After the gun store, a few miles down the road, was a pizza joint that clearly had caught on fire and had been abandoned for quite some time. After that dismal and dilapidated landmark, the landscape transformed from rural shopping areas and ranch-style homes to fields and crops. The banjo from Deliverance began playing in my head. Images of mutant rednecks from The Hills Have Eyes accompanied this soundtrack.
I turned up the volume. Maybe I could drown out the anxiety with a little Gloria Estefan. As I was turning the beat around, I started questioning if I should also turn the car around as well. Driving out to the middle of bumfuck, Virginia was an absolutely idiotic idea. Why did I even think this was okay? But my experience with the Snake Syndicate had clearly taught me that trusting complete strangers was a normal part of snake ownership.
It became clear that owning a snake was an inevitability. I had thought about it for over a decade and had even taken steps to prepare myself for owning a cold-blooded creature. My reaction to the piebald at the expo said it all. But how to go about this responsibly?
I recalled my internship while I was in my Masters program at Johns Hopkins University. Perhaps I can create something similar. But where do I find or make an internship with a snake breeder? Is that even a thing? Where do I start?
Facebook. All things start and end with Facebook. I found a couple of breeders and ball python enthusiast groups and promptly joined. But they were all over the world. I needed something more local. I stalked the page for a while and noticed that two websites were cited with incredible frequency. The first was World of Ball Pythons. This site was given out whenever someone had a question about what a morph should look like (I spent days perusing copious coiled creatures in utter amazement and awe). The second was Morph Market. This seemed to be where most breeders sold their animals. That sounded like a winner to me.
There were hundreds of breeders on Morph Market, selling their ball pythons literally all over the world. I had no idea that could be done and still have no idea how it is done. How does one ship a cold-blooded animal with very specific heat and humidity needs from Tallahassee to the frozen tundra in Russian? I couldn’t imagine opening up the package and having a dead animal that I just paid hundreds for, just lying there. Dead as a door nail. Or even worse, it’s still alive and pissed as hell!
I had images from the movie Anaconda in my head. I could picture it. An excited recipient of the package, grabbing a small pair of scissors and slowly splitting open the “fragile” and “live” warning tape. Then slowly, and with much anticipation, folding back the sides of the cardboard box, one at a time. Peering over the edge of the box. Wam! The snake leaps out like a Ridley Scott Jack-in-the-box and swallows the poor bastard whole.
It was then that I decided that it might be best for me to purchase my snakes from local breeders. I now had two reasons to locate local breeders. The first was to secure an internship. The second was to find and purchase a snake from a local breeder once I felt more confident in what I was doing. Death by snake-in-a-box seemed like a terrible way to go.
It didn’t take me long to find handfuls of breeders in my immediate area. I was shocked! I seriously had no idea that that many people were into snakes let alone breeding them in their homes. My mind was utterly blown. How many people have I interacted with in my life that probably had some hidden herpatorium (I totally made that word up) in their basements?! I even found one in my hometown!
Morph Market allows people to sign up so that you can sell and buy snakes, as well as contact breeders. As someone who already has Facebook, Instagram, and a TrueNudists (long story) as social media outlets, I did not want to sign up for another. I decided to cross reference the name of the breeding company on Morph Market with Facebook and to no one’s surprise, found them there. I decided to direct message one particular breeder. I found a snake that he was selling that I liked and figured I would inquire about it and while in conversation see what he thought of my internship idea.
His name was Mark. He was incredibly helpful, but quite leery about meeting me at my home or his. I understood. People can be unsavory and safety is important. It just struck me as odd since I am the one constantly thinking about my safety and I was actively asking to put myself in potential danger. As I thought back and considered his very rational concerns, I became even more perplexed. This man owned his own moving company. He had to be strong to be lugging furniture and other various packages up and down stairs, in and out of houses. We would also be on his home turf. Wouldn’t that give him the advantage? Why the hell would he, let alone anyone that anyone ever be afraid of me? 5’5 little gay male therapist. What am I going to do? Process your traumas against your will and offer you unsolicited self-care advice? Yeah. Super scary.
