Originally Posted: 4/27/2010
Note: Before reading this you need to know a few things:
– Compared to the average blog post this is long …very long. It’s more like a chapter than a blog post.
– The purpose of this post is not to try and discourage ball python breeders. Quite the opposite, actually. I am enthusiastic about the prospects of this business and I want people who decide to be in it, myself included, to understand the consequences of their choices and adjust their behavior in order to allow an opportunity for profit.
– I am neither an economist nor an accountant. I’m just a guy with a spreadsheet and an opinion; a perspective for your consideration.
By my standards and expectations last year was a tough breeding season. In addition to losing a few key clutches during incubation I had an amazing number of clutches that bludgeoned me on the odds. At times it was depressing. But one thing that all breeders rely on is the fact that sooner or later the odds tend to swing around in their favor. It’s the nature of averages; sometimes you win, sometimes you don’t. Last season wasn’t all bad, though. I had a few moments that really stood out. My perspective is arguably tainted, mind you. With very few exceptions I do not try to produce single-gene carrying animals and producing things like black pewters, albino spiders, super pastels, and bumble bees has become business as usual. While I am certainly very glad to produce those animals I have my genetic sights set much higher. As I type two-gene animals are a common (but often still pricey) staple of the industry while the immediate future is in 3, 4 and 5-gene animals. To steal the words of a friend of mine, “I’m not in this for socialist reasons. In this business there will be winners and losers.
I want to be one of the winners.”
Being one of the so-called winners in the ball python breeding business requires several characteristics and qualities:
- Money. You’ve got to be willing to spend a lot of it if you want to play around with the cutting-edge animals. Heck, you’ve got to have a lot of it even if you want to eternally play catch-up. I’ve said it before: The high-end arena of this particular field of hobby is not for the financially feint of heart. Here be speculators.
- Patience. Females take upwards of three years before you have any chance at seeing eggs. Sure, males get up to breeding size in much less time but big genetic magic requires both the boys and the girls to come to the conjugal packing genetic heat. You are essentially treading water with a backpack full of bricks if you spend all of your money on high-end males without also investing in multi-gene girls to go along with them.
- An entrepreneurial spirit with a gambling addict’s judgment. How else can I say it? You will never get rich by putting your money in traditional savings accounts and certificates of deposit. Betting it all on black is a good way to do it, though. But you’ve got to be prepared for it to come up red (and lose it all). A long time ago a day-trading friend told me, “People get rich by putting all of their eggs in one basket. People stay rich by spreading their eggs around.” And perhaps nobody summed it up better than the copy store clerk in Jerry Maguire when he said, “That’s how you become great, man. Hang your balls out there!” The moral is simple: Do not walk through this life expecting reward if you are not willing to take risks. The live animal business is packed full of risk.
- Luck. Even with the best genetics you still need a bit of luck. To take things to the next level you have to hit on long odds. The genetics of ball pythons is a game of calculated chance. Most of the high-end genetic progress comes when people bet and win on very long odds. At a bare minimum I’m talking about 1:16 odds. But real magic is in the 1:32 or 1:64 range. When you hit on a long shot it’s a payday, something that can leap your collection [genetically] forward by multiple years.
- Business acumen. For many of us this began as a hobby and morphed into a business. If this is a business, treat is as such. Crunch the numbers. Factor in the costs. Do the analysis. As much as possible, remove emotion from the equation. How else can you know if you are being profitable? If your measure of business success is that you have a wad of cash in your pocket at the end of a trade show you aren’t in the right place. This business is not as simple as putting two snakes together, selling the babies and then going Mercedes shopping. The expenses of the live animal business are significant, on the rise and constant. Cash flow does not equal financial success.
Whether you call ball python breeding a hobby or a business it has the capacity to be both personally and financially rewarding. But you have a greater chance at achieving personal rewards (e.g. the joy you feel when you produce a particular morph for the first time) than you do financial rewards. Reflect on your motivations and your aspirations and define your goals; both tactical and strategic. Do so and you will find that the opportunity for financial success is much more likely.
Not long ago I was browsing an on-line reptile classified web site and I came across the ad of a well-known reptile wholesaler. The ad was of the “want to buy” nature and he was offering to buy the entire breeding production that you have for sale. After saying that he wants your production he typed in bold characters, “WE ARE ONLY PAYING WHOLESALE PRICES.” Sadly, wholesale pricing in the reptile industry is often considered to be in the 50% off retail range (or more). As I finished reading the ad a few choice words came to mind regarding how I felt about its audacity. The brazen call for you to sell your production to someone else so they can make a profit equal to the person who did all the work (you) always gets me a little annoyed …almost as annoyed as I get at the idea that people regularly agree to the sale.
I have written more than once on the price of reptiles, ball pythons in particular. Please take a moment to read the forum post I made about snake prices (on faunaclassifieds.com) back in April 2009 (http://www.faunaclassifieds.com/forums/showthread.php?t=130559). After that, please read this post I made on my own site at around the same time (also regarding snake pricing). Discussions surrounding how much animals should sell for are circular at best as the value of a snake is arbitrary. What is right and what is wrong is ultimately irrelevant because no single individual can control what others do with their pricing.
Having said that we all need to understand that in the reptile business there are two basic mechanisms that determine the price of an animal: value and margin.
