In the Python's Den: an interview with Bob Clark
Spectacular color and pattern morphs of many popular reptile species seem to occur with increasing regularity these days. Contrasting greatly with their normally colored counterparts, these animals attract legions of herpers who lust for stunning, one-of-a-kind animals. The beauty and lofty price tag of these creatures-if they are even for sale-makes them the ultimate reptiles for enthusiasts who want something different.
Although the remarkable appearance of these herps cannot be denied, many people do not stop to consider where they come from. They do not realize that it takes the hard work and planning of dedicated herpetoculturists to breed these rare creatures, establish them in captivity and make them available to mainstream herp enthusiasts.
In the world of python color and pattern morphs, more often than not, there is one man responsible for many of the incredible animals you see today. His name is Bob Clark. Bob is probably known to many of you-if only by name rather than in person. The albino Burmese python, albino ball python, albino reticulated python, labyrinth Burmese python and granite Burmese are just some of the varieties Bob produced for the first time and made available to the herp world.
In this interview, I would like to introduce you to the man behind these stunning pythons. Bob is a remarkable person who lives a busy and active life. He is a dedicated family man and a father of three (Robert, 10; Haley, 12 and Courtney, 14) with diverse interests. Indeed, I was surprised to discover several new things about Bob during the course of this interview. For instance, I never knew that Bob was an experienced falconer who flies his peregrine falcons every day during duck hunting season, or that he is a tortoise fanatic who works with several species, including Galapagos, Aldabra, radiated, red foot and spider tortoises-when I think of Bob I guess I usually just think of pythons. I hope you enjoy meeting Bob, a noted figure in herpetoculture and a friend to python enthusiasts everywhere.
Bob, please describe your earliest memory of reptiles and what they meant to you as a child.
When I was about 5 years old I remember "helping" the man across the street take up a flagstone sidewalk along the side of his house. Under one of the big flat rocks he found a small snake. The picture in my mind doesn't match any species living today, but it was probably a garter snake. The neighbor caught the snake and put it in an empty mayonnaise jar for me. I was fascinated with the thing. I spent hours looking at it through the glass until that wasn't good enough anymore. I unscrewed the lid and let the snake crawl out on the lawn. Then, torn by fascination and fear, I watched the snake crawl away into the bushes because I was afraid to touch it. It's a little strange to think that the course of my life might have been changed because my neighbor was out of mayonnaise.
You told me that while you were growing up your mother had a "no snakes" household. It seems that you've made up for lost time. Please explain this reptile-keeping dilemma.
For years my parents had the "no snake" rule in effect in our home. All through my grade school years my parents enforced a policy that only allowed one pet. In order to get a new animal it was necessary to find a new home for the current pet. Snakes were out completely. To get an anole it was necessary to get rid of the guppies, to get a turtle the anole had to go. By the way, I had that turtle until this year. I found it as an adult crossing the road in 1963! The rules relaxed somewhat during high school, and I was successful breeding Burmese pythons during my first year at college in 1973.
Does your mother care for reptiles now that she sees you can make a living breeding them?
My parents and sisters were not animal people and neither is my wife. Fortunately, they understand how important these animals are to me and to my business, and they are very supportive. My wife is especially tolerant. I'm all snakes all the time. I'm always thinking about them, talking about them or dreaming about them. So, if it isn't the animals themselves, it's me going on and on about them. I know it makes for uncomfortable cocktail party conversation sometimes, but she handles it well. As for my mother, I can tell you that there are several issues of REPTILES magazine on her coffee table (laughs).
I can definitely relate to that! My mother has the premier issue of REPTILES in a sterling silver frame on her living room wall. What was the first reptile your mom allowed you to keep?
I was 5 years old or less when my grandfather brought me a box turtle he picked up on the road. I kept it in a cardboard box on the patio for a couple of days until it rained, the box "melted" and the turtle went on its way. I don't know if this sparked my interest completely, but I was a real turtle maniac growing up.
Explain how you got into breeding reptiles. Was it a hobby that developed into a business?
Breeding the animals I kept always held an appeal for me. In the early '70s, I had some contact with Terry Odegaard in Minneapolis and Dick Goergen in Buffalo, New York. I knew these guys had had some success breeding Burmese pythons. Until this time I had only kept the animals and hadn't bred them. Once I realized that it might be possible to breed pythons in my own home, I couldn't think about anything else.
