The ball python business, like all businesses, is evolving. I have seen a lot of changes and, through them all, I have endeavored to remain optimistic. That optimism has proved legitimate as the industry continues to be very good to me. Despite my love of the hobby (business) I’m not wearing rose-colored glasses; I regularly contemplate the negative aspects of being a reptile breeder and attempt to make sure I am doing what I can to mitigate them.
On a seemingly different note,
Not really a tough question, I suspect. Money in-hand is tangible and usable; it represents capability. In order for me to convince you to wait for money in the future it has to be more than what you can have today. But how much more? If the offer was $5,000 today or $5,200 in four years I feel pretty confident that you would still reject the deal and opt for today as the payday. The capacity for progress created by having money in hand will trump the promise of a meager future return. What the exact future return needs to be in order to entice someone to take the deal is going to vary from person to person. But barring extreme and pressing financial need most people will eventually agree to wait for a future payday.
The Odds… The Odds…
Like gamblers in Vegas, ball python breeders sit at the table each and every year and play the odds. And each year we bet on increasingly long one’s. We have to. Competition is increasing, prices are fickle and our desire to make something magical is insatiable. In many ways the designer morph business is a competitive sport and the release of the second edition of John Berry’s book has put all of us on notice. The first time I sat down and flipped through its pages all I could think was, “I’m gonna’ need a bigger boat.” More so than ever I see the heights to which I need to elevate my game. All that and there are several existing combos that didn’t make it into the book and photographic contributions from a few of the bigger names in the business were missing.
I have been keeping reptiles for about 20 years and I have been going to reptile trade shows in a vendor capacity (on and off) for a little more than half of that time. I took a hiatus from the reptile scene in the early part of this decade but I have been back in full swing for more than four years.
In the early-to-mid 90’s reptile trade shows were awesome events; the excitement and enthusiasm could sometimes be carnival-like. Both vendors and customers came from all around the country to participate. Show dates were comparatively few and far between and the Internet, as the average persons knows it today, was not reptile-enabled. There were far fewer breeders (even though many of today’s names remain the same) and many of the animals that are commonplace today were available to most of us only in pictures. Outside the potpourri of animals in our own collections all most of us could do was look at the small assortment of available books. My top five books were:
- The General Care and Maintenance of Burmese Pythons by Philippe De Vosjoli. A tiny and concise book, printed in black & white, but still one of my favorites. My affection for this book is more sentimental than anything; it was my first book on reptiles.
- The Reproductive Husbandry of Pythons and Boas by Richard Ross. A bible to reptile keepers. I really wish there was an updated version of this book, one that reflects all the things we have learned over the past 15-20 years.
- Completely Illustrated Atlas of Reptiles & Amphibians for the Terrarium. This book is mammoth in size but short in the amount of detail it has on each species. But in a time when the inventors of Google were still in middle school there weren’t many choices for getting information on obscure reptiles.
- Kingsnakes & Milk Snakes by Ron Markel. Still relevant today. Would very much like to see it updated.
- Rat Snakes: A Hobbyists Guide to Elaphe and Kin by Ray Staszko, Jerry Walls, and John Quinn. Another excellent book, also still relevant.
Don’t be even a tiny bit confused. These weren’t just books that were in my personal library; these books were in my hands every single day! I spent hours upon hours poring through the pages, memorizing the images, the content, the latin names, everything I could. I didn’t just read these books, I consumed their content. I read them with such frequency that their pages fell out. I loved the Kingsnakes & Milksnakes book so much that one day in 1994 I jumped in my car and drove 18 hours to Arlington, Texas just so I could meet Ron Markel and talk to him about gray-banded kingsnakes. Completely broke and sleeping in my car I spent a week hanging out with Ron, learning everything I could from him (Ron thought I was staying in a hotel. I was too young and proud to admit otherwise). It was such a cool experience. I never made it the rest of the way down to Del Rio, TX to search for gray-bands of my own but a few weeks later I bought a captive-bred pair of them from Brian Barczyk at the Mid-Atlantic Reptile Show (MARS). To this day I still owe myself a trip to southern Texas to hunt for kingsnakes.