Value pricing is the type of pricing you set on an animal because you have an investment in its production. This usually means you produced the animal through breeding. When your product comes from your own breeding efforts you assign a value based on a variety of factors including (but not limited to), the amount invested in the parents, housing & caging, food, time spent, etc. Put simply, all of those factors create value. The production of the animal represents a lot of time, effort and money. Accordingly, you want to see a return on that investment and you price your animals in a way that allows you to accomplish that objective.
Compared to value pricing, margin pricing is simple. With margin pricing the sale price is not dependant upon any factor other than how much was paid for the animal. If a wholesaler/flipper can buy an animal for $50 they sell it for $100 even if the current value price is $150. If someone offers $75 they are likely to take it. In the best case their profit is 100% on the original investment. Even if they sell it for $75 after a $50 investment they still realize a 50% return. Either way, the return on their investment is impressive. This return is compounded by the fact that their production cost is $0. Take a moment to notice how the margin seller did not consider value when pricing the animal. Well, that’s not entirely true. The margin seller does consider the value price in the following ways:
- His acquisition price must be significantly lower than the current value price.
- The acquisition price must be sufficiently low to allow a margin price that is still significantly less than the current value price. This is necessary because the animals must be sold quickly, with as little maintenance as possible.
- The acquisition price must allow for a quick-sell margin price that still yields a 50-100% profit. The current culture of the reptile business does not support a flipper making only a 15-20% return. In fact, they scoff at the prospect of such returns.
Take a moment to picture two vendors at a reptile trade show. Both are selling similar animals. Seller #1 is you. The animals you are selling were produced by you through your own breeding efforts. You have a facility where you produced these animals and you have years invested in raising the parents, pairing them for breeding, incubating the eggs followed by a few months getting the babies established and ready for sale. You are proud of your animals and you are ready to earn a financial reward for your efforts. At the table next to you is Seller #2, a wholesaler/flipper. He did not produce any of the animals on his table. His arrived via FedEx the night before. He opened the bags last night to make sure the animals were alive but that’s it. He did not set them up in cages, did not feed them and did not give them water. The only investment he has in the animals is an invoice.
The show begins. People visit your table and comment on how beautiful your animals are but they do not buy. At the table next to you things are busy. Cash is trading hands. You visit Seller #2’s table and realize that he is selling the same animals as you but at a greatly reduced price. You don’t stand a chance at moving any of your production as long as his animals are priced that way. By the time the day is done you have not even made enough money to cover your tables fees and other costs associated with going to the show. You are frustrated. At the end of the show Seller #2, the flipper, comes by and offers you $3,000 cash for 10 animals that you value at $7,500. You now have two choices: go home having lost money or go home with $3,000. Seller #2 walks away with 10 new animals and you feel slightly sick to your stomach. But you did just make $3,000 and you still have a lot more animals back at the shop that you can sell for your value prices. By the time you get home you have successfully rationalized the transaction and are feeling good about the wad of cash in your pocket.
Here is what happens to you in the aftermath of the trade show:
- On the Tuesday after the show you post your remaining animals on an Internet classified site. You price them based on value.
- You decide to search the site to see who else is selling animals like yours and are horrified to see that Seller #2 has listed the actual animals you sold to him at the show and he is selling them for less than your value price. The snake you just listed at a value price of $500 he is selling for a margin price of $400. He is able to do this because he paid you less than $250 for it at the trade show (as part of your $3,000 deal). He will sell before you and make a $150 profit.
- Knowing you don’t really stand a chance at getting $500 when animals just as good as yours (actually ARE yours) are being sold for $400 you reduce your price to $400 to match Seller #2. And the market value of the animals is now officially $100 less than it was last week.
- Frustrated you rail against Seller #2 every chance you get. You label him the destroyer of the trade. People like him are the reason that animal prices fall so fast.
A month later you attend another reptile trade show. Your animal, once value priced at $500, is now on your table for $400. You had to lower the price to stand a chance against Seller #2. Feeling like you are now competitive you expect to have a great show. Things do not go according to plan. Seller #2’s table is a mad-house yet again. When you visit his table you see that your $400 animals are now $325 on his table. Once again, you don’t stand a chance. At the end of yet another miserable show you don’t wait for Seller #2 to visit you. You go see him and you bring a tall stack of animals with you knowing all too well that you are about to sell them for less than half of their value.
And so the cycle continues. You, the breeder, continue to lower the value you place on your animals in order to try and stay competitive with Seller #2. He always seems to have lower prices than anybody else. As time passes the value of your animals decreases while the costs associated with their maintenance continues to rise. Because Seller #2 prices his animals based on margin rather than value you cannot win. Seller #2, the so-called destroyer, continues to ruin the market.
But here is a little revelation for you: Seller #2 isn’t the destroyer. You are.
Seller #2 can’t sell animals at margin prices if he can’t buy them for less than 50% of their value. And it was you, faced with the prospect of a money-losing trade show (or your mortgage being late, or your car breaking down, or your divorce, or whatever…), that decided to make something rather than nothing. Your decision to place such a deep discount on value has created the market for the margin seller. The margin seller, of flipper as he is so often labeled, is not ruining the trade. He is a businessman, an innovator within the trade. He has identified a market opportunity and is exploiting it. Despite being frustrated by him, I will never fault him for that. The person(s) accountable are the one’s that continue to sell their animals to him. If breeders would wise up (which I have no hopes of them ever doing), the flippers would dry up and go away. You wise up, they dry up. The expression “no margin, no mission” applies to all business ventures; yours and the flippers. When you sell to a flipper/wholesaler it is you who is slowly drying up. It will one day be you, because of frustration and a lack of profitability, that goes away. And when you do the wholesaler will move on and find another breeder to consume. If the breeders would stand fast, resist the temptation to sell to the flippers, it would be the other way around. But I see no signs of that ever happening. As a diverse community we lack the business acumen to do so.
