Every year I am fortunate enough to produce some absolutely amazing ball pythons. There have been a tiny handful of times when the animal I produced was unique to the world, the first combination of its kind. I admit, it’s a neat feeling. Being the first to make a particular morph and getting to name it is a goal for many in the business. The naming of a morph is your chance to become a permanent, albeit largely irrelevant, part of the industry’s history. It’s unlikely that anyone will remember that it was you who named it or that you were the first but you and a small group of others will always know. Die in a car crash tomorrow and you will soon be forgotten by most. But the name given to that designer morph combination will still have the moniker you decided. That small contribution to something that will outlast you is, well, …cool.
The pace of production for different morph combinations is always accelerating. As breeders get their hands on more and more multi-gene males and females the combinations are beginning to leap forward almost exponentially. In 2011 it won’t surprise me to see an abundance of new six, seven and possibly even eight-gene combinations. It’s not as if they will be available in quantity, though. Even with three or four genes on each side you still require a massive amount of luck on the odds. Because they are so hard to make it will still be several years before they are available in any measurable quantity (and there is still plenty of time to be the first). For the next several years getting your hands on a four, five or six-gene animal is going to require you to produce your own or be prepared to drop significant cash (or comparable trade).
So if you really want to be the first the make something amazing what do you have to do? The answer is quite obvious, I suppose. But if you’re lagging behind the bigger names in the business you may be looking for a way to gain some momentum. There isn’t much opportunity for the short road but here are a few quotes that nicely illustrate my perspective:
“Those who live within their means suffer from a lack of imagination.” – Oscar Wilde
- I hate to be the bearer of bad news but you are far less likely to be in a position to name a morph if you are not financially aggressive. Who am I kidding? Let’s call a duck a duck: you will likely need to lean more toward financially reckless. This immediately narrows the field of contenders. Most of us don’t have the stomach to spend multiple thousands of dollars on a single animal. Even if the money was available we wouldn’t do it. And in reality, you need more than one. These days you will need several heavy genetic hitters because big genetic combinations require you to come to the table with powerful potential in the sire and the dam (and that requires money). Having a high-end male paired with lower-end females is a great way to make some money but don’t expect to be wondering what you are going to call the babies when they pip; it’s almost guaranteed that somebody else beat you to it. I admit that it is silly to spend big cash for the sole objective of being able to name a ball python morph. It’s really more of a fringe benefit. It remains, however, largely true. Can you spend five, ten or fifteen grand on a single snake? Most people wouldn’t even consider it. I hem and haw over how much to spend on a new dishwasher but I barely flinch when spending multiple thousands on a snake. I’m one a relative few that has that special kind of addiction. From Mr. Wilde’s perspective, I, and others like me, have ample imagination.
“Luck favors the prepared.” -Louis Pasteur
- Louis Pasteur is frequently referred to as the king of accidental discovery so I take him at his word on this point. The more opportunity to which you expose yourself the more likely it is that you will come across something amazing. Put another way, serendipitous moments are less likely to occur when the “data set” is small. What exactly does this mean for ball python breeders? A few things:
- Don’t count on the odds to be kind. Punnet squares are not guarantees. More often than not I consider them to be taunts. Consider yourself fortunate if your production matches what the square suggests; your eggs have been sprinkled with magic fairy dust if you beat the odds. Be sure to thank the Higher Power you deem worthy when it happens. Sometimes it takes a whole lot of tryin’ just to get lucky once and painfully large amounts of time may pass in the process. Ball python breeding is not a field of endeavor packed with an excess of guarantees. Even though you may have the ingredients necessary to make magic you are going to find that you often have to try more than once to hit the sweet spot. And if you’re trying to be the first to make something you need it to happen sooner rather than later; this particular facet of ball python husbandry is competitive. To beat everyone else to the prize you need to get as many at-bats as possible. Put simply, get as many high-end animals as you can to improve your odds. Easier said than done, I know. Please refer back to Oscar Wilde’s quote if you need to get the full spectrum of my point.
- If you’re gonna’ go, go big. We all have limits on money, space and time. This makes ‘big’ a relative term. To make magic you don’t have to keep thousands of animals but you do have to keep as many as your time, space and money allow. Scratch that, you have to work within your time and space constraints; you need to stress the limits of what you define as affordable. Yes, I know it is horribly bad advice to tell people to spend more than they can afford. In this instance, however, I am addressing the desire to be the first to make, and subsequently name, a particular morph. If pushing the edges of what has been done is part of your game plan then you don’t get to be conservative. You can expect conservative results if all you make are conservative investments. Risk versus reward is always in effect. If you only buy snakes that are $1,000 and less you are not likely to make the first of anything. You have to have the largest, nicest collection that you can still provide with excellent care.
