As an American I am chronically aware that many of my fellow citizens don’t pay much attention to what is going on in other countries. By no means is that an across-the-board statement; it’s just something I have made note of in my interactions with others as I travel about the country. It’s not unusual for Americans to be so unabashedly and ignorantly ethnocentric that they don’t have the slightest idea of what is going in the rest of the world. Who am I kidding? Many don’t even know what is going on in this country. Jay Leno is good at pointing this out from time-to-time in his late night talk show antics (and here). Most Americans know that something is going in in Iraq but many don’t realize that Iran is different than Iraq and they certainly don’t know why Israel is so despised by them. Most of us know that Princess Diana died a while back
Back in high school I sat through more than one government class. In my freshman year of college I went through the motions during a year-long course on the history of the United States. While sitting in those classrooms I wasn’t really investing in the information, I was enduring it. I memorized facts, names and dates that would need to later be regurgitated on an exam. Despite the quality of my schooling I must admit that I failed to process the information as anything other than raw data. True internalization of the information didn’t really happen for me. Part of the reason I missed so much was (honestly) a general lack of interest. For no good reason I found the history of places like Persia and Greece to be much more intriguing than that of my own country. History is often presented by academia as a string of names, dates, documents and military conflicts, each of which is summed up in a few paraphrased and often opinionated paragraphs. The impacts and long-term meanings of the events are not often taught in a way that encourages students to understand the information as it relates to their own lives. The end result is that many of us fail to fully connect the dots on how the events that occurred before our birth actually impact our existence. Teaching is an art form and most educators who have the ability to regurgitate facts lack the talent to make it relevant and interesting. As a result many students frequently purge the information after its usefulness on a test is complete. I do not fault my teachers for this. I take responsibility for my own actions, including the concerned attention I did not pay to my own nation’s history. During my earlier years I never fully took the opportunity to explore how the decisions of the founding fathers were supposed to impact the life I am living more than two hundred years later. The past several years, however, have changed all of that in a way I never expected. If someone had told me many years ago that it would be pythons and boas that suddenly caused the processes of government to be immensely relevant I would have rolled my eyes and wandered off.
…and the things you’ll learn.
Way back in high school I took biology (we all did). We talked about Gregor Mendel and genetics. The girl who sat behind me was gorgeous. I spent most of my time talking to her rather than trying to learn about genetics. My eyes are not blue and discussing the fact that I am het for blue eyes was less interesting than her.
In college I took courses in biology, physiology, epidemiology, genetics, chemistry and biochemistry. None of it seemed like it would ever be relevant (to me) in the real world. I began with the mindset that I was there to ‘check a box’ (e.g. get a diploma). Pass the tests, move along; that was my initial perspective. By the time I graduated from college I knew I was wrong. I had become a reptile breeder (albeit a small one). The ball python jubilee was still almost a decade away so the more exciting genetics considerations at the time were the albino and anerythrystic genes (yes, I know there was other stuff going on, too). Much of the awesomeness we know today in the genetics of burmese pythons, reticulated pythons, ball pythons, blood pythons, boa constrictors, etc. was still a long way off.
After college I enrolled in graduate school courses. I wanted more information. I took graduate level courses in herpetology and genetics. By this time I had been breeding a variety of different snakes (colubrids, boas & pythons) for a few years. Technically, this makes me a herpetoculturist, not a herpetologist. While the difference in spelling is subtle, the meaning is not. So in my herpetology course I was an immediate outsider. My classmates were interested in counting differences in subcaudal scales on snakes obtained from the top and bottom of some far away mountain. I was interested in how to breed them. The course did not include a section on husbandry and breeding, which I understand but still missed. Strangely, herpetoculture and herpetology don’t mix like you might think. This particular group of herpetology students did not embrace the idea of breeding reptiles for profit. Capitalism and academia are often at odds with each other.
I am not suggesting that all my schooling made me a good reptile breeder. While it certainly didn’t hurt me I suggest it provided me slim to no advantage over most of my reptile breeding peers. Pretty much all of my friends who breed snakes arrived at this particular location (e.g. reptile breeder) via different paths. Some of us began as car mechanics while others were general contractors, stock brokers, longshoreman, pharmacologists and information technology professionals. And virtually all of them have as much usable knowledge about genetics as I do. That impresses me. It doesn’t take college or graduate courses to learn how to do any of this. It does, however, take motivation and a desire to learn. And it takes a lot of ‘doing’. The more I do this the better I get. Yeah, yeah, we all love reptiles but it’s the attachment of dollar signs that really gets a lot of us motivated to figure this stuff out. Visit any reptile forum and you will read everyday people talking about Punnett Squares, dihybrid crosses, genes, alleles and loci (locus) just as naturally as they talk about cooking with a microwave oven. It just goes to show the chinese proverb, “What I hear I forget, what I see I remember, what I do I understand” is as true today as it was 2,500 or so years ago when something like it was first written.
My whole point is this: We are a community that has become functional (if not proficient) in a field that until a few years ago was reserved for academics. The past 10-15 years in the reptile industry have been a whirlwind. We have become better at herpetoculture, breeding and genetics. Rather than having a bunch of snakes in glass aquariums we have applied science and capitalism to reptile husbandry. I’m glad to be part of that.
…And then there was H.R. 669. While not the first (or last) assault on our rights to own, breed, sell, trade and transport reptiles, I witnessed two things happen as a result of its introduction:
- We galvanized as a community in a way I honestly didn’t think possible. From the largest breeders to the guy with a single pet reptile I saw people get fired up and say, “What do you need me to do to help fight this?” People quickly became willing soldiers, ready to fight for their right to own reptiles. That impressed me. Using the Internet as our primary vehicle (forums, Twitter, email, web sites, etc.) we all worked to get the word out and get others motivated. The axe has not fallen on H.R. 669 but, to steal from a famous story, ‘Horton heard a Who’ by the time 4/23/09 came around.
- We got also got an unexpected education through this ordeal (not unlike the genetics education we have all received over the past 10 years). I met more than a few reptile people who got caught up on all the stuff they missed in high school about how our government runs. How many of you reptile fanatics out there now have a much better understanding of how things work in the House of Representatives? Maybe you didn’t put it all together but there are a lot of us who are much more acquainted with how the process works. And if H.R. 669 ever makes it out of the House we’re going to all get a lot smarter about how things work in the Senate. We’ve got to be educated, organized, and vigilant if we’re going to win this. People who used to say, “I don’t vote.”, are beginning to realize that their voice, when combined with others who share their beliefs, actually does count.
In one form or another, being in the reptile business is an education…
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.