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