I digress. I didn’t sit down to write about books and road trips from the 90’s. I’m sitting here to write about trade shows. Having been back on the Mid-Atlantic trade show scene for several years I must say that it is no longer what it once was. The excitement and novelty of those days so long ago are all but gone. The market is saturated and it is getting worse. But it’s not the number of animals that seems to have saturated the market, it’s the number of shows. The number of reptile trade shows being hosted on the east coast of the US has exceeded critical mass. A few days ago I sat down to work on my list of show appearances for 2010 and was blown away by the addition yet more reptile shows in the Mid-Atlantic and surrounding area. Vendors have been complaining for a long time that there are too many shows. But there the shows are and more and more are being added all the time.
There are several factors at work causing this increase in the number of shows:
- Not everybody knows it but the Hamburg, PA show was actually two different shows. For years there were two different promoters with different show dates. The shows were held in the same place and to the customers nothing looked different. The politics of reptile trade shows has produced a situation where one of those vendors is no longer able to host their show at the Hamburg armory. In response that promoter has launched a list of multiple new shows in Pennsylvania and surrounding locations.
- The promoter of the White Plains, NY show, which is one of the best trade shows on the east coast, added another show on Long Island last year. That show continues to struggle to match the White Plains event. Both of those shows are outside the Mid-Atlantic but White Plains is a good enough show that it attracts people from quite a long way away. Me, for instance. I travel almost nine hours to get there. I know other vendors who come from several more hours away than me.
- NARBC tried to host a trade show in Northern Virginia. The show lasted two years before poor attendance caused its cancellation. Northern Virginia is brimming with reptile people but even NARBC’s first-rate shows didn’t survive in the over-saturated mire of the Mid-Atlantic scene.
- Repticon continues its northerly march, expanding up to Baltimore in 2010. Prior to this they only went as far as Charlotte, NC.
- One show promoter in the Mid-Atlantic area hosts monthly shows in Virginia and Maryland. The shows are poorly advertised and poorly attended by vendors and customers alike. At most these shows should happen every other month (and that’s me being generous). The show promoter can’t resist the dollars made by the trickle of patrons coming in the door so he continues to try and jam more and more shows down the community’s throat. More and more vendors are no longer supporting these shows. Despite the continuing and ever-increasing lack of participation from customers and vendors alike the promoter insists on adding more and more show dates to the schedule.
Show promoters can’t force vendors to come to shows so let’s focus our attention on the real culprit: the show vendor. Show vendors are duplicitous. We say we want fewer shows but we support the promoters when they add new one’s to the schedule. But why do we do such things? The prospect of money, of course. To understand how the money presents itself I recommend you visualize a polar bear fishing at a hole in the ice. Imagine each morning a polar bear wakes up and hauls himself down to a hole in the ice. For hours upon hours he sits, patiently waiting for a sea lion to rise up through the water and poke its head through the hole. Most days the bear goes hungry, leaving at the end of the day with nothing to show but a wasted trip. It is however, inevitable; a sea lion will eventually poke its head up through the hole in the ice. The key is for the polar bear to be there when it happens. When he is, …delicious! It’s a polar bear payday. It’s the prospect of getting a meal that keeps the bear coming back. The sea lions are few and far between, sometimes eluding the bear for painfully long periods of time. But they seem to pop up just enough to keep him coming back. It’s an inconsistent and inefficient process but he doesn’t really know any other way to catch the sea lions. With seemingly limited options he is, at this moment, preparing for his next trip to the ice hole.
- Show vendors are polar bears. They require a consistent and steady supply of food (money).
- Customers are sea lions (Pardon the crassness of referring to you as a consumable but the reality is that vendors don’t spend money, time and energy to go to shows to socialize and display animals; they are there to give you reptiles in exchange for money.)
- Trade shows are ice holes. Despite the ease with which they can be created they will freeze over and disappear if left alone.
These days there are so many holes in the ice (trade shows) we don’t know when or if a sea lion (customer) is ever going to poke his head through and spend some money (become a meal). In response we (the vendors) need to make sure we never miss an opportunity, knowing full well that most of our time at the ice hole is going to be wasted, fruitless.
