Last year, amongst many other things, I bred a ghost mojave to a 100% het ghost black pastel spider (black bee). Sounds like a cool pairing, right? To my knowledge the ghost mojave black bee hasn’t been produced yet and I was gunning to be the first. With eight eggs in the incubator I was feeling optimistic; all I needed was a little love from the Odds Gods and I would hit on something amazing to share with the world. I watched with hopeful anticipation as the eggs finally pipped. And like a popped water balloon I felt the excitement rushing out of my body as I checked the contents of each egg. Disappointment. Disappointment. Disappointment. To say that I got murdered on the odds was a bit of an understatement. But I didn’t just miss on the ghost mojave black bee. The clutch didn’t produce a single ghost black bee, honey bee, ghost mojave,
Pull any breeder aside and they will tell you that there is no better way to build an excellent reptile collection than to produce your own babies and raise them. The problem is that it usually takes forever to build a collection worthy of note when you do it this way. Producing new morphs of your own is an incredibly gratifying accomplishment, though. It’s a big part of the reason that so many of us are in this business. Pretty much every breeder holds back a few animals each year but it’s often a tough call to to determine which ones and how many to set aside. Producing something cool and deciding to keep it means your pocket is ultimately missing some cash. Sell it and your collection is not as cool the following year. It’s a constant battle. Unless you are financially well-to-do from other sources you do, at some point, have to take the money. But that point is different for each of us. People who know me know that I am a notorious ball python hoarder. I hold back a lot of production each year. It is an addiction for which I am unable to find a cure.
The next best way to build a great ball python collection is to buy babies from other breeders and raise them. Other people always have something you don’t and there are tons of animals out there just dying to fit perfectly into your collection. Bring your wallet (or purse, as the case may be) and be prepared to spend. Building a nice, high-end ball python collection is not for the financially feint of heart. Buying a baby pastel genetic stripe is definitely faster than taking the six or so years it would take you to make them from scratch for yourself. The premium you pay on such an impressive animal is, in part, compensation for the fact that the person from whom you are buying the animal has already paid the six-year price to produce it. That investment of time and the risks associated with it are worth money. And we all must pay for it. Now that you have this wonderful animal in your collection you are still stuck waiting for it to grow up. If you’re lucky you can get your male up to breeding size in less than a year. Females are going to take no less than 18 months, most likely 24-36 months before you’ll be able to do anything with them. Once again you have to hurry up and wait for your collection get to the next level.
Being patient sure is hard sometimes…
Don’t want to raise babies? Want a shorter path to being a baller in the ball python business? Simple enough: buy adults or subabults from someone. That shaves the time down to less than a year in many cases. Or does it? Before you drop cash on an adult ball python you need to seriously ask yourself why the person is selling it. There are many legit reasons, of course. But a huge number of ball python adults that get sold are animals that have problems of some sort. I’m not suggesting that they are sick, though. The problems I’m speaking of are more subtle. When you buy these adults you may be unknowingly paying someone else for their problem.
What are some of the legitimate reasons that adult ball pythons get sold?:
- The breeder is decreasing the size of his/her collection. This is often done because large collections are very expensive and very time consuming to maintain. Scaling back from 1,000 breeder females to 750 means that there are going to be 250 perfectly good girls coming into the marketplace. It is, however, almost an industry standard that these girls get dumped into the marketplace shortly after laying eggs. This means their weight is down greatly from its norm and if you don’t get them early enough in the season you are going to be hard pressed to get them to lay eggs again the following season. If someone sells you a 2,100 gram het pied female you might be thinking, “Sweet!”. But what you don’t know is that she weighed 3,000 grams 5 months ago, laid eggs a month ago and has only had 2 meals since laying. Females that were 3,000 grams last year aren’t often going to lay eggs the following year when you only get them back to 2,700 grams. The seller of the animal is not obligated to tell you this, of course. It would be nice if they did rather than letting you have unrealistic expectations for the coming season.
- The seller is having some sort of financial crisis/hardship. They don’t want to sell the animal but they need money for some imminent need. You can often get some nice animals this way. But keep in mind that when the going gets tough breeders aren’t going to go through their collection and pull out the best animals to sell. They are going to pull those that were not quite as good as the others. Maybe they are often reluctant feeders or have laid eggs each year for the past three years. The chances of going (laying eggs) four years in a row are lower than they are for going three years in a row, aren’t they? The first adults someone is going to sell are going to be the least cool their collection has to offer. Don’t get me wrong, though. This won’t always be bad. Selling the worst animals in an awesome collection may still mean that you are getting some exceptional creatures.
