Last year, amongst many other things, I bred a ghost mojave to a 100% het ghost black pastel spider (black bee). Sounds like a cool pairing, right? To my knowledge the ghost mojave black bee hasn’t been produced yet and I was gunning to be the first. With eight eggs in the incubator I was feeling optimistic; all I needed was a little love from the Odds Gods and I would hit on something amazing to share with the world. I watched with hopeful anticipation as the eggs finally pipped. And like a popped water balloon I felt the excitement rushing out of my body as I checked the contents of each egg. Disappointment. Disappointment. Disappointment. To say that I got murdered on the odds was a bit of an understatement. But I didn’t just miss on the ghost mojave black bee. The clutch didn’t produce a single ghost black bee, honey bee, ghost mojave,
Ball python enthusiasts often ask others for advice while trying to determine which ball python investment is the best. Unfortunately, questions such as these don’t come with straight answers. The best response is different for each of us and it is only after a bit of self-assessment that any of us can really hope for useful conclusions. In the end the only person from whom you can get a complete answer is yourself. Despite the very best advice from others you ultimately have to figure it out on your own. It’s your motivations that lead toward the best answer. Is it money that moves you? Recognition, perhaps? Or is it the challenge? A sense of accomplishment, maybe? A little bit of each? Knowing the answer will take you closer to making the best decision about which morph is the best investment.
By my standards and expectations last year was a tough breeding season. In addition to losing a few key clutches during incubation I had an amazing number of clutches that bludgeoned me on the odds. At times it was depressing. But one thing that all breeders rely on is the fact that sooner or later the odds tend to swing around in their favor. It’s the nature of averages; sometimes you win, sometimes you don’t. Last season wasn’t all bad, though. I had a few moments that really stood out. My perspective is arguably tainted, mind you. With very few exceptions I do not try to produce single-gene carrying animals and producing things like black pewters, albino spiders, super pastels, and bumble bees has become business as usual. While I am certainly very glad to produce those animals I have my genetic sights set much higher. As I type two-gene animals are a common (but often still pricey) staple of the industry while the immediate future is in 3, 4 and 5-gene animals. To steal the words of a friend of mine, “I’m not in this for socialist reasons. In this business there will be winners and losers.
“The things you own end up owning you.” – Tyler Durden
I’m self-employed. I have been that way for almost a decade. In addition to my reptile enterprise I am a founding owner of a small information technology (IT) company. Because I have a passion for computer networking and information security I long ago decided to start my own business doing the thing I love. That is a theme familiar to a lot of self-employed people and if you are not currently self-employed I’ll wager that a good number of you aspire to one day be so. For those of you not currently at the helm of your own enterprise let me remind you of an expression I’m sure you have heard before: “The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.” Owning your own business does nothing to eliminate the stress and frustration you
Do you have a male albino ball python in your collection? How about a male pastel? A male black pastel perhaps? I know you have a male pinstripe, right? How about a male piebald? Got one of those?
Many enthusiastic ball python hobbyists answer “yes” to at least one of those questions. If you’re a ball python breeder the answer to most or all of the above should be a foregone conclusion. For many breeders they are project staples. Considering only the single gene males for a moment, do you need any more of the same in your collection? Probably not. If you are not already doing so I’ll wager that you are focused on getting the existing males in your collection to the next level; albino spiders, black pewters, honey bees, etc. How exactly are you going about that particular process? There is a long road and a short road to getting there. Some of you are adding the next-level males to your collection by breeding your own (the long road) while others opt to buy or trade with someone to add them to the mix (the shorter road).
Sure, sure, many of us are still missing a wide variety of single gene males in our genetic armory. Champagne males, ultramels, lavender albinos, and candy/toffee ball pythons are still pretty darn desirable and highly sought after. To not have them means you know what it is to covet.
What is true for a majority of us is that we are actively producing single-gene carrying animals like spiders, pastels, albinos, black pastels, pinstripes and piebalds. Single gene females in your production output are always a valuable commodity because most breeders are glad to add more females to their breeding groups. Larger breeders may have dozens of females of a particular morph. But how many more single-gene males are they adding to their group? Of the more common morphs I’ll wager the number is close to zero. Since production efforts each season will certainly produce many single-gene males and neither you nor I need any more I have to ask the looming question: To whom are we going to sell them? The answer to that is simple: fewer and fewer breeders, more and more hobbyists & pet owners. Once the so-called ‘box’ is checked on a male for a particular morph (or two, I’m a big advocate of multiple males) the breeder need is satisfied. The desire to add more of a particular single-gene morph to a collection shifts to having multiple females. More males are no longer on the agenda. How much you might want to sell one to me for is not a factor. I don’t need them, regardless of how cheap you want to make them. On the other hand I don’t think I can have enough females. As the number of people who want to add single-gene males to their collection decreases I have to find my customers from an ever-changing pool of people. My clients, like yours, include:
- Breeders new to the hobby. Many single gene males have become very affordable and provide a quick and financially easy way to produce some very cool morphs.
