A veteran herper looks back — and ahead.
My life with reptiles began at a very early age, and as I collected a menagerie of local herps for my personal viewing pleasure, sheltered from the rest of the world, little did I know that an industry built around my beloved reptiles and amphibians had been going on for some time. Eventually, I learned a startling fact: People actually paid for reptiles! And this practice, I discovered, had been going on for decades.
The author in his reptile store, Exotic Pets In Las Vegas.
The Iron Age of reptile capitalism started before I was born, and thrived during my years growing up in the boondocks of Jefferson City, Mo., collecting snakes, lizards and salamanders. Back in those days, 99 percent of the herps offered for sale were wild caught, usually in poor health and poorly kept, and often misidentified. Little, if any, husbandry information was provided, as proper care was mostly unknown. I can only imagine how many animal fatalities resulted.
Back in those early days, you could order animals from magazine ads, or you could get on a mailing list and order directly from that list. Corn snakes sold for a dollar a foot, other rat snakes were 50 cents a foot, and turtles went for a dime — not uncommon prices in those days. Pet stores sold baby red-eared sliders by the tens of thousands, and anoles and green iguanas were abundant. Nothing too exciting could be found, and nothing expensive.
I won’t say those were the “good ol’ days,” as I’m sure they couldn’t have been good for the animals being sold in the trade at that time.
A New Reptilian World
In 1975, while attending high school in Washington state, I was amazed to find a pet store in Spokane that sold not only mice for me to feed my snakes, but it actually sold snakes, too — and not just snakes, but also lizards, turtles and tortoises. I was in heaven! Every Tuesday after school, I was there for the unpacking of the weekly shipment of animals from Pet Farm, a Florida-based reptile wholesaler. I would watch as each animal was removed from box, bag or pickle jar — there were boas, retics, iguanas, and hundreds of other species.
I bought my first baby boa for $10 from that store, and my first retic for $15. I also kept a green iguana, a basilisk, and an armadillo lizard together in the same 10-gallon tank, with no heat or lighting, because that’s how the store’s staff instructed me to house them. They, and I, had no clue. Sometimes, it makes me sad when I think back on those days.
One time, a bag was opened to reveal one of the coolest lizards I’d ever seen: a sungazer. It was awesome! I asked how much it was, and was told $45. Outrageous! I told the clerk no one could be expected to pay that much for one lizard, and stormed out. (Sun gazers now cost $2,000 — my, how times have changed.)
I discovered another shop — this one in Seattle — called Burian Pet Center. I would hang out there all day whenever I could. I got my first snapping turtle from them. It was there, too, that I first beheld gray-banded kingsnakes, eastern indigos, and rat snakes of all types. They had a most impressive inventory.
Other stores began sprouting up in other states, too, such as East Bay Vivarium, now located in Berkley, Calif. It was one of the best pet stores in the nation for herps years ago, and still is. Twin City Reptiles in Minnesota has been around forever, too, with the same owner and the same great, quality animals. These are just two examples; other stores specializing in reptiles have also exhibited great longevity.
I learned to breed my own animals. My first, when I was 11, were red milk snakes. By high school, I was breeding boa constrictors, gopher snakes and corn snakes. I would buy directly from Pet Farm, as well as two other places: Pet Ranch and Herpetofauna, Inc. (Later, by the time I reached my peak in the early ’90s, I had 2,500 snakes at home and was producing about 4,000 hatchlings a year. And lots of lizards, too.)
I attended Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles (SSAR) meetings when I could, and also began attending the International Herpetological Symposium (IHS), where not only could you meet some of the top reptile people on the planet and learn directly from them, but you could also look at and buy reptiles from all over the world. Moving from hotel room to room, you could find everything from Pac-Man frogs to cobras.
By the mid 1980s, I had worked in various capacities at a few zoos, eventually becoming the curator of reptiles at the Spokane Zoo. Attending IHS was one of the highlights of my entire year. I also dabbled with selling mail-order animals on the side. Pet stores still pretty much sold the same animals, still with very little husbandry knowledge, and animals continued to die. But it was around this time that captive breeding began to take off, and when you had animals to sell, you went to IHS and peddled them out of your hotel room after the talks were over.
Then came what I call “the split,” when IHS decided to ban the sale of animals at the symposium (I think this was 1989). The following year, a young fella named Wayne Hill decided to organize a stand-alone reptile expo in Orlando, Fla., called the National Reptile Breeders Expo, with the sole purpose of selling herps to the public.
The Orlando show (now held in Daytona) was immediately the place to be if you wanted to buy and sell animals, and — ta da! — the reptile shows came into being. Now, of course, reptile shows seem to be held practically every weekend someplace in the U.S. (see current listings on page 60).