- The animals have been upgraded. I have an outstanding male spider het albino that I raised from a baby. He is a fantastic feeder, a great breeder and doesn’t have even the slightest head wobble that many spiders often have. He aggressively courts and breeds multiple females each year and has produced several albino spiders for me. I held back the first albino spiders males I produced, of course. They are now adults. Why do I need a spider het albino when I have multiples of the real deal? I don’t. So it’s time to offer him for sale, let him go to work for someone else. I’m not getting rid of a problem animal. Quite the contrary. He is a rockstar but my collection has moved on. These are nice animals to find when they come along.
- Proven hets are being replaced with the homozygous form. A breeder may have 50 adult albino het females. It makes sense to replace them with albino females (at the very least). Once the breeder has raised up the replacement albinos he/she will often look to sell the hets. He is managing the size of his collection to a consistent and stable size while increasing its genetic quality. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the albino het females; they were good enough to be the breeders for several years but now its time for them to move on to make room for a new crop of albino females. While these are good animals to add to you collection be sure to keep in mind that they are likely to only hit the market just after laying eggs (as discussed earlier).
- A breeder bought an entire collection from another breeder who is getting out of the hobby and they are liquidating it to make money or they are getting rid of the animals that they don’t want to add to their own collection. This happens a lot. Like many business ventures, many wanna-be breeders just don’t make it. A large number of people get big into reptile husbandry with dreams of an easy and large payday. And they are frequently ready to get out of the business in less than two years. Because of this, entire collections get bought and sold on a regular basis. I have purchased entire collections more than once. When I do it I usually have my eye on a few choice animals in the collection and sell off everything else at a profit. Doing so helps to offset the cost of the animals I want to keep. In many circumstances you reclaim all (or more) of you investment and still have the animals you wanted to keep. Having it work out this way is not a slam dunk, though. Collection flipping requires a little bit of skill and is logistically a lot of work. Not everybody is good at it. I’ve seen people get completely burned doing it. I have made my share of mistakes, too.
What about the illegitimate and hidden reasons many adult ball pythons get sold?
- The snake is a poor feeder. Maybe it only eats once per month. Better still, maybe it only eats mice. A 2,500 gram female ball python will need to eat mice like Pez in order to get them to a good weight for breeding. One medium rat can easily weigh as much as 6-8 adult mice. Not only is it a chore to feed that many food items it is also comparatively expensive. Eight mice will cost you about $4 on the low end. A single medium rat is more in the $1.75 range (depending on how you get supplied). Mouse feeders will more than double your food cost in addition to the time and energy spent. Heaven help you if you are buying your food items from a pet store.
- It prefers gerbils or African soft-furred mice. Just what you need; a snake on a special diet. Not only do gerbils and ASF mice tend to be quite a bit more expensive they are both notoriously more aggressive than typical lab rats (and mice). There is a stronger need to chaperone the feeding event when the predator is at increased risk of becoming the prey.
- She’s a 3,000 gram girl, nice and big. She has laid eggs two out of the last three years. Sound good, right? Problem is she only laid 4 eggs each year. Big girls who don’t lay lot of eggs get farmed out quick. They are genetically weak and have a low return on investment. The best decision is to move them out and replace them with new animals that produce larger clutches. It’s simple math on behalf of the breeder.
- A beautiful adult male comes up for sale. He appears to be a great shortcut to breeding success. The only problem is that he’s a crappy breeder. He shows absolutely no interest in females. I know several breeders who have gone through multiple males before they found one that was a good breeder. What happened to the seemingly gay males? They disappeared into the collection of some other aspiring breeder, of course. I can guarantee you that the ad listing them for sale didn’t read, “Beautiful Adult Male Pastel Lesser – Crappy Breeder”. How can you tell the difference between this male and the great breeder who is being replaced by a better animal? You can’t. The only thing you can do is trust the seller.