Flippers exist because breeders allow them to. Flippers also exist because people almost always purchase reptiles on one factor: price. Don’t bother disagreeing with me. I have been in this business for too long and can say with confidence that in excess of 85% of all transactions are price-driven. People go on forums and talk about how quality is important and how they are willing to pay more for an exceptional animal but most of them are not going to stick to those guns when the wallet-pulling moment is at hand. I’ve seen it too many times. I am not kidding when I tell you that I have seen people buy animals that were sick, emaciated and near-death simply because they were $50 cheaper than a beautiful, healthy and vibrant animal at the next table over. In fact, I was at a trade show yesterday where a sickly ball python morph was being sold for a ridiculously low price. This prompted the question, “Why is it so cheap?” The honest answer from the seller: “I just picked it up in trade. It has a respiratory infection. I’m selling it as-is.” What kind of a moron would buy an obviously sick snake in order to save a few bucks? Well …that snake sold within five minutes of being put out for sale (and there were multiple people who were interested in buying it).
“The things you own end up owning you.” – Tyler Durden
I’m self-employed. I have been that way for almost a decade. In addition to my reptile enterprise I am a founding owner of a small information technology (IT) company. Because I have a passion for computer networking and information security I long ago decided to start my own business doing the thing I love. That is a theme familiar to a lot of self-employed people and if you are not currently self-employed I’ll wager that a good number of you aspire to one day be so. For those of you not currently at the helm of your own enterprise let me remind you of an expression I’m sure you have heard before: “The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.” Owning your own business does nothing to eliminate the stress and frustration you
As I type my daughter is a few months into her third year. As is often the case with parents I put nothing else on this planet before her. She is everything. Every parent wants to protect their children from as many bad things as possible in this world. To that end we often turn to professionals for advice on when it is OK to do certain things. Take peanuts for example. The prevailing medical wisdom says that if nobody in your family has a history of allergies then you should wait until your child turns one year old before exposing them to peanuts. If you have a history of allergies you should wait until the child is at least three. Because neither my wife nor I have any known allergies we treated the arrival of our daughter’s first taste of peanut butter with an unusual amount of excitement. Well, I did. Peanuts, peanut butter in particular, are a big deal to me. I find peanut butter delicious and combining chocolate with peanut butter is next-level stuff. The peanut butter cup is a triumph of taste and I am sure that achieving nirvana involves peanut butter at some point.
A few days after my daughter’s first birthday my wife and I decided to give her a peanut butter cracker. We had waited the required amount of time recommended by the pediatrician and it was time for her to learn about another wonderful part of being alive. About 9 or 10 hours later when we left the emergency room we knew that peanuts and my beloved peanut butter would no longer be welcome in our home. After taking a bite of a peanut butter cracker our daughter had gone into anaphylactic shock.
In the two years since that scary day we have learned from allergists that she is allergic to several different types of nuts; peanuts, cashews, almonds, the list goes on. They also told us that she is not likely to outgrow the allergy as some children seem to do. C’mon. Really? Seriously? Cashews are better than peanuts!!! My daughter is never going to get to eat warm cashews. That’s criminal.
And she will also never enjoy a peanut butter cup…
Imagine a life without peanut butter cups. Barring advances in medicine my daughter is faced with that reality. It’s not something she was able to decide for herself, of course. How and why she is allergic to peanuts is a question I doubt she will ever have answered. But that’s life and we all know about the fairness it lacks.
All of this peanut pondering started the other night when I saw a commercial for Reese’s peanut butter cups. It was a reminder of my daughter’s situation and, as is so often the case, I found myself translating that situation into issues facing the reptile community. Peanut butter cups have been denied to my daughter by circumstances that were beyond her control. But what about snakes? What is her future with reptiles?
Just last week she told me that she wanted to go “snakey finding with [me]” and that she would “help me find Kaa.” Kaa, for those of you who were never young, is the snake from Jungle Book. Reptile-loving dad’s out there will immediately recognize the coolness of such a shared moment with your child. Her statement created interesting emotions for me. At three, my daughter is beginning to develop an appreciation for reptiles. She is at the very beginning of a life which promises the opportunity to one day allow her to own the pet of her own choosing. I like the idea that she will one day include reptiles as part of her life but I respect her right to decide not to. What’s more important to me than her choice of pet is her choice to have a pet. It is a decision that will be hers to make. But more and more each day I fear that my daughter is at the beginning of a life where people will eventually take that right away from her. As her father I can’t let that happen.
My need to fight for my daughter’s right to have the choice to one day be a responsible pet owner got me thinking about the “grassroots” efforts of the reptile community to fight all of this proposed legislation. Over the past few years there have seen several different pieces of proposed legislation, some federal and some state. One delegate in the House of Representatives described the grassroots response of the reptile community to HR 669 as a “buzz saw”, meaning we got their attention and our voice was loudly heard. Through each piece of proposed legislation (the federal one’s in particular) the community has become more aware and more organized. But are we also losing some steam? For my daughter’s sake, I hope not. Each time the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) launches its next assault we see our email in-boxes and the Internet forums light up with calls to action. Each time we are told “now is the time to act” and “this is the biggest threat the reptile community has ever faced”. We are asked to band together once again and call Senators and House delegates, to write letter and send emails. Unfortunately, the battle cry, “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more”, will not invoke a reaction forever.
