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07.22.09

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Phaedra

Photograph by Jenn Ireland
Hue Dunnit: Tristan Loofbourrow with Cu-Tip (left), an albino ball python, and a valuable piebald python.

Serpents and the Rainbow

Snake breeders in pursuit of every color imaginable

By Jessica Lussenhop


UNDERNEATH the front porch of a house in Santa Cruz--the kind of comfy family home that has very thick wall-to-wall carpeting--there is a secret room accessible by a crude path of boards laid over the steep dirt incline under the deck. "They're out of the house, in here," says Brad Loofbourrow as his 13-year-old son Tristan opens the door to the small, hot room. This is where Tristan keeps Ellen, Rachel, Shelby, Bruce, Sahra and H.P. "He names them all," says Brad. "They're his friends."

It doesn't look like much at first--like shelving units with plastic drawers. But then Tristan pulls out a drawer and removes a black snake with large spots along its long, slick skin. It lazily coils itself around his hand, black tongue flicking in and out. "This is my first ball python," he says. "It's like an addiction. When you have a snake, you can't have just one."

Tristan keeps about 20 snakes, mostly ball pythons, but also a red-tailed boa, a couple of long, pencil-thin garter snakes named Sid and Nancy and three mildly venomous hognose snakes. "They're so docile," says Brad. "We bring them up and they watch TV with us."

Lawrence Stowbunenko, who keeps about 25 snakes in a spare bedroom at his home in the Royal Oaks area south of Aromas, agrees. "They're generally pretty friendly. I'd rather be bitten by one of my snakes than a kitten--that hurts quite a bit more," he says.

Caring for snakes, in particular the ball pythons, has evolved into a hobby, a community and--for some--a lucrative business enterprise. The craze, says Nik Johnson, resident reptile expert at Trop-Aquarium pet shop on the Westside of Santa Cruz, started several years back. "There was a huge fad with high-end, designer ball pythons," he says. "That's where the money was. You can make some really cool-looking snakes."

The trick lies in the fact that ball pythons exhibit polymorphism--or clear and different phenotypes within the same species--which are inheritable, as opposed to the result of some genetic fluke. While a "normal" ball python has a black and brown color pattern, many carry genes for a variety of wild and gorgeous color combinations.

Some, like Tristan's python Cu-Tip, come out albino, a white and butterscotch color with red eyes and tongue. Others have milkier spots and are known as "pastel." "Bumblebees" are yellow and black. The list goes on: killer bee, spider, clown, snow, cinnamon. And within the snake community there is a heated arms race to produce never-before-seen color combinations and genetic pedigrees.

"This is our prized possession," says Brad as Tristan lifts a "piebald" python from its drawer. "This is the latest thing." The snake is almost completely snow white, with patches where it looks as if someone painted a snakeskin pattern on. It's like a pinto horse. Only not.

Breeding the morphs, as they're called, has created a unique community of snake aficionados. Stowbunenko's wife, Yolanda, says this is what drew her into her husband's hobby. "I've met a lot of really nice people in the snake community," she says.

Some of that comes from trading or loaning snakes for breeding purposes. Though snakes like the piebald or albino can run over $1,000, it's possible to buy normal ball pythons for a few hundred dollars that carry the genes for other colors and patterns, then breed them in the hopes of producing a more exotic and therefore more expensive snake.

For the Stowbunenkos, who bred their own albino, it's a living lesson in genetics for their two kids. Yolanda remembers hovering over the eggs at the close of their eight-week incubation period. "When the clutch came out we had a few pastel ones and one albino, and we went 'Yes!' It was so exciting," she says. Tristan hopes to create a variety called a "pink pastel hypo" hognose snake. "It's only been done once. That would be almost priceless," he says.

But like any alternative lifestyle, this one has its share of troubles. Yolanda says she has two sisters who won't set foot in her house. "Some people think we're anti-religious," she says. "And one lady just flipped out and said, 'You're so disgusting, you're not afraid for your kids?' like I'm a bad mother." And there is sometimes dissonance within the community as well--while Tristan keeps a "spider" ball python, Yolanda says some believe the morph is a carrier for a Parkinson's-like neurological disease. Scammers worm their way into the community to steal snakes in bogus breeding trades, making off with $7,000 pythons. And while in this down economy it's a buyer's market, Trop-Aquarium's Johnson warns that the snake bubble may have burst about a year ago.

"Supply became greater than demand," he says. "I'd say don't expect to make too much money."

Tristan, who hopes to start his own local business called Snake Pistols Breeding Co. after his first garters, throws open a mini fridge, explaining another community rift--live rats vs. dead. He prefers frozen, and the fridge's contents are arguably a far more disturbing sight than any of the snakes.

With a long pair of tongs he grasps a thawed white rat and dangles it over Sahra, a huge 5-foot-5-inch ball python. She wheels around and snaps up the flattened rat, coiling around it and squeezing, then nibbling at its pink tail. When Tristan goes to shut the drawer, she suddenly rears up. "Whoa," he says backing off. "Get your spray bottle," says Brad. "It's on the other side of her," says Tristan. Sahra eyes him suspiciously, then slowly pulls her prey into the drawer. Tristan closes it gingerly. "Oh my gosh," laughs Brad. "That was lucky."

Occupational hazard, Tristan assures us. Besides, he's only been bitten once.


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