- Husbandry matters. Getting animals up to breeding size is a game of vigilance, chance and speed. I have one word for all the people who breed for profit and say they “don’t push their animals” to get big. That word: bullshit! When price is factored into the mix time is your biggest enemy. Casually getting animals up to size is contra to the stated objective of making a profit and I don’t buy it when people tell me they aren’t in a hurry to get their girls on eggs. On the breeder’s carousel the gold ring is only available once per year and missing it requires you to wait at least another twelve months before you get another shot. That time is valued in cash. Almost all of us are in a hurry to push that male past 500 grams and we hope and pray that our females blow right through the thousand-gram wall. Most breeders will start breeding their girls at 1,200 grams, give or take, but the odds of a first-time girl going at that size are somewhat low. The odds of the clutch being large are even smaller. There is no substitute for bigger, older girls. This, of course, takes time. But if you want to have the greatest chance for success you need to make sure that the time is well spent. You have to aggressively feed your females in the off season and you can’t waver in the slightest. It’s not an exact science but bigger girls tend to produce bigger clutches. One girl who gives you ten eggs is worth a lot more than those smaller girls who only offer four, five and six eggs each year. Every extra egg that makes it through incubation increases the odds that this time around will yield the gold ring. Set yourself up for success by adhering to a simple philosophy: ABF – Always Be Feeding. Feeding snakes should be your favorite pastime. And before you heat up your keyboard flaming me for encouraging reptile obesity let me remind you that we are talking about ball pythons here; their appetites are sufficiently fickle that overfeeding is an infrequent problem. Other species of snakes? Sure, there are many python species that will get too fat. But consider yourself lucky if you have a ball python that will eat often enough to look like most Americans.
“Collect opportunities.” -Nicholas Taleb
- Collecting opportunities means a few things to me. In some ways it ties in with points I have already made about the size and quality of your collection but it also emphasizes the opportunity you have to leap forward by taking chances with the unknown.
- You can’t breed it when it’s not in the rack. When you come across an animal that fits beautifully into your collection, do everything you can to make it yours. It is more than just a little cavalier to suggest causing yourself financial stress and/or harm over ball pythons. Admittedly, it is not right for most people. But people who are always going to be financially conservative probably stopped reading a while ago, anyway. Much to the chagrin of my wife and business partners I have an incredibly optimistic attitude about my ability to make money. It’s this mindset that allows me to actually pull the trigger and spend it. I believe the pain to be temporary and I have faith that the investment will earn the money back multiple times over …most of the time. Despite the tone you may interpret here, my risk-taking is quite calculated. It’s aggressive but not to the point that I can’t pay my mortgage or feed my family. Being happily married with healthy kids and a nice, safe place to live is always going to be cooler than naming a ball python morph.
- Dinker. A few of the bigger names in this business got there by being lucky. Most got there through money, investment and time but there are a small few that saw something others did not. They took a chance and bought an unusual (or not so unusual) looking animal and found that it was genetic gold. The Orange Dream, Special, het Puma, Specter, and Yellow Belly are a few easy examples. Most of these animals are not immediately impressive but when paired with the right mates something amazing happens. Some breeders have an eye for unusual markings and have developed a knack for teasing new morphs from the DNA; others have just had blind luck. In the end it doesn’t matter, though. It all starts with the dinker. The flow of unusual ball pythons from the wild has slowed in recent years but they are still arriving. If you see something odd and unusual, pick it up. Dinker projects are like lottery tickets; most are going to be losers but every now and then somebody wins big. If you don’t dinker you can rest assured that it won’t be you. Don’t bet on dinker projects to put you on the map. Consider them a fun little side project that might, just might, bump you ahead in the game.
We’re all in this business for different reasons. Some people could care less about the money, making something first or any of the other limited forms of fame and glory the business has to offer. Others feel just the opposite. They want desperately to be the first to make something new. And there there are a huge number of us who could care less if we are the first so long as we can make some nice money from our efforts. I find that I am most closely aligned with the latter. More than once I have said it: nobody keeps as many snakes as I do solely out of love for reptiles. Money is the motivator. Seeing something for the first time, something no other person has ever seen …that’s just a super-cool bonus!