In 1973, I hatched my first clutch of Burmese python eggs. I kept a few of the babies and sold the rest. In those days, I had to compete with cheap imported pythons from Thailand. I had to do a real sell job to convince people that captive-born animals were superior to the less expensive imports. I quickly realized, though, that if I sold more snakes, I made more money. I raised some babies and bought more snakes, and soon I was breeding them as well. The market was different then-not nearly as many people were keeping reptiles. If I'd had too many more snakes to sell, I'm not sure I would have been able to find homes for them. I kept and bred the same few snakes for several years.
As a herpetoculturist, you are best known for your work with python color and pattern mutations. What is it about pythons that make them more interesting to you than other herps?
I don't know exactly. I'm interested in many reptiles, as well as amphibians, birds and plants. I could see myself working with any of them. Something drew me to pythons early on and since that time, especially since I've starting making my living this way, I've found it best to specialize to keep from diluting my efforts.
I know that you were responsible for producing the first albino Burmese python, a once-expensive snake that is now common in captivity and affordable to almost anyone. Was this the first python mutation you produced? Explain the experience.
In 1981, I saw a wild-caught albino Burmese python featured in a National Geographic article on animal dealers. I had to have that snake. Really, it kept me up at night for months. I knew I wanted it but I also knew that this was a desirable animal that others would like to have as well. A few months later, the snake showed up on the price list of noted reptile dealer Tom Crutchfield. Eventually, after a long, difficult period of negotiation, I was able to get the snake on a short loan. I bred the snake to a normal female and hatched a group of heterozygous offspring that became the founders of most of the albino Burmese pythons available today. In 1986, I hatched the first few albino Burmese pythons. I've said many times that this animal changed my life.
Let me give you some background. I attended the University of Kansas because it was a good herp school. I received a BS in Biology and an MA in Herpetology. None of the jobs available to people with my educational background appealed to me at the time. After I got my graduate degree, I promptly moved from Kansas to Oklahoma to work in the retail clothing business. I managed a department store for most of the next 10 years.
Once the albino pythons hatched, I realized that the demand for these animals was greater than even my own optimistic predictions. I quickly sold the first year's snakes, and the next year I had one sale that was greater than my previous year's entire salary! I produced quite a few more snakes that year and the next. I saved some money, rented a small warehouse and took on a few more animals. I saved some money and the following year I left my job to breed pythons full time.
At this time, people were just starting to see that money could be made from breeding and selling reptiles. More buyers were beginning to look at their purchases as investments. I think many of them were looking for a reason to justify animals that they wanted to breed anyway, but some of them have done very well. I think that changes in the market for captive reptiles, some brought on by the albino Burmese python itself, and good luck have allowed me to do for my work exactly what I used to do for play!
Of all the python mutations you have produced, which one is your personal favorite?
I guess I'm a little like everyone else. The thing that's newest and least common has a certain appeal for me. The new projects, like the albino retics and the granite Burmese, are some of my favorites. Both traits are beautiful and variable-and selling well. After working on a project for several years, it's very gratifying to see it finally bear fruit. As new traits become more common, it's easy after a while to forget what incredible animals some of them are. All things considered, the albino Burmese python has got to be my favorite. They're beautiful snakes, and they've done a lot for the Clark family.
Which mutation posed the most challenges to establish? Because reticulated pythons seem to be less prolific than Burmese, I bet they took a while to establish. Can you explain the differences in breeding these two species?
The albino retic project took longer than most because the original albino, an adult male, did not acclimate quickly to captivity. This snake did not feed voluntarily for two years (to the week) from its arrival in the country! Once the snake started to feed, it quickly gained weight and became a star breeder. It produced heterozygous offspring later that season. From that point, things proceeded on schedule, but before that I spent some time worrying that I'd spent a lot of money for a snake that I might awake to find dead on any given morning. If it survived, I still didn't have any guarantee that it would feel comfortable enough in its new surroundings to breed.
As for retics being less prolific, I'm not sure I agree. Although they may lay slightly smaller clutches of eggs on average, their requirements are almost identical to Burmese pythons. Captive-born retics, once mature, are not difficult snakes to reproduce. Retics are less seasonal than other pythons, and I've hatched their eggs during every month of the year.