How many times can we go to the well and conjure a concerted reaction from the reptile community? How long before we lose interest in the fight? There is a finite number of times that people are going to be willing to get involved. Most of us are, after all, just pet owners. You just want to share your life with an animal that brings you joy. Being a pet owner isn’t supposed to require you to be a political activist. But more and more each day that is the way things seem to be heading. The assault on the rights of pet owners of all types is unrelenting, multi-faceted and hidden under the veil of false animal love. Nobody is going to fight for the rights of pet owners except pet owners. We can’t afford to lose sight of that.
We have all been thrown curves in life. My daughter picked the short straw when it comes to being allergic to a long list of nuts. The burden our family has to bear is that we must spend the rest of our lives being vigilant, doing everything we can to avoid accidental exposure to peanuts. That job wasn’t clearly defined in the job description of being a parent. I guess it falls into the category called “other duties as assigned” that we so often see in today’s job descriptions. And so it also goes for pet owners; our decision to own a pet means we are accepting a responsibility to also fight for that right for ourselves and for our children.
Dig deep, snake lover. Dig deep. The fight is never going to end …until the day YOU stop fighting.
For longer than I have been on this planet people have been keeping reptiles as pets. The original reptile keepers were mostly academics, scientists fascinated by their enigmatic subjects of study. As reptiles began to enter into the pet world they were most often the choice of young boys and other people who were more …colorful …than mainstream society typically allows. The keeping of reptiles was often tolerated by the parents of young children who wanted to humor their whims and foster a love of science and nature. Thirty years ago there wasn’t a large captive bred trade in reptiles, at least not compared to what it is today. It wasn’t unusual for specimens to be either imported or, in the case of native species, self-caught. What better way to get a pet snake than to go out and catch one yourself? Those young herpers are now grown and they brought their once unusual choice in pet along with them. They grew up to enter into every facet of society across all levels of industry and income. Their choice to own a reptile was likely viewed as an oddity by many of their friends, family and co-workers. In fact, it was probably not unusual for them to simply not mention they had a reptile as a pet. Because reptiles were not mainstream and were viewed as a quirky choice in pet it was often easier to simply leave it out of conversations. Fifteen years ago I can say for sure the none of my professional co-workers knew that I kept snakes (I worked for a bank in those days). My banking buddies and I exchanged dog and cat stories often but snakes never came up during discussions about pets. On the few occasions that snakes did come up in conversation I often got the typical reaction that comes from the uninformed: disgust, fear and general discomfort at the idea of creepy crawlies slithering around my house.
Another large group of people who have long kept reptiles frequently fit one of several stereotypes; rebellious, disenfranchised with mainstream America, unwilling and unable to conform to “The Man’s” definition of life and success. They are tattooed, gruff and intimidating looking folks with whom you avoid making eye contact. They know that bongs, like cars, have carburators and they wear black leather jackets, and ride big and loud motorcycles. Their homes smell of patchouli and you will likely hear Pantera or some other ear-pounding music blaring loudly from the speakers of their smoke-filled rooms. They like the wide berth their image affords them. And a snake fits perfectly into their image. The uneducated think snakes are dangerous and the rebel loves the added air of non-conformity that a snake brings them. A seemingly perfect match, huh?
Stereotypes don’t become stereotypes without having some basis in truth. But they are always unfair to apply to everyone of a particular group. But using stereotypes is a convenient way to absolve yourself of the responsibility of having to learn about individuals who are different from you. And one of the many reasons that snakes have long been unacceptable to the average person is their negative stereotype associations. The non-conformist proudly sports their snake as a symbol of their non-compliance with society’s rules while the clean-cut white collar professional who sits smack in the middle of mainstream America keeps their pet reptile an accidental secret. The general notion is that “normal” people don’t keep snakes as pets. It’s only the outskirts of society that want them. Every single reptile breeder knows this to be completely false. The diversity of our customers is all the evidence we need.
It happens every day that I am behind someone in traffic who has a sticker on their rear window that breaks down all the members in their family. There is an avatar for each family member including the pets. I regularly see dog and cat avatars but to date have never seen a snake (or other reptile) sitting next to the other family members. And why not? I know it’s not because people aren’t keeping reptiles. Reptiles are kept as pets by multiple millions of Americans. Is it because reptile owners don’t view their ectothermic friends as members of the family? I doubt it. Is it because putting stickers on the back of your car advertising the size, age and gender of all of your family members is stupid? Quite possibly. Or is it a subtle symbol of middle America’s unwillingness to proudly profess that reptiles are an important part of their lives? I think it may very well be. The long-terms success of reptiles being kept as pets means we can’t continue to do this. It’s time to bask.
Reptiles are no longer pets on the fringe of the world of companion animals. They are truly mainstream. Of course they are not as prevalent as dogs and cats but they are a rapidly growing part of the pet trade. It is way past time for reptile owners to start proudly advertising their reptilian family members. I am not advocating that you inflict your choice of pet on your neighbors. Never take your snakes out in public unless it is safe and appropriate to do so. I’m advocating being proud of being a reptile owner and educating people who are not in the know. I do not support perpetuating fear by forcing people uncomfortable with reptiles to have to be around them. Know the laws of the community in which you reside and always be in compliance. The more of us that come out into the open and responsibly share our passion with the misinformed masses they more reptiles will be accepted as pets, even by people who choose to not keep one of their own.