What the polar bears don’t know is that by running from hole to hole they are helping to create more holes. The more holes there are the less likely it is the bear will be at the right place at the right time. The sea lion may pop up through the hole but the bear was staring down into the wrong one. Opportunity missed, another wasted effort. If I could sit all the polar bears down for a chat I would tell them not to spend all day in front of the holes. I would tell them to cover most of them up in order to get rid of them. By eliminating most of the holes in the ice they can focus their attention on the best producing holes; achieving a similar end-result with a lot less overhead.
Alas, most polar bears are too caught up in the cycle of running from hole to hole to break trend. They system has them and they can’t break free. It’s a shame, really. They are running themselves ragged, effectively chasing nickels when they should be focusing on dollars. The joy they once derived from going to the ice hole is gone. It has become a chore encapsulated in frustration. While the costs of policing all of the ice holes continues to rise profitable results continue to decline and the cycle is made even worse as a result.
The solution is easy to write but tough to implement: If we (the vendors) stop supporting the show promoters by buying tables they will stop having so many shows. The trickle-down effect is that customers won’t continue going to trade shows without quality vendors with quality products. The vendors I have spoken with this all give me a similar argument; that it’s better to go to the show and make a little bit of money than to stay home and make no money at all. This, however, is only an opinion, not a fact. I suggest that there are ways to better your business each weekend without going to trade shows. Consider the following:
- Rather than going to yet another local trade show that is poorly run, poorly attended and barely profitable, stay home and work on your web site. Have you looked around at reptile web sites lately? Most of them are in poor shape, terribly outdated and incomplete. My own site suffers from this in some places. Web sites are a lot of work if you want them to be good and you can get the time to work on them by foregoing a trade show each month.
- Pick a web site and go take a peek at the list of supposedly available animals. Most reptile web sites (mine included) are not up-to-date. Few have actual lists of animals that a person can really shop from. Some have available lists that are several years old. That’s damaging to your credibility in the long run. So rather than going to the next trade show spend that time taking photos of your available animals and posting them up on your web site.
- Update your content, add updated pictures to your photo gallery and incorporate new content into the site. Make your site better each month by skipping a trade show and adding new information that will cause people to come back on a regular basis. Static web sites with unchanging content don’t need to be visited on a regular basis. If you take the time to populate your site with photos, discussions, how-to articles, videos, etc. you will find that you get a good amount of traffic and that traffic will lead to sales. Most of us don’t have time to do all of this, especially if you spend so many of your weekends doing trade shows. Skip the trade show and you have created the time necessary to get this work done. It will pay for itself in the long run.
I am bailing out on a long list of reptile trade shows in 2010. I just don’t see the value in doing them anymore. My efforts as part of the reptile community are better spent doing other things. Don’t get me wrong, I will still attend every Hamburg and every White Plains show. They are quarterly, which is reasonable and they are still solid staples of the business. But all of these smaller shows …I’m done with them. They are a waste of time for vendors and customers alike. Vendors: join me on this. If you do we can make the industry better by restoring value to the trade show scene.
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.
…hope you enjoy your stay.
The one moment in time toward which all other efforts point; that brief instant when a baby snake pops its head out of the egg for the first time. After all these years I still get excited. 364 days of cage cleaning, record keeping, feeding, water bowl changing and male/female pairing all comes to a conclusion at this moment:
And it is so worth it! I’ve seen it time and again but it never loses it coolness. Earlier today I was checking eggs (and happened to have my camera) and caught this bumble bee just as he pushed his head out for the first time. Seeing their first tongue flick is such a cool thing to witness. In the photo this little guy is about 3 seconds old. How awesome is that?!
This is the best time of year.
Click the image below for a close-up.[nggallery id=8]
Despite their normally pleasant disposition ball pythons can and do bite. They don’t bit too often but if you work with them long enough you will get bit. It doesn’t hurt too much, though. It’s the quickness of it that startles you more than anything.