Among the top-level herpetoculturists working with rare or unusual animals, do you believe the relationships are usually one of cooperation or direct competition? Do you find that people generally exchange information freely and support each other?
I would have to say it's mostly cooperation between people. Most of us are friends. We're happy to see the others do well and are sympathetic when they don't. We've all been on both sides of it. There is nothing wrong with competition; it's in the nature of people to be competitive. The market encourages it, and it makes us all better at what we do.
Sometimes the competition creates intense rivalries. It's unfortunate when this happens at the personal level. It's really too bad that all breeders can't demonstrate my level of maturity and professionalism (laughs).
Do you have any new color and pattern mutations that you are trying to establish right now?
My business depends, to some extent, on my ability to make new "products" available on a continuing basis. Fortunately, new mutations have shown up in the wild over the last several years, and I've been able to acquire and breed several of them.
I was recently able to prove a new recessive ball python trait to which I've given the unimaginative name "striped." This trait is not to be confused with ball pythons showing a series of connected blotches or lack of blotches down the back. The snake has a wide unbroken dorsal yellow stripe bordered in black. Otherwise, it is nearly patternless. The border of yellow and black is clean and straight. The head is unmarked and the stripe runs from the base of the head to the tip of the tail. I've produced some double heterozygous hatchlings by breeding the striped male to an albino female. In the next couple of years, I should have some striped albinos for sale. This project was a long time in the works. I got the original striped adult male in 1989, the same year I imported the original albino ball python. This snake appeared to be an older animal at the time of import. He was a sporadic feeder in the beginning and showed no interest in breeding for years after his arrival in this country.
I hope to have some smaller albino reticulated pythons available this year. These snakes have been produced by breeding the original albino to a female of one of the dwarf island races of retics. The heterozygous offspring from this cross have been bred together, and I'm now incubating their eggs. I've also made some progress in reducing the size of the tiger reticulated python. I've bred albino reticulated pythons to the tiger mutation, and in the near future I'll be able to offer both albino tiger and albino super tiger retics.
Also, several years ago, I acquired a baby female reticulated python with a beautiful yellow head and a steel blue-gray body. The snake has a broad stripe dorsally and white stripes on the sides. Earlier this year, I imported another animal, a male, with the same 'appearance. These two snakes bred almost immediately and have produced eggs. By the time this issue of REPTILES becomes available, I hope to have hatched some striped babies. These snakes are also interesting because both are less than 10 feet long. The female is at least 6 years old and the male is of unknown age. It's possible that this snake could be a dwarf type, as well.
I think one of the most exciting projects going at the moment is a new type of Burmese python I recently imported from Vietnam. The snake is a beautiful golden color and is completely lacking black pigment. Normally black areas are replaced by a dark purplish color. I think the snake may be a type of albino, although it is very different from the albino currently on the market.
In the next couple of years, I'll have some interesting combinations of traits involving the granite mutation and maybe a few other things, as well.
Bob, I never asked you about this before, but a few years back someone sent me a newspaper article about you. The article was about a young boy who had his wish granted through the generosity of the Make a Wish Foundation. His wish was to meet Bob Clark the python breeder. From the article, it was obvious that you made this kid's day. Please describe the experience.
In the spring of 1998, I got a call from the Make a Wish Foundation in Oklahoma, asking if I could help them with a project. The organization helps grant wishes to children with life-threatening medical conditions. The Make a Wish entity in Massachusetts had a boy named Matt Bartlett who was battling thyroid cancer and had asked to meet me. With the cooperation of Delta airlines and Marriott hotels, he spent a week with us here-it was all snakes all the time. I was flattered that he'd asked for me when there were so many things he could have done. We had a great time and it was good for both of us.
Have you been able to stay in contact with Matt?
Yes, he seems to be doing pretty well. We stay in touch through letters and phone calls.
You have made a significant amount of money breeding reptiles. You specialize in high-end, rare animals that you are able to sell at high prices when you first breed them and offer them for sale. Later, when numerous breeders are working with these same mutations and selling them, the prices crash because of the simple rule of supply and demand. Possessing and selling something new and exciting before everyone else jumps on the boat must pose some serious challenges. Have you found that every new python mutation is guaranteed to be a hit with serious herpers and commands the same high prices? Why do you think you've been so successful in your breeding endeavors?