The fight for the rights of reptile owners has to be fought on many fronts. Organizations like NatPet (the National Pet Association), USARK and PIJAC are actively addressing the current special interest group (HSUS, Nature Conservancy, etc.) and political opposition to reptile ownership but it is just as important for the millions of reptile owners out there to make themselves known. Our friends, neighbors and politicians need to become much more aware of the fact that the stereotypes surrounding reptile ownership are false and that we are a numerous and diverse group of people.
Do you have a male albino ball python in your collection? How about a male pastel? A male black pastel perhaps? I know you have a male pinstripe, right? How about a male piebald? Got one of those?
Many enthusiastic ball python hobbyists answer “yes” to at least one of those questions. If you’re a ball python breeder the answer to most or all of the above should be a foregone conclusion. For many breeders they are project staples. Considering only the single gene males for a moment, do you need any more of the same in your collection? Probably not. If you are not already doing so I’ll wager that you are focused on getting the existing males in your collection to the next level; albino spiders, black pewters, honey bees, etc. How exactly are you going about that particular process? There is a long road and a short road to getting there. Some of you are adding the next-level males to your collection by breeding your own (the long road) while others opt to buy or trade with someone to add them to the mix (the shorter road).
Sure, sure, many of us are still missing a wide variety of single gene males in our genetic armory. Champagne males, ultramels, lavender albinos, and candy/toffee ball pythons are still pretty darn desirable and highly sought after. To not have them means you know what it is to covet.
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.
I’m not a complete noob, mind you. I have long understood the electoral college, the functions of the three branches of government, the importance of “checks and balances” and the general processes involved in making a bill into law. But there was a long period of my life when I openly stated that it didn’t matter which individuals were in which positions in the state and federal government, that they had no direct impact on my day-to-day life. Because it was instilled in me to do so from a young age I have always voted in the elections; local, state and federal. I wanted my candidates to win but never really expected my life to go one direction instead of another if the results didn’t go my way. I was naive. I was wrong. My eyes, today, are wide open and what I am seeing leaves me horrified, disappointed, disenfranchised and angry.
More than 200 years ago (in 1787) the Founding Fathers of our nation came together to rewrite the original Articles of Confederation, the result of which was the creation of our Constitution and what we all know to be the United States of America. Many of the original authors of the Constitution were strongly motivated by a seemingly simple theme: limit the size, scope and power of the federal government, leaving the majority of the power in the hands of individual sovereign states. Embracing the concept of federalism, our founding fathers recognized the need for a central government in addition to each state’s autonomous government. There was (and is) a lot of debate over how much power the federal government should have. The United States, by Constitutional design, is a federation of states. This means that each states governs itself in addition to the presence of a federal government. Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution defines the scope of the federal government. More specifically, it and the Bill of Rights are designed to limit the scope of the federal government’s power over the states. That which is not the defined in the Constitution falls to the individual states to decide. Placing strong limitations on the power of the federal government was intentionally done by the people who founded this nation. The control the federal government was supposed to exert over the lives of citizens day-to-day activities was, by design, limited. That power was intended to remain with the individual states. However, largely due to two clauses in Article I, Section 8 (the so-called Commerce Clause and the Necessary and Proper Clause) the federal government has piled up a long history of overstepping its Constitutional authority and increasing its power over the states. This has been happening for a long time (since the end of the Civil War) and has been progressing very quickly since the mid-1930’s. This accumulation of power by the federal government has been happening for so long that the overwhelming majority of us simply take it as normal. Why would we question it? It has always been this way, hasn’t it? But understand this very clearly: it is not supposed to be this way. The federal government should not be making decisions that the states are Constitutionally obliged to make on their own. I believe pet (reptile) ownership and invasive species law are excellent examples.
The 10th amendment to the Constitution should have sealed the deal on the where the bulk of the power in our federation resides. It states, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” To summarize, Article I, Section 8 and 9 define the scope of power for the federal government and the 10th Amendment ensures that power not specifically given to the federal government is in the hands of the states. Take a minute and read Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution and the 10th Amendment. It will take less time than it has taken you to read this far in my post. Unfortunately, several of the clauses in Article I, Section 8 are sufficiently vague that they have been twisted and mangled by both Congress and the courts in order to seize more and more power at the federal level. Reptile owners are experiencing the result of this first-hand.
Each of the fifty states is an entity that embodies the needs and priorities of the individuals who live in them. They are wonderfully diverse in geography, climate, natural resources and population. Each state is unique and the needs of one are not the same as the needs of the next. Because of their diversity it is not possible for the federal government to appreciate the impact of its decisions on individuals and communities within a state. In fact, it is not the job of the federal government to make such decisions. I direct you once again to Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution. The question of whether or not certain pythons and boas are a danger to the environment of a certain state is a state decision, not a federal one. I suggest that the federal government’s decision to involve itself is an overstepping of its authority. Unfortunately, through more than a hunderd years of power grabbing (the creation of the Department of the Interior and two of its agencies, US Fish & Wildlife and the US Geological Survey) the federal government has given itself the power to control the states in this matter.