- Long-time reptile enthusiasts who have recently decided to get into the ball python market. There is a steady stream of people who once focused on boas, colubrids or other types of pythons who are making their way over the the ball python arena.
- Other larger scale breeders/wholesalers. I can wholesale my single gene males out in large quantities for small dollars to a breeder with a larger client base than me. With a larger base of clients they can move them more quickly than I can. Granted, I will get quite a bit less money for them but they will all be gone instantly, no maintenance required.
- Pet owners. Some people just like to have beautiful snakes. They aren’t interested in breeding them. Because the single gene morphs have finally become affordable, they are much more attractive to pet owners. The pet owner/casual hobbyist need is an interesting one; many of these morphs cost several thousand dollars a few short years ago. They were fun to look at but owning one as a pet was a luxury afforded to only the more affluent herper. That is no longer the case.
Hang around me long enough and you’ll hear me say it: “Satisfied needs don’t motivate.” I regularly apply this to a host of scenarios in life. Eating at a restaurant, having a headache, propane sales, selling snakes, the list goes on. The food you eat is never worth as much to you after you have consumed it. Do you have a headache right now? If not, do you appreciate it? I doubt it. But when you do have a headache you are all too aware of how good it feels to not have one and you would be very grateful to return to that state. Do you remember when you wanted a male spider ball python really bad? Now that you have one how do you feel about them? If you have all the single-gene males you need in your collection I am are not likely to be able to sell you another one no matter what price I put on it. Imagine for a moment that I am a propane salesman. I show up at your house and offer to sell you propane. “No thanks”, you say, “I have electric heat. I don’t use propane.” I proceed to explain to you that my propane is the cleanest burning you can buy and it’s cheaper than everyone else in town. “Oh!”, you say, “In that case I’ll take a six month supply.” Ha! Yeah, right. You actually tell me to go pack sand. “Look, buddy. I don’t use propane. I don’t want to by any propane. How cheap you make it isn’t going to change my mind.”
Two items of interest arise when trying to sell propane to people who don’t need it:
- No matter how low you price it, they don’t buy it.
- Because you tried to lowering the price to entice non-propane users into buying some you will find that those with a real need for propane now expect it for less.
What do you do if you go to a trade show with a pinstripe ball python to sell and nobody buys it in the first half of the show? Do you lower the price? What if the animal doesn’t sell at all? Do you lower its price at the next show? Industry-wide the answer is often a resounding “yes”. How about on-line? If you list your pinstripe in a classified ad and it doesn’t sell after two weeks do you lower the price? Again, the industry seems to say “yes”. But it’s silly. The reason you didn’t sell your pinstripe probably wasn’t because it was too expensive; it’s because the people who came by your table (or read your ad) didn’t have a need for the animal. Lowering the price does nothing to make them want it more. It’s the same with propane; people who do not use propane do not suddenly become interested just because it is cheap. The only thing it does is set the expectation in the minds of your table visitors that pinstripes are now cheaper than they were last week. When the time comes for them to sell their own pinstripes they think back to the price you had on your table and they offer theirs for the same or less money. And so the cycle begins anew.
I’m not writing to suggest that male pinstripes should still be $2,500. There is an ever-expanding and viable market for animals as their prices drop. Finances keep many of us on the sidelines when it comes to high-end reptile purchases. It is a fairly small subset of the reptile community that will drop several thousand dollars on a single animal and a whole new crop of customers begin to appear when prices come out of the stratosphere. Today, albino ball pythons are in the realm of affordability for the reptile connoisseur who has no particular need to build a breeding colony. In practical application it is the single gene male that is leading the way for the ball python morphs to become a staple of the pet trade.
On more than one occasion in the past I have lamented the downward spiral of ball python prices. Regardless of how much you initially pay for one they will be worth quite a bit less by the time you are producing your own. Opinions regarding the nature of the free market and an individual’s right and/or responsibility to price animals in a certain way are as diverse as the community itself. Prices will fall. Nobody can stop that. I wish they would not fall as fast as they do but I can’t stop that, either. The Internet economy has taught us that there is always someone cheaper out there, another seller who is willing to undercut your price in order to sell the animal. This is the nature of competitive business.
