Ball Python Husbandry Category
As a ball python breeder I constantly evaluate the best ways to get a maximum return on my investment. This makes me no different than any other business person, regardless of the choice of profession. I endeavor to be pragmatic when it comes to expected profitability and I have come to believe that there many ways to do this snake breeding thing right. Alternately, there at least as many ways to do it wrong. What’s right and what’s wrong can vary based on circumstance and is often a matter of perspective. If the end result is little more than baby snakes poking their heads out of eggs then I know I am right to say that what’s right and what’s wrong is chock full of opinion and personal preference. I know this because I have seen too many people be successful using too many variations of what I consider “right”. Right, in this instance, is grey.
“Do something awesome …something amazing.”
That was the job description given to me a long time ago just before I accepted a position at a small start-up IT company. I was trying to break out of the life-drag called Corporate America and during the interview process I asked for more details on my potential job duties. And the quote above is was what I heard in reply. When I realized he wasn’t kidding I was …moved. I was so inspired that I wanted desperately to do something, well, awesome and amazing. It was everything I needed to hear at that point in my life. With that one sentence I had been both empowered and granted personal accountability. The trust coupled with expectation that was handed to me was nothing less than food to my starving motivation. In the year that followed I
“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
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.
On a regular basis other ball python enthusiasts ask me if I will breed one of my snakes with theirs. For many, the so-called ‘breeder loan’ is a staple of the industry; two breeders working together combine their stock to produce animals that would be unattainable (in the near term, at least) if working independently. The parties involved in a breeder loan usually work out an agreement (hopefully in advance) that is amicable to everyone involved. I have some pretty definite opinions on this so I think it’s time I sat down and laid it all out for everyone to contemplate. About 1/3 of you are going to agree with me. Another third will think that I’m just not that cool of a person and the final third will label me a money-hungry bastard. There is a modicum of truth in each conclusion. Let’s talk about it.
The idea behind breeder loans is “together everybody achieves more”. If I have an adult female pastel and you have an adult male spider we won’t produce anything but spiders and pastels by working alone. But together we can have a chance at producing Bumble Bees. This appears to be a compelling synergy; a win/win! On paper a lot of things look good. Plans nicely laid out on paper have a bad habit of being pummeled by reality, seldom working the way we intended.
There are things that need to be considered when contemplating a breeder loan. There are a lot of ‘what if’s’ that can happen and if they are not adequately vetted prior to entering into the arrangement things can get ugly, feelings hurt, egos bruised and friendships shattered. Breeder loans require you to consider many things. On the bottom of the list should be how cool the animals you are going to produce will look when added to your collection. Keeping your eyes on the prize is typically good advice but when it comes to a breeder loan you may find that a fixation on the end result will do more harm than good. Listed below are just a few of the things that need to be pondered.
Consideration #1: The values of the animals entering into the transaction versus the value derived from the union
What is the financial value of the parents entering the breeding arrangement? If I have an adult normal female (say, 3,000 grams) that is het for orange ghost and you have an adult male Ghost Mojave ball python, things are financially lopsided. Dividends paid on an investment are based on the number of shares owned (e.g. the more you put in, the more you get out). Because of this, dividing the clutch is not a matter of 50/50 division if the initial value of the animals is used to determine how the bounty (e.g. babies) are to be divided. Currently my adult female het ghost ball python is worth a small handful of hundreds while your adult Ghost Mojave is worth a few thousand dollars. In this example I will assign arbitrary values of $600 for the big adult het ghost female and $3,000 for the adult Ghost Mojave male. The total value of the parents is $3,600 which means that my female is a mere 16.6% of the total value. Using this as a single measure I should get 16.6% of the value of the production, you should get 83.4%. But which 16.6% am I entitled to (genetically speaking)? The genetics of this particular union can yield:
- Normals, 100% het ghost
- Orange ghosts
- Mojaves het ghost
- Ghost Mojaves
Producing ghost mojaves is obviously the most desirable result, with male ghost mojaves being arguably at the top of the list. If a single male ghost mojave is produced, who gets it? The 16.6% equity I have in this breeding arrangement isn’t going to cover it so I’ll need to pony up cash (or something else in trade) for the difference. And that is only after we agree that I get first crack at taking it. What happens when I really want it for my collection but you already have a client who is ready to pay you cash for a male? Well, that’s a problem. Who wins? Your desire to make money or my desire to upgrade my collection? The same situation is true regardless of the number of ghost mojave’s produced. To keep it equitable I won’t be able to walk away with a ghost mojave without going out of pocket. Using the values I assigned above I won’t be getting a male mojave het ghost either. The cash value simply isn’t there, especially if the clutch size is on the smaller side.