One of the most simple and interesting aspects of federalism that I have come to embrace is the concept of mobility. Because the power is supposed to reside in the hands of the state governments it is a citizen’s right to simply move somewhere else if the state enacts laws that are incongruous with their personal goals and/or beliefs. Put more simply, if you don’t like what your state is doing, leave. You can move to a state that is more closely aligned with your needs as a citizen. However, when the federal government oversteps its authority and enacts federal law it leaves citizens with nowhere to go. Because federal law is an umbrella that casts its shadow of control over all the states we are, in a very real sense, trapped. There is nowhere to go to be free of the decisions of the federal government. This should infuriate python owners in Vermont and South Dakota. Their liberty is at risk because of a perceived problem almost two-thousand miles away in the southernmost portions of Florida. For the python-loving residents of South Dakota the only way to rid themselves of such federal tyranny is to leave the country. While moving from Florida to Virginia is readily do-able for most of the population, moving from Florida to Italy is not. For me, this is the part I fear the most. If laws banning pythons and boas are enacted at a federal level there is literally nowhere to go. Mobility, which is a mechanism to free myself from the decisions of an individual state, will have been stolen from me.
The desire to increase the size, scope and power of the federal government is viewed as a positive by those who embrace statism. Statists, whose actions and philosophies are most frequently aligned with what today is the far-left Democratic party, seek to increase power of the federal government in virtually all aspects of a citizen’s life. It can be seen in large scale events like the government taking an ownership stake in corporations, government run health-care and social security. It is also evidenced on a smaller scale in the desire for the federal government to impose a national ban on the importation and inter-state trade of pythons. Why does the federal government need to impose rules on states who have no capacity to be affected by the suggested spread of the Burmese python (North Dakota, for instance)? Why does the federal government simply not leave these decisions in the hands of states that deem themselves at risk? This was the intent of the Constitution, was it not? The answer can be summed up in one word: power. For statists, the acquisition of power at a federal level is taken at every opportunity in order to create a larger, stronger and more powerful central government.
As a side note: The acknowledgment that pythons may one day have the ability to spread into the lower 1/3 of the United States is one piece in the highly political argument over global warming. If the federal government concludes that the Burmese python will spread because of warming trends predicted by the USGS then it is yet one more piece of evidence that global warming is a real, human-caused, condition. Such proof will be used to support future environmental legislation. Do not think for a moment that this issue is just about pythons. The trickery engaged in by people with political agendas takes on incredibly veiled forms.
Through their own local politicians the states have contributed to the increase of the power of the federal government by accepting the federal govenrment’s money to fund in-state projects. It’s a nasty behavior, really. By getting federal funding for state initiatives the states are getting their funding from all American taxpayers even though there is no benefit to the other states. This smacks of abuse of power and should ring loud in the ears of reptile owners as Senator Bill Nelson of Florida (a Democrat) and House Representative Dennis Meek of Florida (also a Democrat) both introduced federal legislation to ban the importation and interstate transport of pythons (S373 and HR2811) in an effort to acquire federal tax dollars to fund the restoration efforts in the Florida Everglades. There are also added fringe benefits for both of them. Had the legislation passed their next election campaign would have heralded them as the “candidtate that saved the Everglades from the scourge of the Burmese python”. Another shining example of this is the recent deal made by Senate Democrats with Ben Nelson (Democrat from Nebraska) to get the other 49 states to pay for the Medicaid expansion costs in Nebraska …forever! The taxpayers of Virginia should be venomously opposed to the idea of paying for hospitals in Nebraska. If you’re not, check the mirror for your lobotomy scar.
As states accept more and more federal funding they give more and more power to the federal government. Over time they have become dependent upon the flow of money and, as a result, are often held hostage because of it. For example, in 1974 the federal government enacted the Emergency Highway Energy Conservation Act which federally mandated the speed limit on the nation’s highways to 55 mph. In 1986 Nevada changed the speed limit to a 3-mile stretch of highway to 70 mph. Within a few hours of doing so the federal government revoked their highway funding. The state changed the limit back to 55. (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Maximum_Speed_Law).
In the end none of this talk about the abuse of federal power really matters. And that saddens and frustrates me. The federal government has acquired the power to determine the fate of pythons and boas in the pet trade. Right or wrong the power is there. Nothing in the near future is going to change that. If the unthinkable happens and pythons and boas are added to the Lacey Act as injurious species you can rest assured that there will be legal challenges that play out over a span of years. But the fight over the fate of pythons and boas is not about science. It’s about politics. Are Burmese pythons truly a threat to the lower 1/3 of the United States? In the end it doesn’t really matter. This is about special interest groups, campaign contributions, pet projects, and government power. Pythons are being sold as creatures with the power to completely destroy ecosystems, hunt humans and spread disease. None of it is true. But facts don’t matter …and that is a shame.
The illusions surrounding the live animal business can readily be compared to the old saying that ‘you shouldn’t sit up front at the ballet’; get too close and the magic vanishes, the harsh realities revealed. Despite our best intentions something changes when we take that which we love and turn it into a commodity. Tending to the day-in, day-out needs of live animals is neither elegant nor glamorous work, especially when it is done in quantity. The reptile’s comparatively infrequent elimination of bodily waste seems to become a non-stop fecal barrage and feeding time, once a source of intense fascination, shifts to a relatively emotionless event with speed and efficiency being the motivating factors. The rare loss of an animal shifts from being a time of sadness to one of cleaning, sterilization and a double-checking of proper husbandry techniques. You know, asset management and risk mitigation.
