…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…
Originally Posted: 4/20/2009
Disclaimer: I wrote this post a long time ago and have gone back and forth over whether or not I should ever post it. On one hand it brings up a topic worthy of discussion amongst responsible reptile breeders. On the other hand it can serve as ammunition for those who think that people shouldn’t own reptiles. But in the end I decided that reptiles who suffer horrible fates are no different than dogs, cats, ferrets, rabbits, or any other animal kept as a pet. People are diverse in many ways; their ability and willingness to care for animals being just one of them. Here goes:
From time to time I get calls from local people who want to sell me their snakes. I also keep an eye on local classifieds, looking for good deals that might come along. Over the years I’ve met some cool people this way and usually enjoy seeing how fellow herpers set up their animals. Necessity is the mother of invention and I’ve seen how limited budgets can help people come up with some really cool husbandry solutions. I’m also often intrigued to see what animals people have in their collections; many are a potpourri of stuff as random as you can imagine.
But… sometimes I go to houses that make me sad. Like a few nights ago, for instance. Someone posted some snakes in a local classified ad and I decided to call and talk with them about what they had to offer. The person gave a compelling description of the animals, describing how wonderful her animals were, how much she loved them and how it hurt her to have to part with them (she claimed to be broke). So I took the time to drive over and check things out. It was a catastrophe. The snakes had one of the worst mite infestations I’ve seen in years. Anemia was a given; the animals were emaciated, ridge-backed, listless and in all around poor health. And to top it off they weren’t even what she had advertised them to be. These animals needed to be rescued from their owner. I know it makes me a jerk but I’m not in the animal rescue business. I don’t have the time, space, or ability to take on rescue projects. Those animals are more than likely doomed and they don’t deserve it. They were some of the unlucky few to be picked by people unqualified to own reptiles. I left feeling sad for the animals but it’s not something I haven’t seen before.
None of these animals were high dollar animals when they were healthy; maybe $65-$100 each when they were purchased at a snake show or a pet store. And on my way home I thought about two things: The first was that I wanted to burn my clothes and take a bath in Nix to clean any mites off me and the second was a sad realization of something I have known for a long time but have chosen to not really acknowledge.
What realization? Well, have you ever known something for a long time but subconsciously chose to never really let it come to the forefront of your thoughts? I’m sure you have. We all do. After almost 20 years in the snake business I’ve seen some horrible things done to snakes. The neglect, the poor husbandry, the lack of feeding, the untreated illnesses; I’ve seen it all many times over. It comes with the territory. But it’s not just reptiles. I’ve seen it with dogs, cats and many other types of animals. For most of my years I chalked it up to that small portion of people in our business who basically just suck. They have no business owning a reptile (or any other animal) because they aren’t willing to take the time, put in the effort or spend the money to give the animal the care it deserves. Fortunately for the snakes, most of us aren’t like that.
But the revelation I had that night was not that it’s just that some people suck and don’t deserve to own a reptile, it’s that some snakes are actually too inexpensive and it’s their low price that dooms them just as much as the idiots who buy them. A normal ball python costs $25 or less at a reptile trade show. Corn snakes are often less than that. There are an endless number of snakes that cost basically nothing to buy. And if something costs next to nothing there is a greater degree of likelihood that a person won’t give it the care it deserves. It’s financial value makes it disposable, not worthy of any real effort or caring. “My $25 snake got sick and died? Oh well, I’ll just buy a new one.”
There are exceptions to every rule, of course. There are always are. A friend and fellow breeder named Carl Gilmore (www.suffolkselects.com) recently spent many hundreds of dollars in vet bills to treat a normal ball python who had developed some medical problems. The money he spent was multiple times over the value of the animal. But he did it because he believes that a snake held in captivity deserves the best care its keeper can provide, regardless of its financial value. As much as it hurts the bottom line its the right thing to do. Not all of us are so honorable. Carl has my complete respect because he always does the right things when it comes to his animals. Their financial value isn’t part of the equation when it comes to their maintenance.
How often do you see high-end ball pythons, say a Ghost Mojave, in a mite-infested, emaciated state? Pretty close to never. Why? Because that animal costs a lot of money and someone willing to spend the money to buy it is going to be much more likely to give it the care it deserves.
I know it will never happen but wouldn’t the overall state of reptile health be light years better if a normal ball python was $400. People would not buy them on impulse and because they had a vested interest in them they would be much less likely to neglect them. It wouldn’t be a perfect system, of course. Again, exceptions to the rules always exist. But let’s compare it to the world of home ownership. Banks want you to put at least 20% of your own money into the deal before loaning you the other 80% to buy a house? It’s not because the bank can’t afford to loan you the whole 100% (all jokes about the current state of the financial industry aside); it’s just that they know that if you have a vested interested in the house you’re more likely to take care of it. That provides a measure of protection for their portion of the investment. They know you are less likely to trash the house and let it fall into a dilapidated state because you have a vested financial interest in its continuity.
