Proposed federal law threatens reptile breeders
Ron Greenberg’s fascination with reptiles started when he was a kid growing up in the San Fernando Valley. His parents were pioneers of sorts—among some of the first people to buy tract housing in Northridge back in the early ’60s. There weren’t any other kids around for the young Greenberg to play with when he moved into his unfinished neighborhood, so he occupied his time by collecting soda bottles for recycling at the construction sites surrounding his new home. That’s where he happened upon lizards and snakes. He was hooked.
Within a short time Greenberg was writing to American consulates in foreign countries, such as Thailand, with queries into people who sold exotic snakes. Nobody ever inquired about his age, and so at 15 he was an importer of snakes, relying on his mom to drive him from pet shop to pet shop for deliveries. A couple of years later, at 17, he was owner of the wholesaler International Wildlife Exchange in a Canoga Park shopping center. Back in those days, without the Internet or many books on the subject, Greenberg would sometimes have to take his imports to Chuck Shaw, the curator of reptiles at the San Diego Zoo, for identification.
Today, Greenberg and his wife, Donna, owners of Ron’s Reptiles, operate their ultra-niche business in reptiles (and amphibians) breeding and sales out of their nicely appointed home north of town at Cohasset and Rock Creek Road. The Greenbergs have been in the Chico area for decades, but opened up their business to the public about three years ago. There, they are raising an estimated 800 snakes and dozens of exotic lizards, along with varieties of tortoises and turtles.
The snake trade had been booming over the years for the couple, who specialize in breeding rare animals with genetic mutations that result in amazing patterns and colors. Ron, who retired after 30 years working for fiberglass manufacturer Johns Manville in Willows, has happily been doing what he loves, caring for and raising his beloved reptiles full time. But his breeding program is in jeopardy right now as he waits for word on a congressional bill that would prohibit the importation and interstate shipment of certain species of pythons, anacondas and boa constrictors.
“It would be like somebody telling you [that] you had to get rid of your dogs because it’s illegal,” said Greenberg, owner of Tango, a 240-pound, 17-foot-long female Burmese python.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Florida) introduced Senate Bill 373 last year as a way to keep large, non-native reptiles out of the Everglades. In 2009 alone, the National Park Service removed 367 Burmese pythons in and around Everglades National Park. The park may be a long way from Chico, but Greenberg said the pending federal law would cripple outfits the world over—from a local Durham man who builds custom cages to the light-bulb manufacturers overseas.
Greenberg sells to everyone from hobbyists to collectors, and also to others interested in snake husbandry and making a profit from breeding the reptiles.
“It’s not just me. I’m not the largest breeder, but I’m not the smallest,” he said. “There are people who have mortgaged their homes with the hopes of the cha-ching—hitting the jackpot.”
Greenberg may not be the biggest breeder in the biz, but his operation has certainly caught the eye of a lot of folks. In May, the business was featured in Reptiles magazine, and it figured prominently in a recent front-page story in the Wall Street Journal headlined “Bear Market in Boas: Proposed Laws Strangle the Sales of Mutant Snakes.”
During a recent tour of Ron’s Reptiles, Greenberg showed off some of his prized creatures, including a hypo Brazilian rainbow boa, a beautiful designer snake with iridescent scales that change colors depending on the light. Another valuable snake is his rare sun-glow boa constrictor. The Greenbergs paid $10,000 for the light-yellow snake as a baby and are hoping to successfully breed the animal. The Bay Area breeder who sold the snake reportedly made $200,000 from his animals’ first batch of babies—or clutch. But the snake would be illegal to ship out of state under the pending legislation, which Greenberg estimates would cut out 80 percent of his market.
Greenberg acknowledged that the situation in the Everglades is problematic. However, he thinks SB 373 will only contribute to the trouble, since people will be more likely to release their snakes into the wild if they aren’t able to sell them across state lines. Instead, he favors a permitting and micro-chipping program that would help trace the creatures back to their owners.
Greenberg has traveled to several countries to see rare reptiles, including venomous creatures, and it’s apparent that Ron’s Reptiles is a labor of love. In fact, he shares his passion for the creatures by holding educational demonstrations at local schools and events, including the annual Endangered Species Faire. That’s something that may be temporary, though, if he and other breeders cannot maintain their stock.
“I’m upset for the kids—for the future generations that won’t have this opportunity,” he said.