Because my 16.6% equity in the project isn’t substantial enough for me to get one of the higher-end animals (assuming any are actually produced), how does it benefit me to participate in the arrangement? In theory it doesn’t. Lopsided deals provide lopsided benefits. The end result of such a lopsided arrangement is that I am doing little more than helping you to better your collection and/or your bank account. Compared to the gains you stand to make neither my wallet nor my collection are going to get better. But the parties in the arrangement could be cooler about things. I have seen people split the clutch evenly, regardless of the value of the animals in the arrangement. In this circumstance friendship supersedes business and the party with the more valuable snake is freely giving money away to a friend. You can wordsmith it all you want but that is what is ultimately happening when someone splits a clutch down the middle. Deciding if that is worth it (or if it will pay itself back in the form of good-will in the future) is a personal matter that must be independently evaluated. I can’t offer you any advice on this angle other than to say I don’t do it.
Splitting clutches down the middle without considering the value of the animals involved is never going to go unnoticed by the person giving more than the other. I do not care what they say to your face, they are aware of the reality. If the total value of babies produced is $6,000 and I walk with $3,000 after only having contributed 16.6% of the investment you (the 83.4% shareholder) are not going to be able to forget it. You have essentially given me $2,004 out of your pocket. Have you ever just handed a friend that much cash for no particular reason? If you are running a business the answer should be no 100% of the time. The person giving more will expect something in the future. Trust me. It will manifest as a sense of entitlement or an expectation of future favors. One way or another they will expect to be “paid” at some point in the future. They may deny it and they may not even be conscious of it but it will eventually come back around.
Friendship and money do not go together. Entering into financial dealings with people you call friends is a sure-fire way to lose them as friends. I write from a position of experience. I ruined my relationship with a very good friend over debates about who gets how much of a combined reptile investment. In my business ventures outside the reptile world I have business partners with whom I am friendly, but we are not friends. We don’t hang out and we rarely socialise outside the office. We maintain a positive relationship because we do not burden our business dealings with an excess of friendship. The model works. People who are in business with their spouse may relate to what I am writing better than most. Seldom is tension greater in an office than when it occurs between two people who sleep in the same bed at night.
Consideration #2: Uh, Quarantine? …And re-introduction.
I treat every snake coming into my collection like it has mites and any other potentially bad things that we sometimes see. Translation: My “Welcome to the team” party is the snake getting Nix-ed and quarantined. It’s unlikely that any of us would knowingly enter into a breeding loan with someone who has mites in their collection. Knowingly sending your animal to a collection that has mites is just silly. Regardless of the opportunity for financial gain, you cannot do it. I know people who have done it, though. I also know people who have lied to the other party about the presence of mites in their collection. They told me it wasn’t a big deal because they would just treat the snake for mites before sending it back home again. Really? Seriously? People get shanked for less in prison.
More to my point: How do I bring your animal into my collection and quickly let it mingle with my breeding stock (or vice versa)? Unless I’m breaking my own quarantine rules, I can’t. Who am I kidding anyway? If the het ghost female is mine and the ghost mojave male is yours the animals will be in your collection, won’t they? That’s probably the most normal way breeder loans take place; the female goes out on loan, not the male. But the same problems are still there. How can you bring one of my animals into your collection and immediately let it be with your male? You male is going to be making the rounds through other girls in your group so if my animal has something bad your male becomes the vector for spreading it through your collection. Are you really ready to take that risk? Stop staring at the dollar signs you think you see at the end of the tunnel and focus on what I am writing. Is the fallout of something wrecking your collection really worth what you might gain from this breeder loan?