- It’s stolen. I’m always amazed how many ball pythons get stolen. They get stolen at trade shows and they get stolen right out of people’s collections. It happens with some regularity. I suppose there may be nothing physically wrong with the animal; you’re just getting it at the expense of someone else. You have no way of knowing this, of course. At trade shows where I am a vendor I am often offered animals for oddly low prices. I know what the animals sold for two years ago and now they are offering me what appears to be a healthy animal for a price that is way below what they would have paid for it and certainly less than it is currently worth. How can I not wonder about its origins? Wouldn’t you? If I buy it and post if for sale on-line am I going to get an email from someone telling me that the snake was stolen from them? That has never happened to me but it has happened to others. In an industry that is largely based on personal reputations I’d like to avoid ever being wrapped up in a situation like that.
The moral of the story is that there is no substitute for starting with babies, investing the time and earning good results with quality animals. The temptation to take the short path and buy adults is too much for speculative breeders to avoid. Unless you personally know the seller and have detailed and accurate knowledge about the origins of the animal you are doing little more than buying a scratcher lottery ticket when you decide to buy and adult ball python. You might win big. You may also get screwed and come to realize that you actually paid someone to take their problem off their hands. Fortunately, I think it’s true that you won’t lose the majority of the time. Most ball pythons are perfectly good animals. All I suggest is that you take the time to question and prod. Does the story being offered with the sale make sense? Can you handle the result of the animal not being a producer for you? If so, speculate your heart out. If not …buy babies and invest the time.
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.
Being in the ball python business is one of the most rewarding things I have ever done. I love the animals and I love the whole yearly cycle involved in breeding them. I have also developed some good friendships with other ball python breeders and that’s something I would not have been able to do if it weren’t for ball pythons. Our paths simply would have never crossed without these snakes as a binding agent.
But being in the reptile business doesn’t come without sacrifice. You give endlessly of your time and money. If you allow it to do so the constant demands of animal husbandry can put tremendous stress on other aspects of your life. I own more than one company and there is a constant struggle to split my time between the two enterprises. I also have a wife and daughter who want to be with me and nothing in life comes before being a father and a husband. Nothing. But being so resolute does not change the needs of my ball pythons. They still have to have fresh water, clean cages and food. And they never stop requiring it. By the time I finish cleaning, feeding and watering it’s time to start again. To successfully balance all of these facets of my life is almost impossible but I’m not willing to give any of them up. Something must be sacrificed. I sacrifice sleep. I seldom sleep more than four hours per night. I’m fortunate that I can still function very well on that little sleep. I’ve been doing it for years so my body is used to it.
Time isn’t the only thing that gets sacrificed in order to participate in the ball python business. Other things have to be given endlessly as well. Money is at the top of the list. To make a living on ball pythons you need a lot of them; a whole lot. While many ball pythons have become extremely affordable (their prices are falsely low, actually) it wasn’t always like that. Many of you know this all too well. An animal that cost multiple thousands of dollars a few short years ago is now in the low hundreds. Pinstripes, for example. I get a little sick to my stomach every time I think about their current price.
Breeders who have adult pinstripes, genetics stripes, bumble bees, black pastels, ghosts and albinos paid a lot of money for them. A LOT! Some of you who are relatively new to the business don’t fully get that. What have you sacrificed in order to be in this business? Anything? Everything? There may be a choice few who have jobs that afford them the opportunity to pay cash for their animals. But that’s a select few, I’m sure. Most of us have had to make many personal sacrifices of one type or another to build our collections.
The other day I was preparing to reinstall the operating system on my computer so I was moving my files to another computer so I could restore them after the rebuild. I always seem to come across interesting photos when I do that (I’ve got dozens of gigabytes of photos on my laptop) and it was these photos that prompted me to write this little article:
This was my 1996 Twin Turbo 300ZX. Most car enthusiasts agree that this is a very special car. I had wanted one for years but their $50K plus price tag back in ’96 put them out of my price range. It wasn’t until several years later that I could afford one. When I did get one I proceeded to put many more thousands into upgrading it; custom exhaust, upgraded computer, turbo timer, performance intakes, and beefier brakes. I waited for several years to be in a position to buy that car. And just after I got it to the the point that it was perfect for me, I sold it. Why did I sell a car that I wanted so badly for so long? I sold it to buy ball pythons. Building my collection was worth more than having that car in my driveway. The sale price wasn’t anything magical; somewhere in the $17K range. But that was back in 2006. $17,000 in 2006 didn’t go very far in the ball python world.
