I know I have been MIA for a while. I think I just needed to take a small break. I have been struggling to reconcile the site being about our adoption process and also giving updates on the fundraisers. The reason for this is that the new direction for adoption fundraising, as you may have read, is taking a more long term approach via starting a small snake breeding business. The thought is that we could take the profits from the business and make more money for the adoption much faster and without having to continually ask for financial support from friends and family.
The problem with this, in regards to the website, is that in order to provide updates on our progress, a lot of the posts are going to involve updates on the snake breeding business. This seems to me to be a very different readership. At the same time, it is part of the process of our adoption. I have really struggled with how to move forward with this site.
I have come to the conclusion, that I would start writing a narrative about the snake breeding business, but to try to do so in a more fun and engaging way than just reporting on progress. Each of these updates will be labeled “Snake Syndicate: Part #”. That way, if readers of this site are following just to read about adoption, our opinions on the process, and articles only pertaining to the adoption, they can avoid those posts. For those only wanting to read about this fundraising venture and my ridiculous experiences with snake ownership, they can specifically follow the posts labeled as such. And then if people just want to read both, cool. Then none of this really matters.
I am going to try this out for a while. As you read, please let me know what you think of this new layout and if you believe it is meeting your needs as a reader. Thanks so much!
Now without further ado:
Snake Syndicate: Part 1
I looked down at my cell again. 11:00.
So, I have to leave in the next 30 mins if I am going to miss DC traffic.
I was getting pretty impatient. I was told the snake enclosure would be completed in two weeks. It has almost been two months. Normally I would complain, but in the “Snake Syndicate” your reputation is everything. And as a newbie in this underground culture, I needed to be sure to keep my impatience in check. On the plus side, I had enough time to watch the fourth episode of Encounters with Evil on Netflix (I have a thing about serial killers, but who doesn’t?).
11:42 and Brandon finally got back to me with the address. I immediately hopped into my car and popped the address into my navigations system.
Shit! He isn’t one hour away, he’s two!
I sped off to Virginia.
The Snake Syndicate is what I have begun to call the underground world of ball python ownership. How did I find myself wrapped up in this culture? Well, it’s a bit of a trip.
It starts off with my grandfather. It turns out he bred betta fish, cockatiels, and chickens. He had so many animals at one point, that my grandmother had him get rid of them all. My mother told me that it wasn’t until later in her life that she had realized why all of her friends had pet cockatiels growing up.
My grandfather used to watch National Geographic documentaries with me. He would take me to the zoo and local aquariums to teach me about animals. He once told me that “the males are the beautiful ones in the bird kingdom.” It wasn’t until I became an adult that I understood what he was really telling me.
You see, I’m a gay man. I was also quite small (still am) growing up and have never been particularly masculine. My parents tried to help by signing me up to sports, but I would spend my time in the fields making daisy chains. After sports games, our team would go out for pizza and I would order the French onion soup. My parents even put me in a religious school. You may be familiar with the song “This Little Light of Mine”. Well, there was no hiding my candle under a bushel; my flame was more of a forest fire.
This meant that I got bullied regularly, but more so from my family than anyone else. My maternal uncle would constantly tell me that I needed to “man up” and the importance for the man to keep the woman “in her place” (this would prove ironic when he eventually married a lawyer in his fifties). My dad’s brothers would often comment on my weight. But the worst was my cousin Scott.
I was the second oldest cousin in my family, second only to Scott. He was lanky, with a head the shape of a football, and tiny Mickey Mouse ears that stuck out from the side of his head. He resembled a bizarre combination of the villainous neighbor kid from Toy Story crossed with the kid from Mad Magazine.
I have distinct memories of us taking a bath together, him climbing out, and then urinating in the tub while I sat there helplessly. In my defense, I was probably two or three years old. Since I was small for my age, it was impossible to climb out of the tub. I just sat there and cried. He laughed. Good times.
As he got older, he would try to drown me in his pool with his best friend. And when he got really bored, he would take out whatever new reptile he had at the time and chase me around with it. It should be of no surprise that I became very uneasy and practically phobic of reptiles, but in particular, snakes.
Despite my rough start, my grandfather and mother supported my curiosity in animals, save the reptiles. In elementary school, my mother taught me about Punnett squares. I began breeding pet mice, trying to create different colored coats. Solids, spots, and even mixed coloring. I made elaborate mazes and would time how quickly they succeeded. I named one Pinky and the other the Brain and would repeat quotes from my favorite movie Labyrinth. “You have thirteen hours to complete the labyrinth, or your baby brother will become one of us forever…” To this day, I still maintain that David Bowie’s tight grey leggings were the root cause of my homosexual proclivities.