And how am I going to safely reintroduce my own animal back into my collection? If I stay true to my quarantine principles I’ll have to separate her just like any new animal. The logistics of doing it right and the consequences of doing it wrong are just too great for me. Being willing to loan out an animal and then have it come back again means you are likely to make exceptions to your own rules. As I write this my snake collection is 100% mite free and has been so for several years. The thought of having a mite come into my building is one of the most terrifying things I can think of. I’m not kidding. Having to treat a large snake collection for mites is a monumental undertaking. It is such a daunting task that it is far easier to never let a mite come into the collection in the first place. Meticulous tenacity and an unyielding focus on prevention is the only way to avoid it. Being lured by the prospect of getting a certain morph or financial gain is enough to make some us let our guard down.
You might not have a problem this year or next year but what about the year after that? The more often you have animals coming in or going out the more likely it is that something bad will be riding along with them. Sooner or later it is going to catch up to you.
Consideration #3: Paper, Cypress Mulch, Aspen? Does Bedding Really Make a Big Difference?
In my experience the type of bedding a ball python is raised on is not trivial. The transition from paper to mulch and then back to paper can produce an animal that refuses to eat for months. I have seen it several times. For example, a friend of mine who keeps his animals on paper had a ball python that ate well. The animal went out on breeder loan for about a year. While away the animal was kept on mulch (and fed just fine). When the animal was returned and put back on paper it would not eat. It did not eat for almost a year. The animal became part of my collection where it was once again placed on mulch. It ate 3 rats the first day it was back on mulch. It had been perfectly happy on paper but being on mulch did something to change the snake. I don’t have a word to define it, I just know it to be true.
What type of bedding will your animal be kept on while it is away? What impact will that have when the animal returns home. Maybe none. Maybe a lot of unexpected frustration. What good is a female who comes home from a breeder loan that won’t eat enough to get up to size for the following year? Whatever it is that you gained from the breeder loan may need to be enough to compensate you for this breeding season as well as the next if you have an animal come home with a feeding problem.
Consideration #4: Food & Feeding
Who pays to feed the animal while in another person’s care? Is that cost negligible? For some, yes. For others, no. If you have a snake for a year and it eats 40 rats @ $1.50/rat you are down $60. Not a large sum of money but in a business that has a nasty habit of nickel and diming people to death it’s the sound of yet another coin hitting the offering plate.
Snakes that cost $50 cost just to much to feed as snakes that are worth $5,000. This is a cost that should be evenly distributed between the parties.
Consideration #5: The Silent Investor and the Swoop-In
“It’s like it’s both of ours, we’ll just keep it at your house.” You feed it, you clean it, you keep it warm and make sure it is grows into a big snake so we can make baby snakes. After you do all the work I will take my cut. What’s my cut? We worked that out years ago. When you made the deal did you account for the time an effort required to take care of the animal during the last few years? If you are like many of us you didn’t put sufficient value on your time on the front-end. We seldom do. Taking care of snakes in the future is always worth less to you than the snakes you just took care of. Call it sentiment for life spent (life is a currency and the balance is always heading toward zero), call it a sense of value for efforts put forth. If you put years of time into raising a snake from a hatchling to a successful breeder you are going to be mentally more invested at the end than you were at the beginning. That sense of being vested is worth money in your mind. It is not likely to be worth money in the mind of your partner. He/She was outta’ sight, outta’ mind for the past several years and will do little else than swoop in to collect the return on their investment when the babies hatch. This is certain to leave a bad taste in your mouth.
Neither party can de-value the time invested by the person holding the animals, especially if the loan is going to be long-term.
Consideration #6: The Snake Got Sick. Worse Still, It Died.