The ultimate point I want to make is that price matters. It is not, however, the sole factor in the value of an animal. Increasingly, price has less and less of an impact on the ability to sell an animal. But this is true in more ways than one. Buyers are always looking for the best animal for the smallest price. This is a universal truth. As a buyer myself I do the same thing. But once the need is satisfied, price no longer matters. Remember that the next time you put a price tag on one of your snakes. Are you taking the lead on the downward spiral? Do you think that lowering the price is really what is going to make the snake sell? It might be. Or maybe not. Maybe all you really need is some extra patience.
Pull any breeder aside and they will tell you that there is no better way to build an excellent reptile collection than to produce your own babies and raise them. The problem is that it usually takes forever to build a collection worthy of note when you do it this way. Producing new morphs of your own is an incredibly gratifying accomplishment, though. It’s a big part of the reason that so many of us are in this business. Pretty much every breeder holds back a few animals each year but it’s often a tough call to to determine which ones and how many to set aside. Producing something cool and deciding to keep it means your pocket is ultimately missing some cash. Sell it and your collection is not as cool the following year. It’s a constant battle. Unless you are financially well-to-do from other sources you do, at some point, have to take the money. But that point is different for each of us. People who know me know that I am a notorious ball python hoarder. I hold back a lot of production each year. It is an addiction for which I am unable to find a cure.
The next best way to build a great ball python collection is to buy babies from other breeders and raise them. Other people always have something you don’t and there are tons of animals out there just dying to fit perfectly into your collection. Bring your wallet (or purse, as the case may be) and be prepared to spend. Building a nice, high-end ball python collection is not for the financially feint of heart. Buying a baby pastel genetic stripe is definitely faster than taking the six or so years it would take you to make them from scratch for yourself. The premium you pay on such an impressive animal is, in part, compensation for the fact that the person from whom you are buying the animal has already paid the six-year price to produce it. That investment of time and the risks associated with it are worth money. And we all must pay for it. Now that you have this wonderful animal in your collection you are still stuck waiting for it to grow up. If you’re lucky you can get your male up to breeding size in less than a year. Females are going to take no less than 18 months, most likely 24-36 months before you’ll be able to do anything with them. Once again you have to hurry up and wait for your collection get to the next level.
Being patient sure is hard sometimes…
Don’t want to raise babies? Want a shorter path to being a baller in the ball python business? Simple enough: buy adults or subabults from someone. That shaves the time down to less than a year in many cases. Or does it? Before you drop cash on an adult ball python you need to seriously ask yourself why the person is selling it. There are many legit reasons, of course. But a huge number of ball python adults that get sold are animals that have problems of some sort. I’m not suggesting that they are sick, though. The problems I’m speaking of are more subtle. When you buy these adults you may be unknowingly paying someone else for their problem.
What are some of the legitimate reasons that adult ball pythons get sold?:
- The breeder is decreasing the size of his/her collection. This is often done because large collections are very expensive and very time consuming to maintain. Scaling back from 1,000 breeder females to 750 means that there are going to be 250 perfectly good girls coming into the marketplace. It is, however, almost an industry standard that these girls get dumped into the marketplace shortly after laying eggs. This means their weight is down greatly from its norm and if you don’t get them early enough in the season you are going to be hard pressed to get them to lay eggs again the following season. If someone sells you a 2,100 gram het pied female you might be thinking, “Sweet!”. But what you don’t know is that she weighed 3,000 grams 5 months ago, laid eggs a month ago and has only had 2 meals since laying. Females that were 3,000 grams last year aren’t often going to lay eggs the following year when you only get them back to 2,700 grams. The seller of the animal is not obligated to tell you this, of course. It would be nice if they did rather than letting you have unrealistic expectations for the coming season.
- The seller is having some sort of financial crisis/hardship. They don’t want to sell the animal but they need money for some imminent need. You can often get some nice animals this way. But keep in mind that when the going gets tough breeders aren’t going to go through their collection and pull out the best animals to sell. They are going to pull those that were not quite as good as the others. Maybe they are often reluctant feeders or have laid eggs each year for the past three years. The chances of going (laying eggs) four years in a row are lower than they are for going three years in a row, aren’t they? The first adults someone is going to sell are going to be the least cool their collection has to offer. Don’t get me wrong, though. This won’t always be bad. Selling the worst animals in an awesome collection may still mean that you are getting some exceptional creatures.
- The animals have been upgraded. I have an outstanding male spider het albino that I raised from a baby. He is a fantastic feeder, a great breeder and doesn’t have even the slightest head wobble that many spiders often have. He aggressively courts and breeds multiple females each year and has produced several albino spiders for me. I held back the first albino spiders males I produced, of course. They are now adults. Why do I need a spider het albino when I have multiples of the real deal? I don’t. So it’s time to offer him for sale, let him go to work for someone else. I’m not getting rid of a problem animal. Quite the contrary. He is a rockstar but my collection has moved on. These are nice animals to find when they come along.