I’ll wager that 95% or more of bites are on the hands and arm. People don’t often get bit in other places but I’m sure there are no places on the human body that have not been bit. In fact, less than a week ago I know of a guy getting in a spot that would make this post no longer PG-rated.
One of two places I have always wanted to make sure I NEVER get bit is in the face; more specifically, the eye.
Having said that let me introduce you to Mike Hauck:
Mike and I met at the Hamburg snake show on Saturday. He works for a fellow breeder and on Friday, the day before Mike and I met, he got bit by a ball python. To be more specific, he got bit in the face. To be even more specific, he got bit in the eye. The suck factor on that is pretty darn high.
You know how sometimes things that aren’t funny make you laugh really hard? This is one of em’. Mike spent most of the day getting joked by everybody at the show who heard what happened to him. “Careful Mike, that’s the business end of that thing!” He was a trooper about it and was cool enough to know that he should be laughing at himself, too. I suggested a visit to the opthamologist but so far he seems cool with the idea wearing an eye patch if there is broken tooth or two left to fester in his eye. I’ll go out on a limb and guess that if a tooth had stayed behind he’d be in a heck of a lot more pain. A fleck of lint under my contact lens is painful so I’ll bet a python tooth buried 1/16″ into the sclera wouldn’t be painless.
The picture I took of Mike was with my iPhone and it kinda sucks so you can’t really tell where the bite is. What the camera also fails to show is the overall redness of his face and eye. He looked like he went out with some friends, got drunk and then got beat up. The sclera (the white part of his eye) was filled with blood and the teeth of the snake even managed to sink into the lacrimal caruncle (the little ball in the inner-corner of your eye). Ouch! He said it didn’t hurt any more than a regular bite and, not wanting to ever prove him wrong, will take his word for it. Here is an enhanced version of the photo that shows just where Mike took his shot.
I’m sure there are a lot of people who have been bit in the face by snakes but as far as I know, Mike is the inagural member of the “took one in the eye” club.
Congratulations Mike Hauck on your achievement. I’m sure other are lining up to join you in your achievement.
That’s the word I always use when I talk to people about ball python breeding. The combinations are endless. That’s actually the title of a book I haven’t started to write. I can’t see a day during my lifetime when every combo that can be made will have been created. And unless things go poorly for me I should have about another 50-60 years to hang around. There are just too many different ways to put all of these different ball python genes together. More than once the analogy comparing ball python breeders to artists has been made. We are artists using locus and alleles as our paint; the ball python as our canvas. Cliche? Perhaps. Effective? Yes.
Ball python breeding is also something of a competitive sport. The big breeders in the business are always trying to be the first to produce a particular morph. There’s money involved, certainly, but there are also bragging rights and notoriety to be had if you’re the first to produce a particular combination of genes. Above all else you get to name the morph when you are the first to reveal it to the world. Panda Pied, Silver Streak, Lemon Blast, Bumble Bee, Clown, Spinner Blast, Cinnamon, CinnaBee and Pewter. The list goes on. Naming a morph must be a cool thing to do and after a decade we’re still just getting started. This blog post addresses a seldom seen morph. I don’t know if this one is mine to name. I doubt that it is. Surely someone beat me to it. But I call it the Black Bee, the Black Pastel Spider.
I’m not one the big breeders. I’m in the middle of the pack, playing catchup in a game that requires more than just money and luck. It requires connections, inside tracks and relationships that give you dibs on getting the first of something new that is discovered. The number of us that have these kinds of connections can probably be counted using less than two hands, no toes required.
Even though I’m not currently a big name breeder I can still dinker around with the genes and alleles available. And even without new and exciting things coming out of Africa the current raw materials available allow for all kinds of new and seldom seen combos. Like many of you who are reading this I have spent countless hours staring at the pages of Kevin McCurley’s, John Berry’s and Dave and Tracy Barker’s ball python pictorials. Pardon the crudeness but they are the ball python enthusiasts equivalent to Playboy (or Playgirl, as the case may be). I lust after the images I see. Some of the animals in those books are spectacular, some are even more than that. They are beyond words. Many of them I have seen in person and I’ve even managed to produce a good number of them. But many of them are still just pictures in a book; animals that exist in some collection I’ve never seen. But on occasion some of the animals in those books don’t amaze. They don’t blow you away. In fact, there are a few that leave you thinking, “I don’t see it. What’s the big deal?” Once such snake is the Cinnamon Spider, also known as the CinnaBee.