All this time, I was selling herps to local pet stores and mailing animals to friends. They were still mostly a novelty in the mainstream pet industry, but the herp inventory at larger stores was on the increase. Colubrids became a staple, due to the ease of producing corns and kingsnakes. Less common types included fancy milk snakes from Mexico, odd colubrids from Southeast Asia, and turtles. Oh, the turtles — they were from every corner of the globe back then.
Sales of imported reptiles were brisk, and their importation became a big business. Unfortunately, though, people began abusing the system, and, sure enough, governments began to take notice. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) began increasing the numbers of animals added to the Endangered Species Act (ESA) list, making them illegal to import and/or sell. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) was enacted to protect animals of concern, further restricting the trade. And the U.S. decided to become the animal control officer for the planet. This meant that while my late friend, Tom Huff, was captive breeding Bengal monitors by the hundreds just across the Canadian border, it was illegal for me to own one here in the U.S.
Meanwhile, the pet trade in Europe took off. And while I’m not pointing any fingers, it appeared that any animal — protected, illegal, or not — could be had in Germany. I bought my first “captive-bred” western blue-tongued skinks from a broker in Germany back in the late ’70s. Within five years, I was producing 500 blue tongues a year.
A Store is Born
In 1984, I moved to Virginia City, Nev., and opened my own reptile zoo called Reptiles of the West, which housed more than 400 species and had a small gift shop. I was still producing reptiles, too, selling them to pet stores and collectors. Ultimately, my zoo was a flop, but the gift shop was a huge success. So I shut down the zoo and opened four Native American gift shops in two states. And I continued to breed reptiles.
Eventually, I realized I hated the gift shop business, so I sold them all and moved to Las Vegas in 1991, where I opened my store, Exotic Pets (originally Exotic Pets International Inc.; I shortened it because I was too lazy to keep spelling out the whole name). The first problem was finding a municipality where I could set up business. This meant talking to officials and asking many questions. Then came the hoops to jump through. Of course, there’s all the normal fees and licenses that all businesses are required to have, including county and state license fees, federal fees and taxes. But when opening a pet store, there are also animal regulations, and the various fees associated with them.
On the federal level, these include captive-bred wildlife permits from the USFWS for my tortoises and indigo snakes, and a permit from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for the privilege of selling exotics such hedgehogs, kangaroos and such. As for the state, there are my commercial possession permits, as well as non-commercial permits for animals in my private collection. I also have to have a city animal handler’s permit, which means — and I mean no disrespect — that a dog catcher has to come inspect my herpetological husbandry methods to make sure I am up to snuff in order to sell the animals I sell. During my first inspection I felt a bit insulted, but after 25 years I just take it for what it is: a way to get another 50 bucks out of me every year.
When I first opened the store, getting animals was easy, though expensive. Business started out rocky, as all new businesses do, but kept getting better. The movie “Jurassic Park” and Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin can be credited with Exotic Pets’ early success, and as my reputation grew, so did my business.
The news is not all good, though. Some stores have failed to adapt over the years, or just gotten lazy, and lots of businesses that were staples once upon a time are now gone. And while the smart ones are still around and doing great, it is increasingly challenging to continue. Government regulations hurt, and as USFWS adds more animals to the ESA list, it becomes apparent there’s an agenda at work other than the one to protect wildlife.
The animal rights agenda is obvious, and squeezing pet stores out is its goal. National, state and local governments are being pressured to enact laws restricting the possession, trade, and sale of reptiles and amphibians. Large-constrictor paranoia is on the rise, and the treatment of just about every reptile species on the planet as if it has suddenly become venomous frustrates me to no end. All this does is perpetuate the assumption that all reptiles are dangerous and should not be owned by sane people.
Where TV shows once heralded the wonder and beauty of the herp world, with presenters such as Irwin, Jeff Corwin and Mark O’Shea, they now warn people of the potential horrors of exotic animal keeping. It’s like all the good has been forgotten.
The Internet Effect
At an IHS many years ago, in San Diego, Calif., I met a young man at the ashtray outside the meeting rooms. He said his name was Jeff Barringer, and when I asked what he did — meaning what kinds of herps did he work with — he responded by saying, “kingsnake.com.” I had never heard of such a kingsnake, and I had owned all of them.
He tried explaining the internet, web sites and such to me. Having never seen a computer, I had no clue. Five years later, I was forced by my staff to purchase a computer and join kingsnake.com. Business took a new turn, for the better in our case, as now we had sales both in and out of the store. Unfortunately, the internet also meant the death of some businesses, those that could not adapt. It’s not all rosy for those of us who remain, either. Sales I could have made to local customers are now going to out-of-state competitors, and I’m sure my store is doing the same to others in other areas.