It’s a bit idealistic for me to even think of it but wouldn’t it be cool if breeders required their customers to put more into the purchase of an animal to increase the likelihood that the animals would live a long and healthy life. Sadly we’re on the opposite side of that particular coin. It’s all about money and most of us will sell a snake to anybody waving cash in front of our face. I know I have sold snakes to people who weren’t ready. I talked with them about how to take care of the snake, I encouraged them to buy a book about successful husbandry of their animal and I always make myself available after the sale for advice. But I can’t be judge and jury when it comes to selling an animal. In the end I have to expect people to be accountable for their own actions. I’ve been hearing a lot of chatter lately about making animal sellers more accountable. But how? Should I interview a customer’s neighbors before selling a snake? Should I schedule a visit with their pastor or preacher to talk about what kind of person they are? Should I make them provide references from former employers and school teachers telling me how responsible they are? Seems silly, doesn’t it? I don’t want to sell a snake into certain death. I love these animals, even the $5 ones. But how do I discern the responsible from the irresponsible? I can’t. Now, in my defense, there have been a few times when I knew the person I was talking to was going to kill the snake within hours. Their stupidity was just too obvious. On those few occasions I did talk them out of buying one from me. But they may very well have moved to the next table and picked up an animal there.
Few people love capitalism as much as I do. But nights like the other night make me momentarily guilty, knowing that those low dollar animals I sell to people are occasionally going to meet a terrible end.
Not so cheery,
Originally Posted: 4/05/2009
Note: This is not a political tirade. Please bear with me. I have a point that deals with reptiles.
First off, who the heck is Phil Zimmerman? I suspect that very few people in the reptile world have ever heard of him. Without boring you with details let’s just say that Phil is a super-smart guy in the world of cryptography. In the early 90’s Phil wrote and released a mechanism of encryption called PGP. PGP stands for Pretty Good Privacy. In reality PGP was really good privacy but I won’t wear you out with the details on what, why, how, etc. Phil didn’t release PGP to make money and he didn’t do it to become famous. For a long time the United States government treated encryption as munitions. That is, the ability to make data secret and unrecoverable was considered a weapon. Other countries weren’t allowed to have it and our government was vigilant in preventing the export of encryption technologies. That desire to prevent secret communications by other countries began to spread to American citizens. There were some people in our government that felt that American citizens should also be denied the right to have a secret conversation; one the government could not get to no matter how hard they tried. A tide was rising in our government that was seeking to remove the ability of US citizens to keep things secret from the government. Phil thought this was dangerous (and I completely and totally agree) so he created PGP and released it to the world. Suddenly extremely strong encryption was available to anybody, anywhere and for any reason. If you wanted to secure a Christmas letter to your family or your plans to rob a bank there was a mechanism of encryption freely available that would prevent the government from being able to intercept and read it. Before you get all worked up you need to understand that Phil didn’t want to help bank robbers or terrorists or anybody else who wanted to do things criminal. He wanted to protect the rights of US citizens to have the ability to choose. He understood that if something becomes part of our everyday lives it becomes much more difficult for the government to take it away. He knew that if people began to use encryption as naturally as they used their television remote controls it would become impossible for the government to remove that freedom. The people wouldn’t allow it. And you know what? He was right! Today you are free to encrypt anything and everything you want, legit or otherwise. You are free to make the choice yourself, and that’s one of the fundamental beliefs on which the United States is built. That freedom to make that choice means that you also choose to accept the conseqences of your choice.
Look what happened when the government tried to make alcohol illegal. Oops. That didn’t go over so well, did it? Imagine what would happen if the government tried to take away the automobile. How well would that go over? How about our right to choose our own employer and line of work? Get my point? Some things are so entrenched in our society that they are impossible to take away.
