December 31, 2016

This Should Have Been a Happy Post About 2016

This should be a post about how my 2016 went.

It should be a post about how despite the multitude of tragic celebrity deaths, the majority of the year was truly wonderful for me. I should be writing about my wedding. I should be writing about moving to Lakewood, falling in love with the city, how we’re considering saving up for a house. I should be making jokes about my baby fever being the Plague of 2016 (well, next to ebola…bad joke.) And I should be posting about how I accomplished or failed to accomplish my goals for this year, and summing up my hopes for 2017; eating better, exercising, maybe a big life change or two.

But I can’t write about those things just now.

Instead, I have to get something off my chest. Something that has been festering within me, infecting my every thought, destroying my appetite, and keeping me awake at night.

December 7, 2016

ON ABORTION: A Calm, Non-Political Discussion of my Stance

            Because why shouldn’t my first post in months and possibly my last post of this simultaneously horrendous and awesome year be about one of the most controversial topics in this hot mess of a country?

September 23, 2016

Married Life: Week 1

For those of you who missed, it, I got fucking married last Saturday!
Courtesy of Jamie Dalesandro Photography

September 5, 2016

What's With Your Ball Python Obsession?

            My Facebook newsfeed is full of commentary about racial tensions, lack of media attention to the Dakota pipeline protest, a disgusting rapist being released from jail after 3 freaking months, dying honeybees, outrage over an NFL football player daring to peacefully protest about major problems in our country, and the fact that they’re turning Moulin Rouge into a stage musical.

            So, which topic should I choose to discuss on my blog today?

            Ball pythons, of course!

            Look, kids. There are so many terrible things that the media is harping on right now (yes, including Moulin Rouge, I’m allowed to hate it, dammit!) and I have a tendency to sop up everyone else’s fear and outrage and mix it into an anxiety soup that I marinate in until I’m so freaked out about the world that I want to go live in a cave as far away from society as possible. On top of that, I’m getting married in two weeks, and I have my first interview after a solid month and a half of unemployment. I’m pretty tapped out emotionally, so you’ll have to forgive me if instead of leaping into the fray of this or that controversy, I’d rather take an emotional breather and write about something light and fluffy.

            Or rather, slender and scaly.

            So, beginning on a sad note, in 2015, I lost my sweet serpent, Prometheus, to a massive bacterial infection. I’ve blamed myself for misinterpreting the warning signs, and I was so shattered by his death that I was fairly certain I would never be able to hold a snake again without bursting into tears, let alone add another one to the family. I’m still heartbroken and wracked with guilt over his passing, which is why I don’t like to linger on the topic.
I miss him so much.

            A few months ago, though, I began to feel a familiar tug in my chest. I’ve had snakes in some form for most of my adult life, and I developed an affinity for them that is probably the closest thing to “spiritual” I’ve ever felt. Being an atheist and a woman of science, I feel absolutely ridiculous saying that, but it is what it is. I know there’s a reason for the way I feel about snakes that is rooted in my psychology rather than some fictional otherworldly source, but that doesn’t change the fact that snakes definitely trigger that part of the human brain that looks at sunsets and murmurs, ‘what a miracle.’ I feel a deep connection to most animals (go ahead, ask me about my dogs some time, I dare you,) but with snakes, it’s almost like they connect with the most primal part of my brain. The feeling of cool scales coiled around my arm, the strength of their grip, is instantly soothing to me. I lose myself staring at the pattern of infinite scales, at their simultaneously alien and familiar eyes. I am fascinated by their bodies, marvels of evolution, sleek and streamlined and so utterly devoid of strange evolutionary holdbacks, like the human appendix or the legs of a whale (look it up.) I love how completely and utterly different they are from us, the pink and squishy primates who believe we rule this world. We couldn’t be more different and still both be animal, and yet we share the same planet, we are made up of the same components. I’m also fascinated by the human reaction to them, and how loved and hated they are in various mythologies, healers or villains, symbols of knowledge and immortality or deception and damnation, creators of the world or the Devil himself.
Veve (symbol) of Damballah, the great white snake
and most respected loa in Haitian Vodou.
He is also my favourite thing about Vodou.
Temptation of Eve, which I still maintain
Christians should consider a good thing.