This isn’t the only big sacrifice I have made over the years to be in the ball python business. I haven’t been on vacation in almost a decade for example. I choose to take the money I would spend on a vacation and re-invest it into building my ball python collection. If I were to give it some more thought I’d be able to come up with a long list of personal sacrifices I have made to be in the position I am in today. When I look at the sacrifices I have made to have the animals I do I get all the more annoyed with people who say that all ball python morphs should cost $50 so everybody can have one. You know what I say to those people? Two words: “Pack Sand!” I gave up things that I wanted to get the animals I have and you need to do the same.
And it’s because of these sacrifices that I hold the line on ball python prices. I am not now nor will I ever be the guy who sells ball pythons for a bargain basement prices. I will never lead the way on decreasing ball python prices and I will fight against those who do. I have put too much of myself into this. I have made too many sacrifices in the form of time, money and personal relationships. I will not discount the value of my investment simply because some guy on kingsnake.com is freaked out over money and is selling his animals for $100 less than the going rate. I won’t do it and neither should you. I love ball pythons and this industry too much to do it. I won’t do it to myself and I won’t do it to my peers who have made many sacrifices similar to mine. I’ve got your back on pricing. You got mine?
I’ve been in and around the snake business for almost 20 years. I took a hiatus for a few years when I got married back in the latter part of the 90’s but I’ve been back in it full-force for many years now. While these days I am mostly a ball python breeder I spent a lot of time with a lot of different animals in my earlier years. Ball pythons in the early 90’s were not even a little bit what they are today. Most of the people who read this already know that. Back in the 80’s albino burmese were the big deal and things like albino kenyan sand boas and hognose snakes were just getting rolling. Pete Kahl and Brian Sharp were starting a firestorm in the boa community with their albino strains. Jungle carpet pythons were the coolest thing in the carpet world and all that mattered in the world of chondros was that you could actually breed them successfully; never mind all this locality stuff we’ve got today. Juno road in Texas was Mecca for grey banded kingsnakes and blackhead pythons and womas were borderline mythical. I remember seeing a pair of womas at Tom Crutchfield’s place in the early 90’s and thought I had seen the holy grail of snakes. I also remember seeing the first albino alligator around the same time and thought it wasn’t real until it blinked.
Anyway, to my point. Somebody once said that hinsight is 20/20. I can’t begin to express to you how true that is. One of my fondest and most embarrassing memories about being in the snake business took place at the Mid-Atlantic Reptile Show (MARS) somewhere around 1994 or 1995. I can’t remember the year exactly. Anyway, Ian Gniazdowski and I had been friends from college for several years and I often helped him at his table during the shows. Back in the 90’s the MARS show was actually a cool show. All the big names were there (even though they weren’t necessarily “big” names yet): Barczyk, McCurley, Gniazdowski, Barker, this list goes on.
None of the other parties of this conversation will remember this but me (and it will be evident why after you read it). Ian and I were standing at his table and Kevin McCurley from NERD walked up carrying a ball python. It was a bit unusual looking but it didn’t immediately grab me. Ian and Kevin were talking about ball pythons and I wasn’t paying too much attention. During the conversation Brian Barczyk walked up and joined in on the talk. Within a minute or two Brian had agreed to buy the ball python from Kevin for an amount that is nobody’s business but Kevin’s and Brian’s but I remember thinking, “Why the $%$#@ did Brian just pay that much for a frickin’ ball python?’ Over the course of the next few minutes several more ball pythons were purchased for dollar amounts that I thought transcended insane. And here’s where I made the single biggest mistake of my life: I turned away from the three of them, muttering under my breath, “A ball python is a ball python. Anybody who pays more than $65 for one is crazy.” And that was the last of it. I blindly kept my focus on breeding burmese, rainbow boas, kingsnakes and boas. Little did I know that if I had paid a little more attention, just a little more, I may have been there at a moment when it was all beginning. Instead I walked away, arrogant and blind to the opportunity. Had I not been such a fool on that day you might know my name the way you know the others who were in that conversation that day; Gniazdowski, Barczyk, McCurley, and Weaver. Huh? Who the hell is Weaver? Oh, he’s the guy who walked away from the conversation that defined the next fifteen years of the ball python industry. Smart guy.
The lesson learned that day is that I don’t know it all. People have insights that I don’t see and I need to be less arrogant and open to the possibilities. Ball pythons could have been a bust. But they weren’t and my close mindedness cost me more than just a few dollars.
Pay attention, something new is coming. Don’t miss it the way that I did.
Colin (ahem!) Weaver