The first time I saw a CinnaBee was in a photo. At first glance I thought it was a normal spider. A year or so later I saw one on Brian Barczyk’s table at a trade show. I could definitely see the difference between it and a normal spider but I was not terribly impressed, especially when you consider the beautiful results being produced from combining other genes with the spider gene. Consider, for example, the Coral Bee Spider Ball Python, the Axanthic Killer Bee Ball Python, and the Honey Bee. And it would be sinful to not mention the Bumble Bee. A friend and fellow snake breeder once said to me, “it’s the one snake that looks like a piece of candy”, and he’s right. A nice bumble bee is hard to beat. That is, until you bring in the killer bees.
I do not do a lot of stuff with the Cinnamon Pastel. I just don’t care for it as much as the Black Pastel. Both genes are similar and I think we’re all in agreement that the gene is a similar allele at the same locus. Some people tell me they don’t see a difference between black pastels and cinnamon pastels. I think they are blind. Every time I encounter a nice female black pastel I add it to my collection. At the beginning of the 2008 breeding season I was deciding how to pair my black pastel females and, having never before seen a Black Pastel Spider, I decided to breed a Honey Bee (Ghost Spider) to one of my Black Pastel girls. I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had seen the CinnaBee and was largely unimpressed. The Spider gene simply overwhelms the Cinnamon gene and makes for a subtle morph. If you want see some pictures of the CinnaBee you can visit Kevin McCurley’s N.E.R.D. site. I thought that maybe, just maybe, the Black Pastel allele would do something different when mixed with the spider gene. I was hoping that it would better mix with the spider gene than the Cinnamon allele did. But, it didn’t. What I got was a fairly normal looking spider that was overall darker in color. The normal gold and yellow glow you expect to see from a normal spider was gone. It was replaced by a darker (yet strangely lighter) overall appearance. Despite not being spectacular the coloration has grown on me as the animals have aged. I really like them. Are they stunners like the Bumble Bee? Not even close. But they do carry some very cool genetics. Because my sire was a Honey Bee they are also het ghost so they are even more powerful in their combo potential.
But words don’t do much to express what a snake looks like. Pictures do more. The images below show three spider ball pythons. The top animal is a normal spider ball python that is actually a sibling of the black bee (Black Pastel Spider). The second (middle) animal is the black bee ball python. The bottom animal is a Spider Yellow Belly, which is obviously of no relation to the other two. I added him in to show contrast between the three animals to help show how truly different they are.
Click on the image to open a much larger view so you can more closely examine the details of all three spider ball pythons (normal spider, black pastel spider (black bee) and yellow belly spider ball python).
Note: After clicking on the image your web browser may resize the images to fit your screen. If you want to see them at their full resolution, click on the image again.
Another important difference that distinguishes the Black Bee Ball Python from a normal spider ball python is its belly coloration and pattern. The image below show three different ball pythons. The belly on the the left is a Black Bee Ball Python, the center belly is a normal Spider Ball Python and the belly on the right is a Yellow Belly Spider Ball Python. The Black Bee has significantly more pattern on its belly and it is also missing most if not all of the yellow that normally goes up the sides. A normal Spider ball python has varying amounts of yellow flecking that go up the sides of the animal. The Yellow Belly Spider obviously has a ridiculous amount of yellow on its belly. I actually have spider yellow belly’s that are even more yellow. Even they can have a lot of variation in the amount of yellow.
In conclusion, the Black Bee Ball Python is a subtle morph. If you haven’t seen many of them or seen one out of context you could easily overlook it or mistake it for a normal ball python. So keep your eyes open. Maybe, just maybe, someone produced one and didn’t realize what it was. If you find it, buy it! It’s a genetic rockstar!
