The following Wall Street Journal articles comes by way of HerpDigest.
Bear Market in Boas: Proposed Laws Strangle Sales of Mutant Snakes
Premium Python, Once Worth $40,000, Now Sells for Half; 'It's Just Like Stocks'
By Justin Scheck
Chico, CA—2/12/09 Wall Street Journal - The stock market is back on track, and bond markets are open for business. But now, another inflated financial market is facing collapse: mutant pythons and boa constrictors.
Premium pythons that could fetch $40,000 in 2007 now go for half that sum, breeders report. The price for a hypomelanistic boa constrictor, one with a mutation that lightens its skin tone, was $99 on Feb. 1, down from $5,000 in 2007, on Kingsnake.com, a classified-ad site that acts as a market-maker for snakes.
Ron Greenberg, a retired fiberglass-plant manager who keeps 1,000 snakes here in Chico, says demand has disappeared altogether for some boas he breeds. He can't find buyers anymore for "sunglow" boa constrictors, which sport an unnatural reddish-orange-and-off-white coloration, and fetched $3,000 two years ago.
The turning point: Senate Bill 373, which Florida Democrat Bill Nelson proposed in February 2009 to prevent situations like one in the Everglades, where escaped Burmese pythons have devoured native animals. The bill would ban importation and interstate transport of boa constrictors, anacondas and large pythons. A similar antisnake bill followed in the House.
Neither bill has passed yet, but "no one is willing to give me $10,000 for a snake when they think they may be added to an injurious-species list," says Mike Wilbanks, 41 years old, an Oklahoma python breeder.
The boa bear market comes after years of growing demand for constrictors with genetic mutations that result in abnormal colors. A normal ball python today typically sells for under $100; a "piebald" python—white with rare blotches of brown and green—can fetch $3,000.
The rarer the mutation, the more expensive the snake, and investors paid huge sums for snakes that could produce babies that brought big returns. Adam Wysocki, a Maryland computer programmer, sold his house in 2006 and spent $40,000 on a rare "lesser platinum" ball python. He had money to invest, he says, but he "wanted to do something with it that was more than investing in Microsoft or something." In 2007, he says, three of the prized snake's young sold for $18,000 each.
Last year, Mr. Wysocki's most expensive snake sold for just $7,000. While the relatively small ball python isn't on the Senate bill's trade-ban list, the market for it has been depressed, he says, because investors are afraid the snake will be added to the list.
The origins of the snake bubble harken back to the early 1980s, by many breeders' accounts, after Florida reptile breeder Tom Crutchfield recognized a photo of an albino Burmese python in National Geographic magazine.
Mr. Crutchfield, looking to breed the snake, convinced a New York reptile trader to import the albino python and two of its siblings. To pay the $21,000 for the snakes, Mr. Crutchfield took a second mortgage on his house. He rented out one python for a $10,000-a-year stud fee and says he later sold about 40 of the three snakes' young for $5,000 each.
The mutant-constrictor economy began to resemble the Dutch tulip mania of the 17th century, as snake speculators entered bidding wars for rare specimens, which they began calling "investment grade." Buyers would then breed their own young mutants, selling them at high prices to other speculators who hoped to breed and sell to still others. "It's always been a pyramid thing," says Mr. Crutchfield who, after pleading guilty to charges related to illegal reptile smuggling, is back in business at age 60. "The people at the top make the most money."
As rare-colored snakes reproduced and the mutation grew more common, sell-offs caused prices to drop. But there were always new mutations that sold for outlandish prices while scarce.
Tom Burke, a 55-year-old former tugboat driver in Long Island, expected his snake investments to be a fallback during the recession. Mr. Burke says his snake sales went up in late 2008, even as the rest of the economy crumbled.
Mr. Burke explains mutant-boa business economics thus: In 2008, an albino male boa and a motley female with an albino gene cost $1,000 for a pair. Within 30 months, the pair would likely produce at least five motley albino young, which sold for $1,500 each, at 2008 prices. Minus $1,000 or so in equipment and rats and mice to feed the snakes, profits would still be greater than 100%. "People who want to diversify their income or get a better income or a higher income, they do this," Mr. Burke says. "It's just like stocks."
Like stocks, the snake market proved susceptible to sentiment. After Sen. Nelson introduced the snake bill, Mr. Burke says, demand dried up. Mike Panichi, a Brooklyn homicide detective who in 2005 borrowed from his retirement fund to invest in boas, says he got frequent inquiries from prospective snake buyers until early 2009. But now, he says, there's "zero interest." The snake market took another hit last month, when Interior Secretary Ken Salazar separately proposed adding several constrictor species to the "injurious wildlife" list that cannot be imported or carried across state lines.
Ron Greenberg, who keeps 1,000 snakes in Chico, Calif., says demand has disappeared for some snakes, like this albino Burmese python.
Bryan Gulley, a spokesman for Sen. Nelson, says he feels for the breeders, but says big snakes can be dangerous. He points to a 12-foot anaconda that was found last month in a Florida pond with a goose in its gullet, and a pet Burmese python that allegedly strangled a Florida toddler to death in July.
Snake breeders counter that most pet constrictors are less dangerous than a large dog. Andrew Wyatt, president of the U.S. Association of Reptile Keepers, testifying on Capitol Hill against antisnake legislation, said that captive boas and pythons "are not the dangerous killers portrayed by activists in the media."
Mr. Wysocki, the Maryland breeder, has been selling his collection to fund a lobbying organization he calls the National Pet Association. The NPA is trying to rally people outside the snake community to oppose the Senate snake bill on the grounds that it could be a slippery slope toward restricting dogs and cats.
"What they don't realize is the economic impact this is going to have," says Mr. Crutchfield, the albino-python pioneer, who notes that the constrictor crunch will squeeze suppliers of snake food, too. "What about the guy who sells rats? Who's going to buy jumbo rats?"
Good question, says Bill Parker, owner of Feeder Mice Unlimited in Oroville, Calif. Mr. Parker, 76, raises about 40,000 mice and rats on a former catfish farm. His company brought in almost $300,000 in 2008, he says, mainly from reptile enthusiasts. But last year business was down about 30%, and he had to lay off three employees. If the Senate bill passes, he says, "that will kill us."