I continued having discussions with Mark on Facebook about snake care and husbandry. Through our conversation, I felt fairly confident that I would be purchasing a ball python. I contacted a company that makes snake enclosures and asked them which size enclosure I should order for a ball python. They had suggested a 36x18x12. I ordered it.
I also contacted a breeder I had found in my hometown of Gaithersburg. His name was Terron. It turns out that he was in a social work Masters program and had worked with similar populations as myself. Sweet! He also turned out to be black. A black social worker in the snake trade. It happens. I have certainly seen black breeders occasionally at the expos. But social worker? Shouldn’t they like black labs or something? Something a little more warm and fuzzy (no pun intended)?
After talking with him, I learned that he was originally from the Caribbean. He told me that almost everyone he knew was afraid of snakes, so he regularly had to remove them from his family’s and friends’ homes. It was through this experience that he had become accustomed to the creatures. He later immigrated to New York and made his way down to Maryland through a confluence of various life events.
For some reason this fascinated me. I had always assumed that interest in reptiles was an innate heterosexual male attribute that I just had been lacking. I figured that instead of getting the reptile interest gene, I just got the My Little Pony one instead. But as it would turn out, that was not exactly the case. I began wondering how others became exposed to the hobby (yes, it is considered a hobby. Especially by those who breed or have over five. As it turns out, most do.).
I kicked my internship idea around with him. Terron seemed amenable, but needed to consult his fiancé first and work it around his grad school and work schedule.
“Great! I am really looking forward to learning how to better care for them. And if I am to be completely honest, I am also hoping that I get bit. I just figure that if I go ahead and get that out of the way, I will no longer have the fear of that unknown hanging over my head.”
Terron laughed. “I hate to tell you, but I’ve been doing this for ten years and I have only been bit twice.”
I felt both disappointed and relieved. No one wants to be bitten, but at the same time, how was I going to get that exposure to no longer fear that inevitability.
After mulling the internship idea over, I realized that the summer was coming to a close and he was about to hit a tidal wave of homework and with cooler weather on its way, he would also have to find housing for many of his clients (he primarily works with the homeless in downtown DC). Even if he wanted to, Terron wouldn’t have time to meet me, get to know me, and find a time where our schedules overlapped in order to help me get over my anxiety around snakes. As I considered that, I felt a little embarrassed. It almost sounded narcissistic or at least entitled to expect a stranger to make that sort of time for me. I decided to just take the plunge and purchase my first snake.
I returned my attention to Mark. I informed him that I would love to purchase one of his snakes, a lesser bee (a pale cream-colored snake, with butter yellow on top, and a lightning bolt of espresso down his back) but lacked an enclosure. I told him that I had ordered an enclosure, but had not received it. I told him the size of the enclosure. He told me that that the size of the enclosure was too big and that the snake may become stressed and go on a hunger strike.
I’m sorry, but too big? Hunger strike? Don’t these snakes live on the savannahs of Africa. How do they manage that? Hunger strike? I have never heard of prisoners going on a hunger strike for having too much room. How do these things live in the wild? I realized that it wouldn’t make any sense to argue logic to reptile and let it go. I would certainly take the advice of this seasoned expert.
Mark then hooked me up with Brandon who could build me a professional and a more appropriately sized enclosure. Brandon told me that he would have a snake enclosure ready for me in two weeks. He sent me some pictures. They looked ridiculously professional. They were made of PVC with a front opening glass door so that you could see through to the creature residing inside. Brandon just made these from his garage. I’ve never made shit in my garage. The most work I have ever done in a garage was put my shopping bags into the trunk of my car. And here is this man making professional snake enclosures from his garage with the same nonchalance as an elementary school child makes a popsicle stick bowl for Mother’s Day.
And this seemed to be the way of it. I was finding through my conversations with members of the Snake Syndicate that self-sufficiency was a huge value in this community. By this point, my curiosity about the culture was sky rocketing.
Another person I had randomly Facebook messaged for snake education and assistance was Lacy. She had given me her phone number and asked me to call when I had a chance so she could explain what the term “co-dominant” meant in regards to snake genetics. On my way home from work, I called.