Most of us are aware that there are efforts underway to eliminate our right to own many types of reptiles throughout the United States. If they are successful it will be in part because reptile ownership is not sufficiently entrenched in our society, in our homes, communities and neighborhoods. What I’m saying is that if you are a reptile lover and you want to keep your right to own them then you need to become a reptile evangelist. Find ways, no matter how small, to further entrench them into our society. Get a new herper started by helping them with their first snake or gecko. Talk with an ophidiophobe and help them become less fearful of reptiles. Speak at a high school assembly. Do something. I’m not saying you have to put on a white shirt, a black tie and ride your bike from door to door preaching from the Book of Reptilia. Just don’t be quiet. Because if you are you may wake up one day to find that the reptiles you own are contraband. And then you’ll have to make the same decisions that people did back in the days of prohibition. Do snake shows become speakeasy’s? Do we meet in alleys to do our deals right next to the drug dealers? If the representatives from Florida have their way you’ll be committing a felony for driving your ball pythons across state lines. If you breed one and sell it you’ll be a criminal. Sound insane? Do nothing and it could actually happen.
If you’re a breeder, get a reptile into every home you possibly can. They need to know how to care for them, of course, but let’s penetrate the population. Nobody is talking about banning dogs. Why? Because 2/3 of Americans own one. Let’s get reptiles up to that level! Every kid who graduates high school should get a diploma, a cookout at their folks house and a ball python!!! College students should have to have a computer and a kingsnake. It should be a requirement.
P.S. – If you haven’t gotten yourself spun up on what’s going on, read this articles that discusses the proposed ban on reptiles. The proposed law is masquerading as a ban on importation but it’s actually a ban on ownership. Scary, scary stuff.
Originally Posted: 4/4/2009
First, a disclaimer: I am in the early stages of starting a web site called ReptiTrack. www.reptitrack.com is not a competitior to kingsnake.com or faunaclassifieds.com or any other site that people use to sell their reptiles on-line. ReptiTrack is a complimentary site to those on-line sales locations. It will serve one and only one purpose: to be a centalized repository of price tracking for reptiles so you know a realistic price to put on your animals when you go to list them on the site of your choosing. The cycle of going to kingsnake.com to see what your animals are worth has to stop. It is destroying our industry. And no, that is not an overstatement. It is true. A multi-billion dollar industry is at the whim of the most recent stupid price advertised by some out-of-work house painter who breeds ball pythons on the side and just crashed his car while driving home drunk. The biggest names in our industry go to kingsnake to figure out what animals are worth. I won’t name names but you know who you are. I cannot imagine anything more silly. In the ball python world, the tail is truly wagging the dog.
Let me offer you a hypothetical scenario (or is it?) that illustrates why you should never again trust a price you see on kingsnake.com (or any other site of a similar ilk). For this illustration I am going to make up a ball python morph called the Phantasm Ball. Phantasms are co-dominant and currently sell for $2,500.
Larry, a small-time ball python breeder desperately wants a Phantasm Ball but can’t afford one. Unwilling to save his money Larry hatches a plan. And here’s how it goes:
Larry doesn’t own any Phantasm Balls but Larry posts an ad on kingsnake.com offering 1.1 Phantasms for $2,000 each or $3,500 for the pair. Individually that’s $500 less than the going rate and as a pair is $1,500 off the current market value. Naturally, Larry is going to get calls to buy the animals. “Sorry,” Larry says. “They already sold”. But he says he should be getting some more in the next week or two and he takes names and numbers to call people back. The animals never actually existed, of course, and the one’s he is going to get next week don’t really exist either.
A real owner of Phantasms logs in to kingsnake.com and sees Larry’s ads selling Phantasms for $2,000. “Crap!”, he says, “The price is already down $500 from last year.” Wanting to be competitive with Larry (the liar), the real Phantasm owner offers his on kingsnake.com for $1,800 each, $3, 000 for a pair. He sell them, happy for the $3K but disappointed because he thought he was going to get more for them.
Three weeks later Larry the Liar posts two more Phantasms on kingsnake.com for $1,500 each. In his ad he explains how much it pains him to sell the animals for so little but he was recently injured and needs money to pay medical bills. When the calls pour in he once again explains that they have already been sold. He again says that a fellow breeder is expecting some more Phantasms to hatch in the coming weeks and will post them up as soon as they are ready. In a few weeks, the cycle repeats again.
You can see where this is going. Larry, a guy who doesn’t even own Phantasms is able to drive the price down by more than 50%-80% in a matter of months. Now, with the prices at a level he can afford, he buys himself a pair of Phantasms. He is laughing his ass off at the rest of us as he does it.
