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.
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.
In the mid-90’s I bred Burmese pythons. They were some of the most gentle and tolerant snakes I have ever kept and working with them was one of the most rewarding experiences I have had as a reptile breeder. Some life changes necessitated that I stop breeding them and space issues keep me from beginning again. But I miss them. I want to put another big group of Burmese pythons together and start breeding them again. Four things give me pause:
- Food: Finding a consistent local supply of affordable food has been problematic in the past. This is the least of my concerns and can be overcome, I’m sure.
- Space & Caging: Do I need to elaborate on the logistics of housing 30-50 large constrictors? While do-able, it’s not trivial.
- City ordinance: The city I live in requires all reptiles over 8 feet to have a permit. I don’t mind paying the permit fee but I do mind being on the radar of local officials. I feel like it makes me a target. “Hey, this guy has 40 Burmese pythons. He needs a visit.”
I should avoid complaining on this point, though. At least the city I live in hasn’t banned them completely.
- The current national political climate hell-bent on banning large constrictors: If I put together a large breeding group now will I find them banned and worthless some time in the next few years?
At the risk of becoming a pariah I suggest that the writing is on the wall for the so-called Big 5 Constrictors. I fear they will be banned some time in the next few years. I also fear it will be our (e.g. the reptile community) own fault when it happens. As a quick review for those who don’t already know, the Big Five include:
- Reticulated Pythons
- Burmese Pythons
- African Rock Pythons
- Australian Scrub Pythons
We have a chance to stop the ban but the reptile community is currently broken into two distinct groups. While both groups have the same general objective of allowing for continued ownership of large constrictors (and other reptiles) they differ quite on a bit on their approach. I suggest you can call the two groups Team USARK and Team PIJAC. I know I am going to be accused of perpetuating the divide by laying it out this way but this is how I see it. It is my perception (and you now what they say about the link between perception and reality).
Everything I have seen, read and heard seems to indicate that PIJAC supports the responsible implementation of regulatory controls that will allow continued ownership of large constrictors while USARK does not support any controls, in any form. As individuals we align with the side that best fits our own personal desires. That division has and will drive the efforts of both groups in two different directions that ultimately do not complement each other. That separation may lead to neither group achieving its objective and the third, less desirable result, a complete ban, may prevail in their stead.
The non-big-5-owning portion of the reptile community (ball python breeders, in particular) is often accused of being willing to throw the 5 under the bus to quiet the voices of people wishing to ban snake ownership. And large constrictors are such an easy target, are they not? Burmese pythons garner most of the public spotlight because of the Florida Everglades situation and I can’t conjure a story of someone being seriously injured or killed by a ball python or any of the other smaller python species. It’s always one the five (usually a burm or a retic) that makes the news. And they are the one’s profiled on the Discovery Channel, History Channel and other so-called ‘knowledge’ channels. As a ball python breeder (and former Burmese python breeder) let me be extremely clear on this point: a federal ban on the Big 5 will not stop the people who want to put your right to own snakes and other reptiles to an end. Sure, a ban on the Five may quiet them down for a bit but I promise you they will be back, emboldened by their success, to finish the job and ban the rest of the python species. Their goal is not to ban large constrictors; they want to ban all reptiles. So if you are a ball python, carpet python or any other kind of python breeder, stop thinking that a ban on the Five will end the political opposition to reptile ownership. It won’t. It will strengthen it! All you need to do is look at Senate bill S.373 for evidence of this. Regardless of size of python being bred, we need to be united and consistent in our opposition to legislation. This includes a united approach for the future of reptile ownership.