            All right, enough romanticizing. The plain and simple fact is that I like snakes to a borderline weird degree, and a few months ago, I started thinking about whether or not I could handle having one in my life again. I did a lot of soul searching, internet browsing, went to a reptile show, and finally, the ultimate test: I held the first ball python since Prometheus. I did not burst into tears. Instead my heart swelled. I brushed my finger along his sides, peeped between his coils to see his little face (he was shy,) and I knew that I was going to get another snake. So I scooped up the little guy, grabbed the nearest aquarium tank, and told the guy at the reptile store to shut up and take my money, and lived happily ever after with my lovely new sentient noodle. Right?

            Actually, no. It will probably be a very long time before I actually own another snake.

            Let’s talk about ball pythons!

            I won’t go into an origin story, but ball pythons are a smallish species of snake that originated in sub-Saharan Africa. They are the most popular species of snake to keep as a pet. Why?

Temperament: Bps are possibly the most docile snakes ever. They tolerate handling with grace (and sometimes lethargy,) are rarely aggressive, and, when faced with a perceived threat, curl into a ball and bury their face deep in their coils, hence their name.

Size: Adult Bps average out to 3-5 feet, depending on their gender, in adulthood. They’re not very thick, either, at least compared to other popular household snakes like Red Tailed Boas and Reticulated Pythons. They remain a manageable size. Paired with the aforementioned chill attitude, and you have a winning combination for a house reptile.

Morphs: Glorious, glorious morphs! Morphs are the various colours and patterns that snakes come in, and holy shit, the possibilities with ball pythons seem infinite. Bps come in countless shades and patterns with some pretty silly names: Banana, Caramel, Clown, Toffino, Harlequin, Pied, Spider, Butter, Mojave, Pinstripe, and countless combinations of them all! Hatchlings come out brightly coloured and typically fade, or “brown out,” as they get bigger. Morphs are a big reason so many people collect Bps like trading cards—and sell the new and exciting morphs at ridiculous prices, to boot.

Ease of Care: Depending on where you live, Bps are very easy to care for. They need a hot and a cool side of the enclosure at certain temperatures and humidity levels, an appropriately sized mouse or rat once a week or so, some water, and a hide, and they are good to go. Other snake species, particularly those from rainforest climates, are much higher maintenance in the housing department.

They are also remarkably tolerant of tiny silly hats!

            So if it’s so easy to obtain and care for a ball python, and I seem to be obsessed with them, why don’t I have one yet? Well, the short answer is money. The long answer is that I want to make sure I do things right this time.

            Remember a paragraph I go, when I said that ball pythons are easy to care for? Well…it can be a bit more complicated than that. I could easily go to Petco and grab a glass enclosure, either an aquarium with a mesh lid or one of the “reptile” enclosures that are essentially the same thing but priced higher. If I lived in Florida, Texas, or Louisiana, I could easily house a ball python in a glass enclosure like that, year round, with very little issue. But I live in Ohio. Unlike the aforementioned states, Ohio is not warm and humid year-round. A ball python enclosure must have humidity levels at 55-60% in order to ensure a healthy snake. Glass enclosures do not hold humidity well.

            “But Dee!” I hear an outcry from my imaginary readers, “My friend/sister/neighbor/dealer has a ball python in a class tank, and he’s just fine!”

            I hear you, my invisible ones. I know many people who successfully keep their ball pythons in glass enclosures and have no issue with humidity. How they do it in certain areas, at certain times of the year, is a mystery to me. When I lived in Columbus with Prometheus, maintaining humidity was doable. After extensive research, I tried a few tricks for glass enclosures and found that keeping a slightly damp towel covering half of the lid helped keep the humidity at the desirable level. However, it was a pain. I had to dampen the towel twice a day, make sure the bedroom door was always open and the windows always closed, and constantly keep an eye on the levels in the tank. Winter was especially tough, but we got through it.

            Then I moved to Bowling Green, whose winter weather is comparable to beyond The Wall in Game of Thrones. Winters are long, brutal, and relentless. My careful system fell apart completely. I couldn’t keep the humidity levels above 20%. I ended up having to switch Prometheus to a plastic bin, which held better humidity, but by then, my poor serpent was already sick. I just didn’t know it.

BGSU in February.
            As the vet who did his necropsy said, I will never know how Prometheus contracted the bacterial infection that killed him, but my struggle to maintain the humidity in his tank was, in my opinion, a very likely factor. Ball pythons are magnificent creatures, but they are so easily stressed. Improper temperature and humidity levels very easily lead to a stressed snake, stress lowers their immune system, and very quickly you’ll have a sick snake.