Is this story true? I don’t know. It’s possible. The fact that it took me about zero seconds to think it up means that someone less ethical than me thought it up long ago. Never mind economics, supply and demand, the economy, falling home prices, unemployment, blah-blah-blah. Pinstripe ball pythons were more than $2,000 in the latter part of 2006. Now, at the beginning of 2009, barely 24 months later, people balk at paying $300 for one. That is false. Ball pythons lay an average of 6 eggs. Few to none of us have super-pinstripes (yes, I know there is no super-phenotype) so 3 of those 6 are pinstripes (maybe). I’m a small/medium sized breeder. I produced about 70 clutches of eggs last year. That’s about 420 babies. How many were Pinstripes? Less than 20. I kept 12 of them for myself, I sold 8. Multiply me by 200 similar-sized breeders and there are 1,600 Pinstripes for sale in 2008. Think there are more than 1,600 ball python freaks in the USA who want a Pinstripe? Uh yeah, there’s more than that in my little crevice of Virginia. If the market isn’t saturated how did the price fall by almost 90% in 2 years? I’ll tell you how: kingsnake.com and all of us going to it for pricing. Whether it’s people lying about animals they don’t have or every person posting just a little bit less than the person who posted before them doesn’t really matter. If we continue to use kingsnake.com as our source for pricing the market will not have longevity. We are ruining our own business and most of us are conscious of it.
I used to email people who put up really low prices asking them why there were doing it. Most of them didn’t offer valid reasons other than, “I really need money”. One guy told me he bred his own food and wasn’t able to produce enough to feed his ball python production so he wanted to sell them as quickly as possible so he didn’t have to feed him. He admitted he knew he was selling them for a really low price compared to what they were worth but you know what? I never again saw them for more than his admittedly low price. His two weeks of low posting brought the price down nationwide by over $150/animal.
Kingsnake.com allows a breeder with a single pair of animals, say one bumble bee male and one normal female to control the price of bumble bees for every producer in the country. I’ve heard breeders say, “let them sell theirs for those low prices. After they do, they’ll be gone and prices will return to normal.” But they don’t. Prices go back up once they go down. NEVER!
I have more to say on this topic. A lot more. But I’ll save it for another day because if I don’t, this will turn into a book and no one will read it. I also don’t want to rant. I want to come across as a lucid, sane person.
In the meantime, please, please, please stop going on-line to figure out what your animals are worth. Call Brian Barczyk. Call Kevin McCurley. Call Bob Clark. Call Adam Wysocki. Call Pete Kahl. Call Kim Bell. Call Colette Sutherland. Call Tracy Barker. Call an established and respected breeder in this business and ask them what the realistic price should be. Don’t look at kingsnake.com anymore.
If you agree with me, even a little bit, please get other people to read this. We’ve got to start preserving our industry. Prices will fall, they always do. But prices shouldn’t fall they was they have been.
As a final thought, let me explain prices to you. There are four different types of prices in the ball python industry. They are:
- Retail prices – This is the price that should be listed on kingsnake.com or at a trade show. You should be relatively serious about this price. If you negotiate on this price it should not be by more than about 10%. Pricing an animal for $1,000 and selling it for $500 ruins the credibility of all other prices you advertise.
- Sale prices – These are “weekend special” prices or “Santa Claus Specials”. These prices should be a reasonable discount (10-20%) off your normal retail price. Don’t get crazy. Sale prices damage the market long-term. For instance, pastel clowns were selling for $12,000 last year. One weekend someone put them up on kingsnake.com for a “weekend special” of $6,500 (because he needed money). The price never again went above $6,500. All it takes is one stupid person to ruin it for everyone.
- Wholesale prices – Jesus, don’t get me started. Somebody conned the world into believing that wholesale prices are 50% off retail. That’s crap! Wholesalers DO NOT DESERVE 50% MARGIN. You know who decided that it should be 50% off retail? The wholesalers!!! Quit buying into their crap. Demand more money for your production. You do all the work, ALL OF IT, and the wholesaler gets to make the exact same amount as you??? Seriously? Think about it. You think the rest of the world (outside the reptile world) has a 50% margin on their products? Nope. Try 15-20% on average. If you sell an animal at 50% of its retail value you give the person buying it 50% of margin to ruin the going rate. Why wouldn’t he sell it for 80% of the current retail prices? He only paid 50% so he’s making 30% for absolutely nothing. STOP WHOLESALING YOUR ANIMALS FOR 50% OF THEIR VALUE!!! YOU ARE DESTROYING THE MARKET IF YOU DO IT.
- Friend prices – These are whatever you want them to be. Hell, I’ve given extremely valuable snakes to good friends for free. These deals should be secret, between you and your friend. Don’t go on a forum and tell everybody that you just got a bumble bee for $300 and leave out the part about how the guy who sold it to you has been your friend since birth and you gave him one of your kidneys last year. Someone hearing that you got a bumble bee for $300 makes them think that they deserve one for that much, too. Deals made between friends in back rooms need to stay there.
Let’s get a collective clue, people. C’mon. We’re smarter than this.
Until next time,