In this business, rare things become common and expensive things become cheap. My landlord once, in defending a rent increase, told me that his expenses increase as mine do and, like me, he must raise his prices. I explained that his business was not like mine because, in spite of continually increasing costs, I must lower many of my prices every year! This explanation did not evoke sympathy or cause him to discount my monthly payment.
I recognize that the dynamics of the market for and price of a new mutation are a cause of concern for many potential buyers. As more of the animals are available, the price will fall. Competition among breeders brings lower prices. This is good or bad depending on the side from which you are watching or participating. I often liken the market to a pyramid. There are fewer buyers at the top willing to pay more money for the rarest animals. As the price lowers, the pyra mid broadens toward the base representing an increasing number of buyers of the same animal at lower prices.
Because many reptiles have so many offspring, it isn't long before the price starts to fall. For those concerned or worried about this process, it should be noted that the fact that the animals do have so many offspring is good insulation against the lower price. An animal purchased for a relatively high price can sustain a dramatic drop in price and still afford its owner a return measured in multiples of the original investment during the first year of breeding. If a buyer is concerned with making money from his animals, it is important first and foremost that the animals breed and produce.
Many times I have heard people say that they hope this or that project doesn't crash like the albino Burmese did. Let us imagine that a buyer bought these animals at the early price of $2,000 each. If the animals bred and produced 30 babies that sold even at today's price of about $150 each, who could complain? The snakes can be bred for the next 12 seasons, as well, and on into the future. That's hundreds of offspring. I hate to spend so much time on this, but its something people talk about a lot and something that many people don't understand.
You asked if every new trait or mutation is guaranteed to be a hit and command a high price. I think rarity-having something few others have-has an appeal to many people. I know it does for me, but I don't think this alone is enough to sustain the desirability of the animal or a high price. I think to be commercially interesting, an animal must be attractive, maybe a little difficult to obtain, and it must lend itself well to breeding in captivity.
As for my success, I think I've been lucky to obtain some of the most desirable python mutations initially, and I think I work hard. That's easy when you enjoy your work as much as I do! I work as hard to sell the animals as I do to breed them. On the business end of things, I think customer service is important. This is something I learned from my years in retail on both sides of the counter. Customers like to be treated well. I know I do! I try to make it a priority.
What python - or any herp, for that matter - do you consider to be the ideal pet?
First, I'd like to say that not every snake is suitable for every person. This goes for any pet. There's a reason its better for grandma to have a cat in her apartment than a mastiff. Not everyone is prepared to house and maintain every kind of python, either. Some captive reptiles demand more attention and care than others do. Some are more delicate in captivity, and for others, the size of the pet might be a factor.
I think any of the smaller python species-ball pythons, carpet pythons and blood pythons-are great first snakes. Most of the commonly bred colubrid species are great snakes for the inexperienced keeper. The same goes for leopard geckos and bearded dragons. In any case, the first-time keeper has a responsibility to learn as much about the animal before the purchase and prepare for it accordingly.
What advice can you give to new herp keepers who want to try their hand at breeding?
Breeding the animals we keep adds a new dimension to the experience. It's really satisfying to see eggs laid and hatch, and to see newborn snakes take their first meal. We've spent a lot of time talking about the economics of the business, but, for me, this is what it's all about.
For the first-time breeder, I'd say pick a species that you like. Try something that lends itself to breeding in captivity, something other people are breeding. Read what you can, talk to people. Find a breeder that works with the same kind of animal, ask questions and get your animals from him (not the guy who sells the same thing for $5 less and won't return your calls). Do business with the people who help you.
Where do you see herpetoculture going in the next 10 years?
I think there must be many reptiles and amphibians that would make great captives. Ten years ago, how many of us could have predicted the success of the bearded dragon? What other animals are out there that have the same potential to make great pets? What other feeder animals and insects could we be using now? What animals might we learn how to produce that we currently don't breed with regularity? We might find answers to all of these questions in the next 10 years.
I think we need to work hard to preserve our rights, to fight ill-advised local regulations that restrict our ability to pursue our interests. Ten years ago, I couldn't have predicted where we are today. I'm sure the next 10 years will hold a lot of surprises.
In closing, are there any final comments you would like to make?
I love snakes! I'm grateful every day that I enjoy my work as much as I do. It's not that the job doesn't have its own special set of headaches, but really, you can't beat the snake biz!