Most of my dismay results from what’s happened with the book industry. Once known for having the most extensive inventory of herp books for sale, I have watched my book sales drop by more than 50 percent. This is a shame. I don’t think print is dead, but it sometimes seems as if it’s on life support.
The internet also crushed IHS and SSAR. As it became easy to simply push a few computer keys to look up information about almost any reptile you wanted, the desire to actually travel in order to meet and speak with real people who were experts on those animals waned. This, too, is a shame, as you can’t tell me you can get to know a person better via email than you can by shaking hands and sharing a beer in a room full of fellow reptile geeks, with herp-related conversations buzzing all about you.
Physical places to share knowledge, experiences and a lot of tall tales are still important. Thankfully, to that end, IHS is actually experiencing a resurgence, and I think it may be because some people are tired of only emailing and texting in order to discuss herps. Perhaps the need to interact with other like-minded people in person is inherent in reptile enthusiasts. Only time will tell.
Changes, Good and Bad
For those of us determined to continue, there is hope. We adapt and try to play by the rules, no matter how much they change mid-game. Reptile husbandry knowledge is at an all-time high, and I believe now is the true Golden Age of reptiles. Captive breeding is evolving and increasing by leaps and bounds, and our knowledge of the natural world, though far from complete, is growing.
Once upon a time, I refused to sell ball pythons because they refused to eat and were nearly impossible to keep alive. The same was true for certain chameleons. Now look at where we are: captive breeding of ball pythons has resulted in that species becoming one of the most readily available, easy-to-keep reptile pets. Chameleons, too, have bounced back, thanks in large part to increased captive breeding, as well as products that are specially designed for them. Products geared toward reptiles abound, stuff that actually works.
Reptile shows are everywhere, and more and more people are being introduced to the hobby, creating more and more customers for reptile-oriented businesses. Pet stores like mine are the foot soldiers of the hobby; it’s often there that a person’s interest in herps is ignited. We cultivate new hobbyists, including many that will buy from online vendors and those at reptile shows (and to those of you selling at such venues: you’re welcome).
I am reminded of prices over the years. Albino Burmese pythons sold for $10,000. I bought my first woma for $5,000, but thanks to captive breeding, we now sell them for $100 or less. This is great for the hobby and for business.
Some things confound me, though. When I first started selling northern blue-tongued skinks, they were fetching about $500 each. When the price dropped to $60 each, I got out of that market. Now you can’t find a northern blue tongue if your life depended on it, and if you do, prices are almost as high as they were back in the ’80s. What happened to all those skinks that I and others produced years ago?
The same thing has happened with Argentine tegus. They were being produced in huge numbers at one time, and by now they should be retailing for less than $75 each. Instead, they, too, seem to have mostly vanished, and their price has skyrocketed. I just don’t get it.
There’s a flip side, though, because even though lots of animals that were inexpensive staples are now either gone or very high in price, because of captive breeding, many that were hard to get and/or prohibitively expensive are now within the reach of even the thriftiest of collectors.
I’ve observed many changes in the industry, including those to do with government regulations, the public’s perspective, and the rise of the animal rights cult. There’s the internet, that double-edged sword, as well as the ongoing wonders of captive breeding. We’ve lost species due to habitat destruction, as well as human consumption; others have vanished entirely from the pet trade, and still others have become invasive species.
As I get older and begin contemplating retirement, I wonder what will become of things once I’m gone. Then I think about Sinaloan milk snakes. In 1974, I came upon the first Sinaloan milk snake I had ever seen: a subadult that was selling for $75. Now, 42 years later, I’m happy to report that, at least in my store, subadult Sinaloan milks are still selling for $75 each. Sometimes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. I have customers who used to come into my store with their parents when they were little kids. Now, 25 years later, they are bringing their own kids into the store. “This is Ken,” they say by way of introduction. “He sold me my first snake when I was your age. Now he’ll sell you your first snake, too.”
I feel proud (and old!) whenever I help create the next generation of reptile keepers. I just hope the latest is not the last. I doubt it will be, but who knows what the future holds? Someday, I hope all remaining wild habitat will be saved, and all the reptiles being sold are captive bred. We are far off from both, but there is a small light at the end of the tunnel. We’ve come a long way, and have a long way to go, and if we are allowed to continue, we must focus our willpower to keep the train on the tracks, heading to the end of that tunnel.
Ken Foose produced his first captive-bred snakes at age 11. With a master’s degree in Zoology, he has been both a zookeeper and curator. He opened Exotic Pets, which specializes in reptiles and amphibians, in Las Vegas in 1991. He is currently the president of the International Herpetological Symposium (internationalherpetologicalsymposium.com)