won’t do anything other than make you a defendant. Victims become defendants when they lose their cool. Try to remember that as the rage takes control (and then refer back to option #1).
I have been writing the past few paragraphs trying to act as if the seller actually was an honest person who made a mistake. This can (and does) happen and truly honest sellers will make amends in some way. While that is possible we also have to acknowledge that there are a healthy number of people who will look us directly in the eye and lie to every question asked about an animal. They are skilled at doing it and are frequently very compelling in their false sincerity. They knew they were lying when they sold the animal and they have no problem continuing to do so several years later. It is, quite frankly, a cornerstone of their business model.
The dishonest seller is one of the most difficult realities of our business. But even honest sellers can be troublesome to work with when genetics turn out to be wrong. There are not a lot of financially sound reptile breeders. Most of us struggle with our finances the same way the rest of the population does. If you pay someone $1,000 for a snake I can all but guarantee that they will spend the money within days of receiving it. Even if you came back to them a week later with a legitimate concern it is unlikely that they can conjure the money to issue a refund. The problem is compounded when years have gone by. Let me give you a real situation that happened in order to illustrate the problem. A friend of mine bought a hatchling snake that was supposed to carry a certain number of genes. Because the animal was rare at the time of purchase it carried a significant price tag. More than a year was spent raising the animal (a male) to its breeding weight. After hatching eggs from multiple females it became obvious that the animal did not carry the genetics it was supposed to have. The original seller was contacted and the problem was explained. After seeing the evidence the seller apologized for the mistake. But what do you think the seller could/should have done? The solution may be easy to say but tough to achieve.
If you are sold a snake that is supposed to carry certain genes and it turns out that it does not you are due some form of compensation, right? It makes sense. But how much? Should you get a full cash refund? With interest? How about replacement animals of similar value to the money you spent? How about a cash refund plus compensation for lost production? How about animal credit for the initial value plus credit for lost production? If you think you should be paid for your lost opportunity in addition to your initial investment how are you going to come to a value for the lost opportunity? Do we turn to statistics to find a settlement? If not, what do we use? Suppose the buyer in the above scenario paid $5,000 for the original animal. Let’s also suppose the Punnett square shows there to be a 1:4 chance of producing the desired offspring. If a total of 25 eggs were produced from different females there should have been (statistically) six of the desired animal produced. Suppose those six animals have a retail value of $3,500 each. That’s $21,000 of unrealized financial gain because of a mistake made by the seller.
The problem is likely to become compounded because we almost always give the benefit of the doubt to the animal and try a second breeding season before passing final judgement. In an effort to be optimistic we chalk the first year up to bad breeder’s luck and try again the following year. If we suppose that a total of 20 eggs are produced in the 2nd season we should see (statistically) five of the desired animals poke their heads out of the egg. But again no animals (which are now worth $2,500) carrying the desired genes are produced.
Let’s do some math: $5,000 was paid to acquire the animal. $21,000 was not realized during the first year of breeding and an additional $12,500 was not realized in year number two. In the eyes of the buyer a (statistical) total of $38,500 has been lost. But how will the original seller see it? Is he going to agree and quickly send a cashier’s check for almost forty-grand? Let me be the first to assure you that there is a zero percent chance that will happen. Even if the seller had that kind of money you would have to kidnap his family to get it from him (and that might not even work). And this pulls the covers back on the biggest, dirtiest secret in the reptile business. Here it is: If you ever come up on the losing end of a genetic “mistake” you will almost never be indemnified. Put another way, you will never be fully compensated for your loss. Even in the most agreeable of resolutions you are not going to come out at the level that you could have if the genetics had been true. It’s not right, I now. But it’s the way this business seems to work. I don’t know why but there is an underlying part of our hobby’s culture that makes it OK to make amends in a manner that ultimately works out better for the person who made the mistake (e.g. the original seller).
If you’ve never been on the receiving end of a genetic mistake take a moment to imagine this scenario: You just spent real money on a new male for your collection. You spend the next year getting it to breeding size. You then spend an additional two years trying in vain to prove its genetics. The seller has apologized for the mistake and wants to make things right. One of the most frequent offers of compensation is for the seller to give you current year babies as replacements. Knowing that you are not likely to get anything else from the seller (without going to court), you agree. Are you satisfied? Most people are. But take a moment to assess your situation:
- The real money you originally spent is gone. You have a ‘worthless’ male that you have spent years raising. There is measurable time and money involved in getting the animal to adulthood.
- Your breeder females have laid eggs for you two years in a row. The likelihood of them going three years in a row is small. Even if you were offered an adult male as a replacement it is not likely that you will get eggs a third year in a row.
