All businesses have trends, and ours is no exception. When I started 40 years ago, green iguanas were all the rage. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles started a huge wave of red eared slider sales. More recently, crested geckos have become the "It" reptile pet. I remember the first time albino corn snakes hit the market, and a corn snake frenzy was the result. Some trends wax and wane (both iguanas and sliders are no longer in demand, and with good reason), while others remain steady and true. Corn snakes are popular to this day, and I have no reason to think that cresties will not continue in popular favor.
Ball pythons (Python regius) went a different route. They were first imported into the pet trade in the U.S. from West Africa in the late 1970s, and they were anything but an immediate hit. The positives were excellent: a beautifully patterned snake that felt like a big snake but never actually got big, with a temperament so mild that even a small child could hold one in complete safety.
But the negatives were equally strong. Imported ball pythons were inevitably covered in ticks and mites. I remember long hours spent with unhappy pythons as I would pull ticks out of their hides one by one—sometimes 50 ticks to a snake. They also carried internal parasites and required deworming. However, there was another problem that made these issues insignificant: imported balls were excruciatingly unwilling to feed. Almost none of them would take domestic rats, and we found ourselves trying hamsters, guinea pigs and even baby rabbits in an often fruitless attempt to get them feeding.
I famously had one wild caught ball that went 13 months without a meal. And then, one day, viola! She killed and ate a rat. No muss, no fuss and she was consistent ever after. I believe that the issue was that the wild balls were habituated to some rodent native to West Africa that had an entirely different odor and flavor, and our domesticated rodents just didn’t pass the proverbial smell test.
Eventually, most of them fed, got cleaned up and became sellable. Slowly—and with ball pythons, everything is slow—they became more and more popular. When people began breeding them, and the babies hatched parasite free and perfectly happy to eat mice and rats… boom! They became stars, and remain so to this day.
Ball pythons (or royal pythons, based on their Latin surname regius) are named because they have the habit of curling into a ball with their head dead center as a response to any sort of danger or stress. This is their overwhelmingly typical demeanor: gentle, shy creatures who take a little work to be confident with human handling. This is not to say that I haven’t seen them bite; give any snake enough stress and it will defend itself. But balls are far down the scale of defensive biting. They’d rather hide.
One of the best sales techniques you can use for reptiles is the ability to tell the story of the animal’s lifestyle in the wild. This often tells customers a lot about how to keep them in captivity, but it also brings some intrigue to the creature and garners the salesperson some respect as someone who knows their stuff. Also, few animals in the reptile kingdom lead more unexpected lives than the ball python.
Are you familiar with termite mounds? The African species of termites do not invade houses in the manner of our local villains; instead they build large vertical mounds rising as high as 12-15 ft. The mounds are made of mud—this habit reveals their close evolutionary relationship to ants—and, as the termites build them, they include large empty chambers. These chambers are intended as ball python homes. Ball pythons take up residence in the mounds, and pay their rent by keeping the mounds free and clear of invading rodents that would otherwise attack and eat the termites. Thus, the termites and pythons have a symbiotic relationship.
This story tells you a lot about what the balls want in captivity: a tight, dark, warm and humid chamber with the occasional rodent appearance. People often wonder about appropriate tank sizes for snakes. The formula I like best for pythons and boas is when the snake is curled up on the floor of the cage, the cage should be between two and three times that footprint. Do not use the snake’s length as an indicator; they have no physical need to stretch out. Also, snake muscles don’t atrophy, so they don’t need exercise. They are uncomfortable in a cage that is too large, so give a ball a small cage.
I prefer cypress mulch as bedding, because it looks good and retains moisture while being resistant to rot and mold. Always make sure the snake has a large bowl of clean water. And, of course, give it a hide box, large enough to completely enclose the snake, but tight enough so that the snake feels a bit wedged in. Keep the cage 80 degrees at the cold end and 90 or above at the hot end. Feed it an appropriately sized meal once or twice a week.
One of the reasons that ball pythons have maintained popularity for so long is their propensity for genetic morphological variation. Things have gotten so far past the breakdown of color variations that we have to stay on top of with corn snakes, etc. Those are child’s play when compared to the myriad genetics of balls. Even experts—I am not one, but my partner is—often have trouble looking at a snake and figuring out what is going on with it genetically. Add to the compounding problem the fact that every breeder, convinced they have something new and different, names the variation themself. Unlike the scientific naming process, there is no central clearing house for this information. It’s a Wild West of snake breeding.
Keep in mind, ball python morphs are somewhat of a pyramid scheme, with new variations commanding high prices in the hopes of being a good breeding investment. And, as in all pyramid schemes, only those at the very top make real money. Those in the middle are stuck with ever-diminishing values.
Where does this leave you, the humble reptile merchant? Well, you can choose to talk to enough breeders that you can start to get a feel for this complex field of endeavor. Or, you can simply look at a snake and what a seller is saying it is, and ask yourself if you can buy it and reasonably turn it around at a profit, simply based on its attractiveness. Or, as one local seller I know did for years, ignore ball pythons altogether. Not the solution I’d recommend, but there you go. Give one of them a whirl! PB
Owen Maercks has enjoyed being immersed in the world of professional herpetoculture for nearly 40 years. His store, the East Bay Vivarium in Berkeley, Calif., is one of the oldest and largest herptile specialty stores in the U.S.