- Proven hets are being replaced with the homozygous form. A breeder may have 50 adult albino het females. It makes sense to replace them with albino females (at the very least). Once the breeder has raised up the replacement albinos he/she will often look to sell the hets. He is managing the size of his collection to a consistent and stable size while increasing its genetic quality. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the albino het females; they were good enough to be the breeders for several years but now its time for them to move on to make room for a new crop of albino females. While these are good animals to add to you collection be sure to keep in mind that they are likely to only hit the market just after laying eggs (as discussed earlier).
- A breeder bought an entire collection from another breeder who is getting out of the hobby and they are liquidating it to make money or they are getting rid of the animals that they don’t want to add to their own collection. This happens a lot. Like many business ventures, many wanna-be breeders just don’t make it. A large number of people get big into reptile husbandry with dreams of an easy and large payday. And they are frequently ready to get out of the business in less than two years. Because of this, entire collections get bought and sold on a regular basis. I have purchased entire collections more than once. When I do it I usually have my eye on a few choice animals in the collection and sell off everything else at a profit. Doing so helps to offset the cost of the animals I want to keep. In many circumstances you reclaim all (or more) of you investment and still have the animals you wanted to keep. Having it work out this way is not a slam dunk, though. Collection flipping requires a little bit of skill and is logistically a lot of work. Not everybody is good at it. I’ve seen people get completely burned doing it. I have made my share of mistakes, too.
What about the illegitimate and hidden reasons many adult ball pythons get sold?
- The snake is a poor feeder. Maybe it only eats once per month. Better still, maybe it only eats mice. A 2,500 gram female ball python will need to eat mice like Pez in order to get them to a good weight for breeding. One medium rat can easily weigh as much as 6-8 adult mice. Not only is it a chore to feed that many food items it is also comparatively expensive. Eight mice will cost you about $4 on the low end. A single medium rat is more in the $1.75 range (depending on how you get supplied). Mouse feeders will more than double your food cost in addition to the time and energy spent. Heaven help you if you are buying your food items from a pet store.
- It prefers gerbils or African soft-furred mice. Just what you need; a snake on a special diet. Not only do gerbils and ASF mice tend to be quite a bit more expensive they are both notoriously more aggressive than typical lab rats (and mice). There is a stronger need to chaperone the feeding event when the predator is at increased risk of becoming the prey.
- She’s a 3,000 gram girl, nice and big. She has laid eggs two out of the last three years. Sound good, right? Problem is she only laid 4 eggs each year. Big girls who don’t lay lot of eggs get farmed out quick. They are genetically weak and have a low return on investment. The best decision is to move them out and replace them with new animals that produce larger clutches. It’s simple math on behalf of the breeder.
- A beautiful adult male comes up for sale. He appears to be a great shortcut to breeding success. The only problem is that he’s a crappy breeder. He shows absolutely no interest in females. I know several breeders who have gone through multiple males before they found one that was a good breeder. What happened to the seemingly gay males? They disappeared into the collection of some other aspiring breeder, of course. I can guarantee you that the ad listing them for sale didn’t read, “Beautiful Adult Male Pastel Lesser – Crappy Breeder”. How can you tell the difference between this male and the great breeder who is being replaced by a better animal? You can’t. The only thing you can do is trust the seller.
- It’s stolen. I’m always amazed how many ball pythons get stolen. They get stolen at trade shows and they get stolen right out of people’s collections. It happens with some regularity. I suppose there may be nothing physically wrong with the animal; you’re just getting it at the expense of someone else. You have no way of knowing this, of course. At trade shows where I am a vendor I am often offered animals for oddly low prices. I know what the animals sold for two years ago and now they are offering me what appears to be a healthy animal for a price that is way below what they would have paid for it and certainly less than it is currently worth. How can I not wonder about its origins? Wouldn’t you? If I buy it and post if for sale on-line am I going to get an email from someone telling me that the snake was stolen from them? That has never happened to me but it has happened to others. In an industry that is largely based on personal reputations I’d like to avoid ever being wrapped up in a situation like that.
The moral of the story is that there is no substitute for starting with babies, investing the time and earning good results with quality animals. The temptation to take the short path and buy adults is too much for speculative breeders to avoid. Unless you personally know the seller and have detailed and accurate knowledge about the origins of the animal you are doing little more than buying a scratcher lottery ticket when you decide to buy and adult ball python. You might win big. You may also get screwed and come to realize that you actually paid someone to take their problem off their hands. Fortunately, I think it’s true that you won’t lose the majority of the time. Most ball pythons are perfectly good animals. All I suggest is that you take the time to question and prod. Does the story being offered with the sale make sense? Can you handle the result of the animal not being a producer for you? If so, speculate your heart out. If not …buy babies and invest the time.