A deep, gravelly voice with a strong southern accent answered the phone. I was quickly reminded that Lacy was from Tennessee, and with an accent like that, there couldn’t be any doubt.
“Yes, hi. Could I please speak to Lacy.” I figured I should reassure the man that I am not his wife’s elicit lover, so I provided a bit of background to reassure him (another favorite show of mine is Murderous Affairs… all these shows probably aren’t helping with my anxiety). “I’m Ryan. She wanted to give me some information about snake genetics.” The last thing I needed was an angry butch southerner hunting me down.
“This is Lacy.”
Uhhhh…. Maybe I misread the name. Perhaps his name was Lucky? Is Tracy a unisex name? Lacy couldn’t be. Maybe I misread? Maybe I misheard? Is she transgender? I mean, not everyone can afford a voice coach or tracheal shave. Is this even the right number?
“I’m sorry, but how do you pronounce your name?” That seemed like the best way to address this. I don’t think I have never hesitated and stuttered simultaneously before. There seem to have been a lot of firsts recently.
“Yeah, it’s Lacy.” – Another First. “My mom wanted a girl,” he said matter-of-factly.
You’ve got to be kidding me! I jerked my steering wheel as I tried to avoid careening into the guard rail as I picked my jaw up off the steering wheel. I took a deep breath and tried to recover from may massive social faux pas.
I could only imagine what life must have been like as a presumably straight man, with the name of Lacy, in the south. His voice was deep, gravely, and gruff! Perhaps that made for a great defense against anyone questioning his manhood? If that didn’t work, I am sure a massive snake collection would do the trick!
As it turns out, Lacy has been a fuel truck driver for several years. I had now had interactions with a truck driver and a mover. There seemed to be a trend. As I thought about it, it all started to make sense. These are occupations where people would be away from their homes for larger stretches of time. Dogs and cats were probably not viable options as they need constant and consistent care. Additionally, these tended to be more solitary occupations, so presumably these individuals were more introverted and independent. These sound like the makings of the perfect population to have reptiles for pets.
Lacy was an amazing snake educator. He would have done well as a park ranger or one of those groups that go to schools educating kids on various animals. When I asked questions, his gruff exterior broke to provide what felt like fatherly guidance. He was very understanding of my questions, and never once made me feel stupid or awkward (although, to be honest, I was doing a pretty good job of that myself. No help needed there!).
Lacy taught me that co-dominance doesn’t actually mean co-dominance in the literal sense. He explained that there were no co-dominant genes in ball pythons. The example he gave of co-dominance as when a blue flower gets crossed with a red flower, they make a purple flower. He went on to explain that the genes, traits, morphs, etc. that breeders are referring to are actually incomplete genes that effect the phenotype, or the look, of the snakes.
After Lacy had me draw out Punnett squares and walk me through the genetics (I pulled out for that), I asked him about my observations regarding the trend in occupations from other members of the Snake Syndicate. He grew quiet.
“Yeah… now that I think of it. I know six other breeders. Four of ‘em are truckers and the other two- well I don’ know what they do.”
For some reason, my chat with Lacy made me feel a bit more confident. I wasn’t sure if it was his supportive, fatherly cadence or that I now had enough information and exposure to the idea of owning a ball python. It didn’t matter.
I decided that I would go ahead and purchase the ball python I had found on Morph Market, but would only do so if I could meet with Mark and do the exchange locally. This would allow me to be a bit more confident that I would not be taken out by a mutant reptile jack-in-the-box. It seemed like a pretty fair solution. But what would I do about an enclosure?
As I have come to realize, Snake Syndicate members are a very helpful bunch. They are willing and even encouraging other to use their knowledge and experience to better the experience of others with reptiles. In fact, the ball python group on Facebook even published their own booklet on ball python care that is more accurate than what pet stores provide, as it was written by a group of individual breeders who all agreed upon its contents. The PDF of this booklet is a free download for anyone who joins the Facebook group, and you don’t even need to own a snake to join the group!