Since mice breed quickly, I would sell my pet mice to the local pet shop so that more kids could have pets. Who wouldn’t want to have mice as pets? It wasn’t until I was much older that I realized that my pets were being used as feeders for those dreadful snakes! (This still turns my stomach.)
Over a decade ago, I discovered ball pythons. A friend of mine had one and showed me the genetic variations on a website. They were gorgeous. They had so many colors and patterns. Too bad they were snakes. I am sure Freud would have a field day with my fascination. “It would appear that you are fixated in the genital stage…”
There was one morph (genetic variation created through random mutations in genes and then bred into the snakes to create variations in pattern, structure, and color) that caught my eye: the piebald. It was glorious. It was solid white, except for splotches of color where the normal snake pattern intercepted. I felt like I could resonate with it. It was different. It stood out. But occasionally, there were moments of normalcy.
At the time its cost was over $8,000. Guess there was no need to face my fear of snakes, as there was no way I would ever have nor want to pay $8,000 for anything. Well, maybe for a down payment on a car or house. But I never forgot it that beautiful serpent. Fear and beauty: a lethal combination.
Fast forward to a conversation my now husband, Matt, and I were having with his friend Silver. When we met, it was prior to her weight loss surgery. She was a short, round woman with an amazing laugh. Her hair had a crimped eighties quality to it. At the time, she also owned fourteen cats. Yes, fourteen.
Silver is an entrepreneur and works managing the finances of an engineering company. Whenever she becomes interested in something, she is quick to recognize its potential monetary value. For example, she had become very into a particular jewelry brand. The next time we saw her, she was holding parties and get-togethers to sell it. Another time she told us about her enjoyment in making candles. Next thing we know, she has opened up her own company and online shop where she is selling them by the caseload.
She regularly utilizes her strengths to facilitate a plant sale every spring. The proceeds of which would be going to a local cat rescue, of course. Silver is also a bleeding heart, despite her sometimes rough, no-nonsense exterior. She had made the fatal mistake of being a feline foster home some years back. Once fostered, those cats had found their forever home. Those cats became her babies.
She was also the reptile queen. She had several snakes and bearded dragons. In fact, she even had me handle her massive rainbow boa. I figured if I was going to survive handling such a large snake, I had my best chances with something associated with rainbows. Silver would also regale interactions and public outings with her beloved bearded dragon, Romeo. To hear her speak of it, their bond seemed almost spiritual. This confused me greatly. How could anyone attach themselves to a reptile? How could a reptile bond with a human? But, considering she owned fourteen cats, it was easy to chalk it up to her just being a crazy cat lady and leave it at that.
In one conversation, Silver told us all about a monthly local reptile expo. She told us about all the different animals and how they can be bred to express amazing colors and patterns that you could never see in a zoo or pet shop. This brought back fond memories of time I had spent with my grandfather. It also brought back vivid memories the Lisa Frank folders I had coveted throughout elementary school. I wanted to go.
The reptile expo was an experience. We had to travel to Havre de Grace, which is a blue-collar town outside of Baltimore. The expo was being held in an elementary school. At the front door we were greeted by a woman with limp, stringy hair and her fidgety daughter. They collected are admission fee and gave us our admission bracelets. The whole thing felt exclusive and simultaneously home spun.
We stepped past the table and into the next room to find a carnival of cold-blooded creatures being hawked. It was like some sort of underground black-market animal bazaar. There were leopard geckos, crested geckos, bearded dragons, tarantulas, scorpions, frogs, turtles, lizards of all kinds, chameleons…. Then there were all the people selling reptile food: mice, rats, roaches, meal worms, and powder mixtures. In the event you came and had no idea you wanted a reptile and had no supplies to house one, there was a shop in the dead center of the expo that sold anything you could possibly need to keep. And from what I understand, the prices were far better than you could get at a local pet store. The entire event was quite the spectacle.
I believe that the spirit of my grandfather began inhabiting my soul on a monthly basis because every month I wanted to go and see the reptiles. I was creeped out. I never wanted to hold any. Or even touch any. But they were so beautiful. I could hear the voice of my grandfather whispering animal facts into my ears as I discovered a new animal each and every month. “The difference between boas and pythons is that boas have live births and pythons lay eggs…”
With regular attendance came the recognition of trends in the various animal breeders. My husband and I started picking up on them early, and would routinely have our stereotypes reinforced month after month. Unsurprisingly, attendees and vendors were by and large white males in their twenties through fifties, wearing clothing one would associate with blue collar work and those heavily into heavy metal and/or alternative rock. Surprisingly, there were a number of women not only buying reptiles, but breeding and selling them as well.