A snake on breeder loan dies. Oh, dear. How do you handle this? Did you discuss it before you went into the arrangement? Once in a blue moon a snake will roll for no observable reason and with no warning. It’s rare but how much would it suck if it happened while a buddy’s snake was visiting your collection? All the wondering that will take place is sure to put a strain on the relationship. Was the animal not properly cared for? Is someone to blame? How about replacing the animal? Is there any expectation on that front?
Because it is rare it is likely to be dismissed on the front-end. Eyes once again too focused on the end result with no real attention being paid to the nasty little realities that creep in from time to time.
Last year I had a snake of my own develop a problem with one of its hemepenes. I immediately took the snake out of breeding rotation and sent it to the vet. I got it back six months later. Needless to say it missed the breeding season. My bill? It was well over $1,000. I talked with my vet at length about things I can do to diminish the likelihood of it happening again. There were no definitive answers; sometimes things just don’t go right. What would have happened if this was not my snake? What if it belonged to a fellow breeder and was with me on loan? His problem developed very early in the breeding season so none of the girls became gravid by his effort. Now we have no babies and more than a grand in vet bills. The snake was in my care so is it my responsibility? Or is it yours because the snake belongs to you? Perhaps we both should contribute to the bill. Should the contribution be evenly split? These are things to discuss before a breeder loan begins, not when the snake is already at the vet.
Despite not being thrilled about having to spend money on vet bills I must say that I am glad the problem was mine and mine alone. Having to try and sort things out with the owner of the snake would have made a bummer of a situation even worse. And yes, the snake is doing great now. He is cleared for action this coming season.
Consideration #7: Helping Another Herper Get A New Morph Makes One Less Customer For You
For me this is a business. Relationships with other breeders are nice but there are less financially strenuous ways to have friends. I could play softball or fantasy sports if I was just in this for the friendship. I hear World of Warcraft is a great way to have lots of friends and you never even have to take a shower or leave your house. So no, I didn’t get into the ball python business to make a lot of friends. It’s a nice fringe benefit, though. It is callous to say but friendships are secondary. Letting friendship entice you into entering into a breeder loan is going to make one less customer to whom you can sell your production. You just helped them get the morph that you could have charged money for! Wanna’ make it worse? Congratulations! You already did. You just helped them produce the same morph in as little as a year. This means they are now a direct source of competition for you to sell your animals in the future. Give it some serious thought: If everybody has all the same morphs because we help each other to get them through breeder loans who are you going to sell you animals to? The massive influx of people getting into the ball python breeding game? (<— That’s me being facetious.) Seriously, this is called the ‘ball python business’, not the ‘ball python co-op’.
A fellow breeder and friend regularly tries to chastise me on this topic. He is constantly trying to get me to breed my animals with his and when I refuse he tries to use our friendship as a weapon, suggesting that I should do this because we are friends. I tell him that I will not do it because we are friends. He thinks I’m rigid and missing the bigger picture; that this is about comradery more than money. Uh, no. Nope. Negative.
Consideration #8: Trust but Verify
It’s not cool to think about but what would happen if the person with whom you worked a breeder loan decided to lie to you about the results of the pairing? Unless you are there when the eggs are cut you have to rely upon the level of trust you have in your breeder loan partner. In general I think that most of us would not consider a breeder loan with someone who did not already have our complete trust. And it may be true that they are worthy of trust but go back to what I wrote a bit earlier. They may have just spent a year or more taking care of your animal and have developed a greater sense of their contribution to the arrangement. They may no lonber buy into the original terms. A sense of entitlement, financial stress or just plain greed may push them into a bad place; a place where they lie to you about the animals produced.
I hope it has never happened and I hope it never will …but c’mon, this is the reptile business. Some of the greatest people I have ever met are in this business and so are some of the most deceitful. If you decide to enter into a breeder loan be sure that your character judging skills are well polished.
