…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…
Recently there were a few messages exchanged on Twitter between several reptile enthusiasts about the discovery of a hatchling tuatara in New Zealand. I remeber studying tuataras when I took a graduate-level herpetology course back in the late 90’s. We didn’t have any tuataras to look at, of course, so we read a good bit and did a lot of talking. One of the things I remember about tuataras is that the duration of their breeding cycle is insane. Consider this:
- Tuataras reach sexual maturity somewhere around 15 years of age. Hmmph! It doesn’t even take humans that long to become reproductive.
- Gestation is somewhere in the realm of 9 months. After 9 months the female lays about a dozen eggs (give or take)
- Eggs take as few as 11 but as many as 16 months to hatch.
- Females only reproduce every few years.
To say that Tuatara’s are not in any genetic hurry to reproduce themselves is a bit of an understatement.
All this discussion about saving one species or another got me thinking. Consider the following:
As you might suspect, Tuataras are highly endangered. Whenever things become endangered they (quite correctly) become heavily protected. This usually relegates captive breeding efforts to zoos and other scientific organizations. I understand the motivations. If the existence of a species is on the line you want the most educated, the most capable and the most dedicated people on the job. This makes sesnse. But hang on a minute. Has anyone looked around the herpetological landscape lately? Zoos are not the most advanced husbandry facilities around any more. Several for-profit reptile breeders have outpaced the efforts of even the best zoos out there. Money is a powerful motivator for huge portions of the population. When you combine a passion for reptiles with the ability to make money you find that reptile breeders become 1) very intelligent about husbandry and genetics and 2) very agressive in producing the largest quantity possible. Aren’t those the same basic motivations of a species preservation program?
Most of us in the business can readily rattle off a few names of breeders who are worthy of the challenge and have facilities that are up to the task. Why not give professional breeders a shot at preserving endangered species? I see nothing but good to come of it; the animals are highly likely to be produced in larger quantities than any zoo (no disrespect to zoos intended), large portions of the production can be re-introduced into wild, the breeders makes money on some of the production, animals that were once impossible to own become available in the trade which, if we all agree on one of the purposes of captive breeding, decreases the pressure of collection/poaching of animals in the wild.
If producing more of the animal and re-establishing its viability in the wild are our objectives I can’t think of anyone equally qualified than a professional (for-profit) reptile breeder.
Give it some thought.