If you have any additional questions about the Black Bee Ball Python please feel free to contact me at email@example.com.
Note: This is not a political tirade. Please bear with me. I have a point that deals with reptiles.
First off, who the heck is Phil Zimmerman? I suspect that very few people in the reptile world have ever heard of him. Without boring you with details let’s just say that Phil is a super-smart guy in the world of cryptography. In the early 90’s Phil wrote and released a mechanism of encryption called PGP. PGP stands for Pretty Good Privacy. In reality PGP was really good privacy but I won’t wear you out with the details on what, why, how, etc. Phil didn’t release PGP to make money and he didn’t do it to become famous. For a long time the United States government treated encryption as munitions. That is, the ability to make data secret and unrecoverable was considered a weapon. Other countries weren’t allowed to have it and our government was vigilant in preventing the export of encryption technologies. That desire to prevent secret communications by other countries began to spread to American citizens. There were some people in our government that felt that American citizens should also be denied the right to have a secret conversation; one the government could not get to no matter how hard they tried. A tide was rising in our government that was seeking to remove the ability of US citizens to keep things secret from the government. Phil thought this was dangerous (and I completely and totally agree) so he created PGP and released it to the world. Suddenly extremely strong encryption was available to anybody, anywhere and for any reason. If you wanted to secure a Christmas letter to your family or your plans to rob a bank there was a mechanism of encryption freely available that would prevent the government from being able to intercept and read it. Before you get all worked up you need to understand that Phil didn’t want to help bank robbers or terrorists or anybody else who wanted to do things criminal. He wanted to protect the rights of US citizens to have the ability to choose. He understood that if something becomes part of our everyday lives it becomes much more difficult for the government to take it away. He knew that if people began to use encryption as naturally as they used their television remote controls it would become impossible for the government to remove that freedom. The people wouldn’t allow it. And you know what? He was right! Today you are free to encrypt anything and everything you want, legit or otherwise. You are free to make the choice yourself, and that’s one of the fundamental beliefs on which the United States is built. That freedom to make that choice means that you also choose to accept the conseqences of your choice.
Look what happened when the government tried to make alcohol illegal. Oops. That didn’t go over so well, did it? Imagine what would happen if the government tried to take away the automobile. How well would that go over? How about our right to choose our own employer and line of work? Get my point? Some things are so entrenched in our society that they are impossible to take away.
Most of us are aware that there are efforts underway to eliminate our right to own many types of reptiles throughout the United States. If they are successful it will be in part because reptile ownership is not sufficiently entrenched in our society, in our homes, communities and neighborhoods. What I’m saying is that if you are a reptile lover and you want to keep your right to own them then you need to become a reptile evangelist. Find ways, no matter how small, to further entrench them into our society. Get a new herper started by helping them with their first snake or gecko. Talk with an ophidiophobe and help them become less fearful of reptiles. Speak at a high school assembly. Do something. I’m not saying you have to put on a white shirt, a black tie and ride your bike from door to door preaching from the Book of Reptilia. Just don’t be quiet. Because if you are you may wake up one day to find that the reptiles you own are contraband. And then you’ll have to make the same decisions that people did back in the days of prohibition. Do snake shows become speakeasy’s? Do we meet in alleys to do our deals right next to the drug dealers? If the representatives from Florida have their way you’ll be committing a felony for driving your ball pythons across state lines. If you breed one and sell it you’ll be a criminal. Sound insane? Do nothing and it could actually happen.
If you’re a breeder, get a reptile into every home you possibly can. They need to know how to care for them, of course, but let’s penetrate the population. Nobody is talking about banning dogs. Why? Because 2/3 of Americans own one. Let’s get reptiles up to that level! Every kid who graduates high school should get a diploma, a cookout at their folks house and a ball python!!! College students should have to have a computer and a kingsnake. It should be a requirement.
P.S. – If you haven’t gotten yourself spun up on what’s going on, read this articles that discusses the proposed ban on reptiles. The proposed law is masquerading as a ban on importation but it’s actually a ban on ownership. Scary, scary stuff.