Having said that I fear that rigid and uncompromising opposition to any legislation will result in long-term failure and the Five will be banned at a federal level. Not long after the Big 5 get banned, many if not all, of the other python species will follow. Supporters of these bills are sneaky and vigilant. They use misinformation and fear to further their objectives and given enough time they are likely to be successful in convincing others who don’t care to take the time to find the truth. Please understand that people do not intentionally form opinions they know to be wrong. Many rely on seemingly valid sources of information, like the USGS and the University of Florida, to help them form their opinions. Each person believes what they do for a reason and they often define themselves by what they believe. In order to maintain their opinions they have to find evidence that supports them. This fact lets us understand that people who want to prove their opinion will conjur results necessary to validate their perspective. Consider this publication on the invasion of Burmese Pythons from the Univerity of Florida. When quoted by the media, academic publications are often presented as lore to the general public. If you read the article referenced above you will find that it is not short on bias against the large constrictors (and pet owners). Rather than being an objective academic analysis of the status of the Burmese Python in the Florida Everglades it is a position piece cleverly set up to be ammunition for future citations and political rhetoric. It is designed to support an opinion and it is seeded with some facts to bolster its credibility. Who is going to argue with Congressman so-and-so when he is quoting ‘facts’ published as part of a study conducted by the University of Florida? I hope you see the power in this type of misinformation. The public will never question these sources, much less read them.
Rigid resistance to any and all legislation may result in complete legislation. Our best chance for success is to find middle ground. We need to quell the voices of opposition while maintaining our rights to own and breed snakes of our choosing. To do this I suggest that the Big Five owners and breeders should not be thrown under the bus …but they may have to get their toes run over by it. I’m not saying this because they deserve it. It’s a simple truth that these constrictors get the lions share of attention from people on the outside looking in. Starting anywhere other than with the Five will likely be viewed as a token offering.
But what do I mean by ‘getting their toes run over’? Simple, really. Owners and breeders of large constrictors will have to forego some of the freedoms enjoyed by breeders of smaller snakes. To avoid sugar-coating it, breeding and ownership of large constrictors will be regulated. The question is not ‘if they will be regulated’, it is ‘to what extend will they be regulated’. There are two central issues that legislation will attempt to address: invasive species and public health and safety. The ability for large constrictors to invade other regions of the country is hotly debated.
Nobody seems to dispute the presence of Burmese pythons in the Florida Everglades. A few sensational (and very over-used) pictures (1) (2) have been released and more than one article/TV show has tried to portray an epic battle taking place for top-of-the-food-chain status between the American alligator and the Burmese python. It makes for great TV but that’s about it. The Burmese pythons, along with many, many other plants and animals have made their way into the Florida Everglades and found conditions conducive to their survival. Over the past decade about 1,000 pythons have been captured in the southern-most portions of the Everglades. Despite wild reports suggesting otherwise, there is no evidence to prove that they are moving north. Burmese pythons do not have the ability to survive long-term in the colder parts of the United States, including northern Florida.
Education is our best defense against people who use fear of python invasion as justification for a ban. We need to educate the people about the reality of python survivability in temperate regions. Once people who vote on our behalf understand that invasion beyond the Florida Everglades is all but impossible we will have done serious damage to this argument.
Public Health & Safety
The spread of non-native ticks (addressed by the National Reptile Improvement Plan, NRIP) and the ability for large constrictors to severely injure or even kill humans are points of concern (the former is a concern for all imported reptiles). Death of humans because of large constrictors is incredibly rare. My research indicates that 11 people have been killed by large constrictors in the past 29 years. But when it happens it is sensational. The news and other media outlets seize upon it and milk the stories for all they are worth. The damage to the image of herpetoculturists is disproportionate and long-lasting. I’m willing to bet that more than 11 people have died from choking on pen tops in the past 29 years but pen tops, which exist in every home, do not have a lobby against them because of their danger to public safety. To say that large constrictors pose an imminent risk to humans is just plain silly but when you watch TV they make it seem like there is a python in your back yard, stalking you. The truth does not stir people, nor does it sell ad space. The media lies to make the facts more interesting.
Sizable portions of our population are afraid of all snakes (I know a woman who paid $350 to have a 6″ ringneck snake removed from her back yard). That fear is amplified when the snakes are large. That fears transcends into hysteria when the snake is one of the Big 5. Hysteria and fear are not mindsets that allow for rational discussion. As irrational as the fear is to members of the reptile community, it is real to the people who experience it and they are not likely to be swayed by us telling them everything is all right.