Fortunately, most of us keep perspective and never forget that this particular commodity is a living thing and is deserving of necessary care and attention. Despite giving each animal what it needs to thrive the reality doesn’t change; many breeders of reptiles have multiple dozens, hundreds, thousands or even tens of thousands of animals in their care. When the volume gets high the inability of a single individual to adequately tend to the health of the animals is compensated for with manpower. We task our staff with creating a physical environment in which the animals can thrive. The never ending needs of the reptiles are satisfied. In exchange for this wonderful and diverse volume of creatures we, the one’s who love reptiles so much that we decided to dedicate our lives to breeding them, generally give up the chance at making any sort of connection with individual animals. Don’t get me wrong, though. As much as I love them I do not believe that reptiles have the ability to form bi-directional connections the way humans and dogs can. Reptiles are satisfied when their physical needs are taken care of and they associate their owner more along the lines of “he’s not going to eat me” rather than, “he’s my friend”. Humans, however, are not so callous. Our tendency to anthropomorphize allows us to establish bonds with the pets in our lives, regardless of their ability to reciprocate. They become important to us beyond any financial value and when lost, we hurt.
Over the past twenty years the total number of snakes I have owned numbers in the multiple thousands. Through them all I vividly remember the first one. It was one of the only snakes I ever named. Like so many others it was a ball python. He was the first snake I ever watched feed, my nose an inch from the glass. He was the first snake to bite me (my mistake, not his) and despite his meager financial value he was the first snake to which I ever felt a personal attachment. As soon as I made the mental shift to ‘breeder’ I stopped thinking of the animals as pets and began to think of them more as mechanisms of profit. That’s not as emotionless as it sounds. I still have a passion for reptiles, I’m just not passionate about any one reptile.
Some of my reptile breeding peers have lingering warm sentiments toward a select animal or two. I know a few breeders with collections many of us can only dream about that still have their original male pastel or their original het albino male. The animals no longer serve a purpose in their collections but they still can’t bring themselves to let them go. Whether its an emotional attachment or an unwillingness to sell an animal for a few dollars that they probably paid several thousand for isn’t something on which I can speculate. I just know they still have them and won’t let them go. I don’t have any such animals right now. And it has been a long time since I felt connected to any particular python. I know another breeder whose original leopard geckos are over nineteen years old. Those animals mean something to him; something more than any possible money they could bring.
Last week I was in New York for a reptile trade show. We always drive up the night before and stay with some friends. Ever since we have been going up to that show my friends have had a prehensile-tailed skink in their living room. This time, however, the cage was in its usual place but the skink was gone. They explained that after more than 17 years, the skink had passed away. As they told us the story of how it died I caught the two of them briefly make eye contact and in that moment I caught a glimpse of just how sad they were at the loss of their pet. They reflected on the little things the skink had added to their lives, how it had been a fixture of this and several previous living rooms; living rooms that spanned almost two decades. They talked about how the now absent sound of the timer that controlled the cage environment had been a source of comfort in the house; a sound of safety and of home. Their words were not emotional but I could feel their sense of loss. And as much as I could see that they missed their pet I became keenly aware that I have not felt that way about a reptile in a long time. And that has caused me to do a lot of personal reflection. You see, I don’t have any reptiles in my home and it has been that way for a while. I made the decision several years ago to move my entire operation into a facility separate from the place where my family spends its time. At the time the decision was a practical one; reptiles have a distinct smell, the caging I used was not terribly decorative, and I was tired of balancing the environment needs of animals with those of my wife and daughter. I had plenty of reasons. But now I think I need to reconnect. I need a reminder of what it means to have a pet reptile rather than a reptile business.
But even as I type this I wonder if that’s the best thing for me to do. I already have a dog and she is my friend and constant companion. I often lament on how dogs live just long enough to become an incredibly important part of your life and then emotionally rip you apart when they die, frequently by your own decision to put an end to suffering that old age brings them. I constantly wonder if the years of joy they bring to my life is worth the pain I feel when they are gone. Isn’t it easier and less painful to just not have one in the first place? I guess my answer resides in the fact that my dog is lying next to me as I type. As bad as it is going to hurt when she is gone I am glad for this moment right now. But dogs are special. Comparing their capacity for emotion to reptiles is unfair. But remember, it isn’t reptiles who are forming the emotional attachment: we are. And it’s us who will feel the pain of their death. My friends skink lived for 17 years. That’s got to be a lot of hurt. I’ve never had a dog that long. Despite the possibility of pain I think it’s time for me to add a pet reptile back to my life. It’s been too long without one.
For obvious reasons I can’t have a pet ball python. Choices, choices… that’s one thing the world of reptiles brings to us in abundance.
They say the first step on the road to recovery is admitting you have a problem. Well, after several years of denial and inner-confusion I have come to realize that I have an odd sort of problem. Now that I know I have it I’m not entirely sure what do to about it. It vexes me because it’s part of me, I internalized it long ago. People who don’t suffer from one type of affliction or another often don’t understand why people struggle with such things. Skinny people who eat to live can’t figure out why fat people live to eat. People with no particular desire to gamble are baffled by the compulsion others have to do it. Souls at the mercy of a bottle of Jack Daniels are odd to people who don’t have any desire for a drink on Friday night. The problem I have may be just as elusive to understand as those just mentioned. My problem is the strange combination of ball pythons and money. It’s a multi-faceted problem with the ever-present “too much out, not enough in” issue riding on top of the heap. But the problem I’m writing ab out today is not how much money is coming or going; it’s about how the money goes after it comes.