Bubbly woman and tall lanky men who gave off a nerdy energy, often in their twenties to mid-thirties, were selling geckos. Women who gave off a Jane Goodall or forest ranger vibe sold chameleons. Women in their mid-thirties to fifties sold bearded dragons. Men in their forties and fifties sold tortoises and random lizards and/or amphibians. Snakes were sold by men in their thirties that seemed incredibly excited to show off their stock. They often would sport wither long hair or hair buzzed close to the scalp, a backwards ball cap, piercings, dickies pants or cut off jean shorts. There maintained a heavy nineties grunge vibe about them.
Men in their forties and fifties who sold feeder rodents seemed just as gregarious as all of the other breeders in the room. They educated patrons of their booths on the breeding process, how they bred rodents for docile behaviors, and the breeds of rats they focus on for various reasons. Who knew that there were breeds of rats? Who knew that they could be and were bred for certain behaviors in order to maintain the safety their temporary and predatory cage-mates? The younger guys who sold feeder rodents… they were very different. They tended to slink back into the corner of the room. Their demeanors were reclusive and gave off a rather uncomfortable, aggressive vibe. Often wearing black band tee shirts, had greasy hair, and a stony glare on their faces. It may just be my history of being bullied, but I swear I could feel their eyes on me as I walked through the expo. Not unlike a snake about to strike. They gave me the heebie-geebies.
This expo was my first introduction to underground world of reptiles, and possibly the screening process of the Snake Syndicate. There was a culture here. A very masculine culture. So masculine, that my internal gaydar not only couldn’t identify any members of my tribe, but even turned itself off to save on the batteries. The heavy clouds of testosterone hung in the air thicker than Maryland summer humidity, but beyond that, there was also a fascinating nurturing element. In each interaction with a breeder, whatever hyper-masculine exterior shell they had been cultivating would melt away to uncover an oddly soft, warm, and gooey center. This well-protected, sensitive middle would present itself in the form of paternal care and pride. Each breeder took immense pride in telling you about their animals, how they got into reptiles, and could even tell you about the individual personality of each of their stock. Not unlike how new father’s proudly brag about their infant’s grip on their index fingers.
Then one day at the expo, I found it. He was looking up at me. Tiny little eyes. Long white body. Paint drops of brown and yellow ochre splotches down his back. The holy grail of ball pythons. A piebald looked up at me. His thin forked tongue shooting curiously between scaled lips. He was small. Harmless. Possibly even helpless. I looked down at his price tag. $300. And that is when I knew, my life would begin to change forever.
I am not the biggest fan of driving to Virginia. On the one hand, northern Virginia is fairly progressive but has the worst traffic (it’s suburb of Washington, DC, noted for having the worst traffic in the United State, beating out Los Angeles and other large cities). On the other, the rest of Virginia has more than tolerable traffic conditions, but I have experienced the population to be a bit hostile to people belonging to marginalized groups. Gay leprechauns are one of the many identified marginalized groups that are not always met with open arms.
About an hour into the drive, I realized that I would be traveling into a part of Virginia I had never been to before. I wasn’t sure which Virginia I would be getting. The welcoming progressives or the less-than-warm rural folk. To escape from this creeping anxiety, I turned up the volume of the eighties pop music I was listening to. There’s no greater escape than Pat Benatar.
Thirty minutes later, I began to notice signs that the part of Virginia I was traveling to may not be the one I would find to be particularly comfortable. Trucks. Trucks. Trucks. About a third of vehicles on the road were cargo or shipping trucks. Eight to Ten wheels under each carriage. Another third were 4×4 trucks, RVs, and SUVs. An occasion rebel flag would make an appearance on the back of several. Toto, we aren’t in Kansas anymore… I should have packed my ruby slippers in the event of am emergency.
I passed a gun shop. This is not a familiar site in Maryland. I have grown up in Maryland and cannot think of a single time I have seen a gun store (that was outside of the Baltimore region). But here I was, passing one on the right. My mind began to wander. Images from the various serial killer programs I had been watching scrolled through my head (I am big into binging serial killer documentaries and baking competitions. Life is about balance). One of the most recent ones discussed a serial killer somewhere in Europe that targeted gay men. Great. Well, if this is the way I go out, I hope he plugs me straight in the forehead. I am really not up for this torture shit.