So how do you fight against a largely baseless agrument that is supported by fear, sensational media coverage, irresponsible academics and abusive extrapolations by supposedly legitimate scientific organizations? Education is the most important tool but it is a long term approach. Let’s compare the fear of snakes to something like racism. Racism, like fear of snakes, is a learned behavior. It takes time to eliminate it and education is one of the key tools. Eliminating fear of reptiles has to start early in life. My two year old daughter is not afraid of snakes. How could she be? But the other day she told me she was scared the snake was going to bite her. I later learned she got the idea from another child at school whose parents are deathly afraid of snakes. How to address it? Well, I started with my daughter. Being afraid of snakes in this family isn’t going to work out so she and I spent some time with the snakes so she knows they won’t hurt her. Next in line is my daughter’s school. My wife is in the process of arranging a ‘show and tell’ day where I will take some snakes (and other reptiles) in and teach the kids that, while worthy of respect, they are not dangerous. Every person in the reptile community needs to be a reptile evangelist, working to dispel fear and misunderstanding whenever and wherever we can. But grassroots efforts (which have been going on for years) will not suffice. There needs to be a national campaign, supported by entire reptile community, to begin to eradicate fear of snakes.
Education is a strategic aim. We need a more tactical approach to deal with our immediate problem; a proposed ban on pythons. Education won’t do us much good if we lose our right to own reptiles in the next few years. It is likely that legislation in some form is a foregone conclusion. We will do ourselves a favor to come to the table with something other than blanket opposition. Here is what I propose:
- Implement a national permit system for large constrictor ownership. Permits will be per individual/business, not per animal. There will be an annual fee. These fees must be realistic and not serve to exclude the average person from ownership (because of high prices). For example, 200,000 large constrictor owners paying $15/year will generate $3 million in annual revenue.
- Require owners of large constrictors to attend an 8-hour certification class that teaches basic husbandry techniques, safe handling, escape-resistant caging, basic medical response (e.g. what to do if you get bit), etc. Successful completion of the course is required for permit approval. Enrollment in the course will be fee-based with a portion of the fees used to provide reptile education around the country.
- This course could be offered as a single Saturday event (9-5) or two hours/night for four weeks.
- Large constrictor owners could also be required to renew their certification every 5 years by attending a 1/2 day refresher course. This will provide an opportunity to make sure all owners of large constrictors are up-to-date on any new developments in husbandry as well as the status of any regulations. This also provides another revenue stream, complementing the annual permit fee.
- Reptile owners, not reptile sellers /breeders, are responsible for obtaining a permit and certification prior to the animal reaching 8 feet in length. The breeder/seller of the reptile is required to notify the buyer of the requirement for a permit and certifiation but is not required to maintain records on who the animals were sold to and and what their permit status is. This requirement falls to the reptile owner and the national reptile permit system administrators.
- This may be a sticking point. I think it’s important to avoid burdening reptile breeders/resellers with extra tracking and paperwork. But large constrictors disappearing into the community with no trail to show where they have gone is likely going to cause a lot of buyers to simply not get a permit or attend the course. The recourse to this is that there has to be a stiff penalty for failure to register and take the required certification class. This may take the form of a fine, seizure of the animal(s) and a suspension period, during which time the offender is prohibited from owning a large constrictor.
- I am not an advocate of microchipping. Pet owners being labeled as the cause of the problem in the Florida Everglades is an unfounded accusation. Natural disasters such as Hurrican Andrew are more likely suspects for the unintentional release of reptiles into the wild. Escaped constrictors are not a problem outside the Florida Everlgades so the only thing mandatory microchipping will do is increase the total cost of ownership (TCO) and the money spent on building, administering and maintaining a tracking database will outweigh any potential benefits. Microchipping also inhibits the free trade of reptiles. Ownership of many animals changes frequently and quickly. I can cite many instances where an animal changed ownership four (4) times in a single day. Keeping up with microchip registrations will be burdensome without benefit.
- Stiff penalties must be put in place for anyone caught intentionally releasing a non-native species into the wild. Most states already have something like this but the consequences need to be undesireable enough to cause people to want to find a different solution for getting rid of their animals.