Like many other reptile enthusiasts I live with the delusion that I will one day be solely employed as a reptile breeder and that I will be financially prosperous as a result. That dream and that day, however, are not yet here. I already work 40+ hours/week as a breeder but that’s only after my ‘real’ job is done. As I get closer and closer to my goal I wonder just how much my perspective will change when the only way I can pay my bills is by selling a snake. I suspect it will not always be a happy feeling, especially during times such as these when superfluous income is all but gone in the bank accounts of many Americans. People will always have to buy groceries, fuel and underwear, etc. They do not have to buy a new snake. I am living proof. Over the past year I have gone from buying multiple new snakes each month to one or two every other month. I notice it in my seemingly stalled collection and I am sure that the breeders to whom I have been a steady client (e.g. source of cash) have noticed it as well. Nobody is happy with the current state of affairs. Compounding the problem are the recession-proof bellies of my snakes; they eat as much today as they did a few years ago when money was more readily available. I endure this, of course. Snakes not properly fed are as valuable as having no snakes at all. Some things simply cannot be set aside.
But buying hundreds of rodents each week is not a problem for me. I enjoy feeding my animals and, while expensive, I don’t mind the cost in the long run. Considering the return you get in the form of babies you do quite nicely on the dollars that go down the throat of a snake. Again, I am fortunate that I have another full-time job that can help offset any cost overruns that arise. What’s more, feeding my snakes is often therapeutic. I am mentally at ease after a day of good feeding. Cage-after-cage, thump-after-thump I can feel the stresses of my life falling away.
The money that goes out to make my reptile collection better is almost effortless to spend (inasmuch as money can be easy to spend, that is). Buying rodents, water bowls, paper towels, soap, cypress mulch, plastic tubs, etc. is relatively easy money to say goodbye to. I see all of it as an investment that will pay itself back in the near future. Paper towels to clean poop? No problem. That translates to healthier snakes. Healthier snakes help to make baby snakes and baby snakes are how I make money. Cypress mulch? Not a problem. It’s a more natural bedding and my animals do very well on it. They feed better and it’s easy to clean. Clean cages and solid-feeding snakes means better breeding results. Better breeding results means more baby snakes. If you can name a reptile supply/necessity I can quickly tell you how I justify it as an investment in making the business better. I am at peace with the money spent. This, however, is not always the case. And this brings us back around to my problem.
In my ‘real’ job I go to work for two weeks and, “Poof!”, a paycheck appears. That money only represents the last two weeks of my life and that is not a sizable investment in the form of time. Because I do not have a lot of time invested in making that money it is easier (mentally) to spend. I often apply a simple but far from foolproof measure to determine value when spending money: Do I get more time out of the money when I spend it than it took me to make it? For instance, if I make $50/hour I often ask myself if the $50 that I am about to spend is going to translate into more than one hour in return. Going to a movie costs $10 and lasts 2 hours. That has the potential for good value. It’s not an exact science. Shawshank Redemption: excellent value. G.I. Joe – Rise of Cobra: not good value. Life is full of gambles. Another example is when I pay my mortgage. Spending that money grants me my home for another 30 days but it takes less than 1/2 that time to make that money. Again, my simple criteria for value is met. The whole perspective is terribly unscientific and easily picked apart, I know, but it is only one of my most basic measures of value. At $50/hour it takes me about 8 hours to make $250 (assuming a 35% tax rate). For me to go to the grocery store and spend that $250 on groceries that will sustain my family for the next several days is a reasonable price to pay. But what happens when that $250 is money from the sale of a ball python? Things change for me in a hurry. And this is my problem. When I look at a baby ball python I see it, like all money I make, in the form of hours of work. How long did I have to work to make that snake? In the most simple scenario it is not less than 9-12 months, from the end of one breeding season to the hatching of the eggs from the next. Taking $250 from the sale of a ball python and blowing it on groceries that will only last a few days breaks my equation. The groceries no longer have value when using this ‘snake money’. I need the money from the sale of a ball python to last …a long time. In my head I need those $250 to be spent on something that will last as long or longer than it took me to make it. As a result, spending snake money on daily expenses breaks my rule on the value of money spent. How do you make $250 from a snake sale last 10 months or longer? Buy something tangible, of course.
If I can’t shake my definition of value, I’m doomed. I don’t stand a chance as a full-time reptile breeder with no other source of income if I can’t bring myself to spend this so-called snake money on the trivial daily expenses that come about. What makes this problem even more unexplainable is that I know that my system is flawed. I didn’t spend the past 10 months producing one $250 snake. I produced hundreds of snakes in that time. I should be looking at their combined value rather than their individual value. If I produce 300 babies at an average price of $500 each (a guess) that means it took me 9 months to make $150,000. I don’t make that much in 10 months at the thing I call my real job so why do I find that money so much easier to spend on the necessities of life? In short, I don’t really know. I just do. That’s where my logic is broken.
Writing all of this is an effort at self-treatment, my own self-help manual written by me. Stay posted for the day that I tell you that I’m a full-time snake breeder. When that day comes you’ll know I’m cured.