I love being a ball python breeder. I find it personally fulfilling. Hatching a morph for the first time or, better still, hatching a morph that has never before been produced is such an incredibly rewarding experience. Those rewards come at a price, though. Animal husbandry is dirty, repetitive, expensive and monotonous. I spend multiple hours every day maintaining my ball python collection. By the time I finish it is time to begin again. The financial costs are impressive and money always seems to be flowing in the wrong direction. From feeder rodents to building supplies the annual costs of breeding are far from trivial. It takes multiple tens of thousands of dollars each year (each month for some breeders) just to break even. People don’t create money pits out of love. They do so with aspirations of a payday. For me, the breeder loan is the antithesis to my efforts to make a profit. Business is about balance, calculated risks and the rewards or failures that follow. The breeder loan is a case study in “risk versus reward”. Does it make sense to put so many things at risk? Friendship, other animals, your wallet; all are on the block when you decide to co-mingle collections. My analysis is that it is not worth it. My ball pythons will breed with my ball pythons and yours can breed with yours. Produce something cool and I’ll buy it from you.
East Coast Reptile Breeders
Why do you do this? By ‘this’ I mean breed reptiles, of course. Is it a hobby? Do you do it for a living? Somewhere in-between? If you aren’t doing so already, do you aspire to one day breed snakes for a living?
Regardless of where you are in the reptile husbandry game, do you have a plan? Does it look a little like this?:
- Buy snakes
- Breed snakes
- Sell snakes
- Count crazy amounts of cash
What is the last snake you bought? Why did you buy it? Was it a smart buy or did you buy it on impulse? Did it fit into any current breeding project? How about the snake before that one? Did you buy it because of its price or because of what it was? How many times have you let your reptile purchases guide the direction of your reptile collection? Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Shouldn’t your collection guide your purchases? Shouldn’t you have a plan; an honest-to-goodness business plan?
I’m not good at rationalizing things. I am flat-out awesome at it! In the game of rationalization, I’m a rockstar! When I set my mind to it I have yet to come across something I couldn’t talk myself into. My decisions are good. The are solid and they are just. I have rationalized my way into many, many snake purchases, each of them a brilliant, strategic and soon-to-be-profitable decision. With a punnet square, an Excel spreadsheet and available credit I can design a plan for world domination and financial nirvana within a matter of minutes. On paper I am well on my way to living the dream.
The reality? I have lived in the same house and driven the same truck for the past eleven years. Neither are impressive (but I’m not complaining). Year after year I’m a year away from making good money. More than once I have run up to the precipice of profitability, stared longingly and lovingly at it, and then turned and walked back down the trail. By my definitions I am not yet successful. Some people who know me would argue otherwise. If three years ago I had the reptile collection I have today I would have said that I am very successful. But today I want the collection I will have three years from now. I just can’t seem to get my reptile collection and my timeline to sync up. I wonder if it’s because I don’t really have a plan any better than the one above. Who am I kidding? Step #4 doesn’t exist for me. After step #3 I jump straight back to #1. That’s me: buy, breed, sell. Repeat. Snake rich, cash poor.
Because ball pythons are so diverse there is an underlying and [perhaps] unconscious drive to have all of them. Your collection must have pastels, spiders, pinstripes, black pastels, albinos, mojaves, clowns, piebalds, ghosts, lessers, butters, yellow bellys, fires, axanthics and cinnamons. Right? But that’s just to start. With all the ingedients you can make all of the magic! But is that really the most profitable way to go about it? Maybe for some. I’m not sure it’s right for all of us, though. I think you need to explore your motivations before you buy any more critters.
Why do you breed ball pythons? You probably fall into one or more of these categories:
- For the love. Making money isn’t that important to you. You just like to breed snakes. You love the whole process and derive joy from successful husbandry.
- If this is you, congratulations! Your desires are pure. Please collect your group of normal ball pythons and make your way to the back of the room. From there you can listen at a distance, safe from getting any of my capitalism on you.
- To be the first to produce a new morph, to be a recognizable name. A pioneer in the ever-emerging ball python genetics/morph game.