I want a world where reptile ownership is unrestricted and unregulated. I don’t want any national permit system nor do I want to have to pay an annual fee or take a course for the right to own a reptile of my choosing. But that is increasingly not the reality. I would much rather endure a little bit of paperwork, pay a small fee and attend a class every few years than have my rights taken away completely. I fear that an unwillingness to budge by the reptile community will cause the total loss of our rights. It’s not fair and the fears of others are not based on reality but they don’t have to be in order for a law to get passed. It’s time we took the initiative and put processes into place that ensure our right to own large constrictors. And as soon as we do that I will start building my group of Burmese again, safe that I can breed them and be able to legally sell the animals.
I think he meant to write, “Ivory and Pastel Ivory, locked together in perfect harmony”.
Or something like that. Anyway, I can’t see much bad happening from crossing an Ivory with a Pastel Ivory. Seems all good to me. Sorry for the bum picture. I didn’t want to mess with my boy’s mojo so I snapped it in a hurry with my iPhone.
The Silver Streak Ball Python. Less often known by its real name; the Super Pastel Black Pastel Ball Python.
Like many breeders I have male Silver Streaks in my collection. These days you almost have to. It’s getting harder and harder to keep up with the big breeders so having males with some genetic firepower is a non-negotiable essential.
But for the past few years I have also been working to add female Silver Streaks to my collection. I’ve manage to add several to my breeding arsenal but this girl
Is the biggest one I’ve got. She’s a hefty 2700 grams at last weigh in and this is her second year in breeding rotation. I’ve been breeding her with a Pastel Lesser Ball Python so I’m hoping to get some really cool stuff from her eggs.
- Pastels (Please, Lord. Please! No. Could I be soooooo unlucky?)
- Super Pastels
- Pastel Lessers
- Super Pastel Lessers
- Black Pewters (Meh. Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad to produce em’, just not excited about getting them from this particular pairing)
- Black Pewter Lessers
- Silver Streaks
- Silver Streak Lessers (Booyah!!! Since I don’t have any of these I’ll be hard-pressed to actually let it go if I should be blessed enough to have one poke its head out of the egg. If I produce a male, it isn’t even a discussion. I’ll keep it. I’ll actually keep the first 2-3 males I produce. Females will be a different story.)
If she would hurry up and ovulate I’d be a much happier guy.
One of the things I like so much about the reptile business is that there is no uninteresting time of year (ball python breeding in particular). You’re always doing something with your animals. Feeding, cleaning, cycling temperature, adjusting humidity, feeding, cleaning, varying light cycles, breeding, incubating, feeding, cleaning, hatching, selling, trading, buying …and feeding and cleaning. There is no down time, no off season. It’s not too unlike professional sports, actually. Football players start the season focused on making the playoffs. Once in the playoffs they focus on getting to the championship game. Once they win the championship game they focus on the Super Bowl. After that little event they focus on training for the following season so they can do it all over again. It’s a cycle and it never ends. Reptile breeding is just like this. You fatten up your females as best you can and start breeding in the fall. You start getting eggs in late winter/early spring. Hatching starts in early spring through late summer. As soon as eggs drop you start fattening up again. At the same time you are working to sell or trade the years production. The animals you keep or the one’s you acquire have a little sub-routine that runs in parallel; you feed them to get them up to breeding size in a timely fashion. Baby snakes have a much more basic cycle: feed, clean, feed, clean, clean, feed, clean, feed, clean, clean, feed, clean. It is not lost on me how many incredibly intelligent people who are in the reptile business who have somehow chosen to clean snake poop as a career/favorite pastime. It’s a testimony to the general awesomeness of reptiles that we’re willing to endure such dirty work to have the magical moments that successful husbandry provides.
Right now I’m at the stage where I’m wondering if I’m going to make the playoffs. I do it to myself every year at this time. I’m at that stage where females are ovulating and going into pre-lay sheds. And it’s at this time of year when you start to wonder if you’ve done everything right. If you’re anything like me you can easily talk yourself into a panic. You start to think that you aren’t going to have any clutches at all, or maybe only a tiny fraction of what you are expecting. Year after year I drive myself crazy with worry and year after year it turns out to be unfounded. Everything works out fine. Worrying is part of the cycle for me.
Now the genetic odds on what pokes out of the egg in about 2 months is a completely different story. And that’s actually next up in my cycle of things to drive myself insane over.