- You have a new baby male given to you by the breeder as compensation for the mistake. Depending on the time of year it will probably be the following breeding season before it is ready to be paired with the girls. This means yet another breeding season will go by with no egg production that benefits you.
- Prices have continued to spiral downward. When all is said and done it could be as many as six years later before you ever produce the animals that your original male was supposed to help you make.
- Congratulations! After six years of effort the money you spent has not advanced your collection or your wallet one single bit. The project you began in your early 30’s has not borne any fruit as you celebrate your 40th birthday.
Let me ask the question again: Are you satisfied?
My friend who bought the expensive animal with incorrect genetics is still trying to come to an agreement on compensation for the mistake …and the mistake was made almost four years ago. At the time the mistake was realized the value of the loss was about $12,000. And that was just to account for the amount that was over-paid for the original animal (yes, it was a very expensive animal); it did not include the value of lost production. As is usually the case, the original seller offered baby ball pythons as compensation. The total retail value of those animals (at the time) was just under $2,500. When my friend told him that was unacceptable the seller looked at him with an expression that clearly said, “What else do you expect me to do? Do you really think I’m going to give you $12,000+ worth of animals?” If you’re bewildered right now, join the club. The original seller actually took an additional $12,000 of real money from the buyer and 20 months later, balked at returning the money (in any form) he unfairly took. Why? Because the original seller didn’t see it as giving back $12,000 he never really earned. He saw it as losing $12,000 worth of animals. Remember, he washed his hands of the original sale five minutes after it was done. In his mind that was money made. It is very hard for money to become “un-earned” a year or more after the fact, regardless of the legitimacy of the sale. It’s crazy, I know. But this mindset is rampant in the reptile business.
You can’t pass a normal ball python off as an albino. Nobody will confuse an ivory ball python over a pastel, either. Some things are easy to discern. But how many people can tell with certainty the difference between a yellow belly and an unusual normal? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a snake described as “yellow belly-like”. How about the difference between a lesser and a butter? Seen any pastel ivories lately? Can you tell the difference between a pastel ivory and a super pastel ivory? Can you pick out the fire in a pile of very pretty normals? What about a spector? Can you pick one of those out of a lineup? Het Genetic Stripe, Het Ghost, Het Albino, Het Clown, Het Piebald, Het Axanthic, Het Caramel Albino. Het, het,het, het, het, het, het. Buying hets is nothing less than taking a leap of faith in the person from whom you are buying them. Sum it up in one word: trust. You need to have a lot of trust in the person from whom you are buying hets. You can’t just trust that they are selling you hets, though. You have to trust that they can and will make things right if the unthinkable happens and the animals don’t prove out. You are begging to get burned when you buy a snake from the guy on an Internet classified whose ads always seem to read something like, “I hate to sell em’ this cheap but I really need money right now. My hard times are your good times!!!” Not only should you not be surprised when the genetics aren’t right but you also should not be surprised when you can’t get any resolution when you realize your problems a few years later. Caveat emptor.
But it’s not just shady sellers that pass along animals that are not what they are supposed to be. Legitimate and honest breeders can and do make mistakes. A breeder may mislabel a tub or confuse two animals after holding both of them at the same time. It doesn’t take much to make a mistake with hets. Breeders who have employees have to be able to trust their workers to be as careful as they would be. Employees often work unsupervised and a dishonest worker can easily swap inexpensive heterozygous animals for valuable high-end hets. The breeder has no idea when such things happen but they are left to deal with the fallout years later. One disgruntled or dishonest employee can wreak havoc on the reputation of an industry leader. The capacity for mix-ups is a function of any breeding operation. While prevention is an omnipresent requirement the measure of a breeder is how they handle the rainy day when one of their animals doesn’t prove out. Do they meet the issue head-on and do the right thing or do they avoid, hem and haw and make you chase them to try and get resolution? Unfortunately there is no way to measure how a seller will respond years later when things go bad.
Albert Einstein is often credited as having defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results each time.” Anybody who has an older brother or sister knows the value of watching them screw up. The ability to learn vicariously from the mistakes of others is a great part of human design. But for reasons unknown, being a reptile lover seems to diminish this capacity. I guess people who are casual participants in the trade don’t benefit from spending time browsing the forums and talking with other breeders/hobbyists. But for those of us who are in and around the business all the time, it is nothing short of insane that we continue to do business with people we know to have shady reputations. For the most part I’m wide open on my willingness to pick up choice animals from someone I don’t know. But I do have a mental list of people I won’t buy from. Do you?