- Bring your wallet. You will need it. If your wallet is mighty and equipped with sufficient stamina, we will all one day know your name.
- Fame in the ball python world is real but small. While I know the names of the big breeders, my parents do not. Nor do my friends and neighbors. Being a big name breeder makes you look cool in only the smallest of circles. Keep your ego in check when you get there.
- To produce a diverse and eclectic array of ball python morphs while making a profit.
- While the profit part may be elusive these days I suspect that many of us fall into this category. As your collection expands it becomes more diverse.
- To produce the animals that will make you the most profit, regardless of how you feel about them.
- You are a pure capitalist. Whatever sells is what you are selling. Some may call you a heartless, money-hungry bastard. Me? I admire your motivations and envy your lack of personal attachment.
- Some other motivation. There may be some other category into which you fall so put yourself here if that’s true.
So who among this list is in the worst position? It’s the people who want to ‘produce a diverse and eclectic array of ball python morphs while making a profit’. Why? Your motivations are at odds with each other. A diverse ball python collection of 100 animals (or 50, or 25, whatever) will allow you to produce a good number of morphs. It’s exciting and cool when you open the cages and see all the colors and patterns. But stop for a moment and really think about what’s happening with your collection. For ease of discussion I will talk about Clown Ball Pythons. Clowns are not cheap but they are within reach of many breeders. The most common gateway into breeding clowns is to buy a male clown and some female het clowns. So let’s say you buy 1.2 (one male, two females). Chances are good that you buy them as babies. In about 2-3 years you will have raised your females and are now producing clown babies for the first time. What are you going to do when they come out of the egg? Sell them? Really? Don’t you remember what you just went through to produce these? You just spent almost 3 years of your life raising these things up and now, there they are: baby clown ball pythons produced by YOU!!! If you sell them you still only have your breeders. How are you going to grow AND refine your ball python collection if you sell them? You gotta’ keep some. And as soon as you decide to do that, you’re screwed. The cycle has you. But if you do sell them you’ll still only be producing a few clowns the following year (you are breeding het females after all). You will never get any bigger and your collection will never get any better than it is today. That’s the rub. Keep your production and you’re screwed. Sell your production and you’re screwed. Neither is the end of the world but neither is getting you to the world you worked up on your Excel spreadsheet a few years earlier, either. What to do?
I know it’s easy to write this and not have to talk about the money behind it but if you are going to breed clowns, BREED CLOWNS. Don’t buy 1.2 clowns and 1.2 albinos and 1.2 ghosts and 1.2 mojaves and 1.2 spiders. Buy 2.8 clowns instead. No, it’s not as exciting but when you do produce clowns you are more likely to produce a bunch of them. When you have 25 clown babies to sell it is A LOT easier to sell them without emotion AND keep a few back to raise up. When you are only producing a few clowns you often can’t bear to part with them. Because they are few they are precious to you; a cherished commodity. And they are the source of your problems.
So into your business plan you need to integrate VOLUME when it comes to a particular morph. Resist the desire to expand both size and diversity. If you are expanding the size of your collection do it with a morph you already have. Don’t add new morphs to the collection until you have a sufficiently large production capacity with one of your other morphs.
This philosophy holds true when you start producing multiple-gene animals. How are you ever going to bring yourself to sell that silver streak when you only produced one of them? If you want to produce silver streaks, go all in. Produce them by the dozens. Two black pewter males and a slew of pastel females is a very affordable project (relatively speaking, of course). Don’t even get me started on white snakes. I’m sick of hearing people refer to them as being “just another white snake”. You know the one thing that is always 100% true of white snakes? They sell like you wouldn’t believe.
If you continue to insist on building a diverse collection of animals without focusing on building a larger production capacity for specific morphs then you are acknowledging that making money is secondary to your love of ball python diversity. And that’s a tough thing to realize about yourself; what is more important?
In summary, if making money in this business is important to you: Have a plan. Produce any particluar morph in sufficient quantity that you can sell them and keep some without being conflicted. Focus less on diversity, more on quantity.