            This time around, I want to make temperature and humidity levels my bitches. I’m not fucking around. Ball python collectors and breeders tend to use the rack system to house their ball pythons. Rack systems are stacks of plastic bins on a heated shelf, very small, with a hide and a bowl of water, and often no bedding. Ball pythons are terrestrial snakes; they like to spend their days chilling underground in old rodent holes and abandoned termite hills; so the rack system, which may seem cruel to a layman, is actually an extremely comfortable and effective system for them. The size of each enclosure makes maintaining the right environment very easy. However, when you are not a collector or a breeder, but are keeping one or two ball pythons as pets, racks leave little to be desired. You can’t see your snake unless you pull out the bin, and having a rack in your home looks less like a snake enclosure and more like a cheap dresser for your out-of-season clothes. Racks are also way too big, in my opinion, for one snake. I have a feeling that I’d start to look at all of the empty slots and think, “…maybe my snake needs a few friends…”

Common rack system.

            Luckily for snake mamas like me, there is a happy medium between rack and tank that makes both mama and her baby serpent happy: PVC enclosures.

            PVC is an excellent way to maintain a proper environment for a snake and let their human companions observe them at the same time. PVC enclosures are dark, solid but for one glass wall (ball pythons like to be hidden; this is another reason glass enclosures tend to stress them out. I covered three of the four walls of Prometheus’s tank with black poster board to make him more comfortable.) The PVC itself makes maintaining temperature and humidity levels very easy, even in somewhat less-than-tropical areas, like Northern Ohio. This time around, I’m using PVC.
Except I'll only have one snake.
....for now.
            I also want to get the right equipment for maintaining my new baby’s climate. Again, surprise, surprise, the heat lamps and under tank heaters you get from the pet store aren’t the best option. They can get the job done, sure, but they are very temperamental and it is very difficult to control their output. This time around, I want to get a Herpstat for complete control in maintaining the temperature and humidity, a high end thermometer/hygrometer, a radiant heat panel, which is much better than an under tank heater—UTH—for heating the enclosure properly, and veterinary disinfectant for cleaning (warm water and soap is the way I used to clean the tank, and I was fastidious, but Prometheus caught a bacterial infection, so I want to know that I am killing ALL THE BACTERIA.) Add to that a couple of hides, a water dish, and a little light for observation, and I will have the perfect, safe, cozy little home for my new serpent.

            And by my calculations, that perfect, safe, cozy little home will cost me $300-500, depending on where I shop and how I cut corners (fun fact: I won’t be cutting corners.)

            Is this overkill? Maybe, but many expert breeders and owners house their snakes in this way, and my research has concluded that it is the best option for me and my future baby. Losing Prometheus was devastating. I will never fully forgive myself for it, and I don’t ever want to lose a snake because of my own inability to house him properly, keep him stress-free, whatever happened. I want to give my new snake the best possible chance of staying healthy and happy, and if that means I’m going to have to wait a long time and save up a lot of money before I can get him/her, it’s more than worth it.

I feel terrible that I can't find a source for these adorable comics.

            Another reason it will be a while before I bring a legless sweetheart into my home is that I need to freaking decide what morph I want already, and find it at the right priced. I’m not kidding when I say that ball python morphs are almost countless: It’s kind of ridiculous how many different patterns and colours are out there. Prometheus was an Ivory ball python, a remarkably white one, at that. He was breathtaking, and I don’t regret him for a second, but Ivory isn’t actually one of my favourite morphs. I’ve always been partial to the Spider gene, particularly hypo bees. It sounds like I’m talking gibberish, yes, but here’s a picture of one of the variations I’m talking about.

Hello, gorgeous.

            Freaking beautiful, right? Spiders are known to have a “wobble,” though: A genetic defect tied to the morph that causes their little heads to shake back and forth. The wobble can be barely noticeable, but it can also be severe, but a wobble being so severe that it interferes with the snake’s wellbeing is extremely rare. Most of them just have a little sway going on when they lift their heads to look at you or to go for a mouse. I’m fine with a little wobble, but I am worried about purchasing a snake online because I can’t see how much wobble they may have before purchasing. This is why finding a reputable breeder is important.

            My other favourite morph is a recently new one, and therefore pretty freaking expensive. The GHI Mojave ball python is absolutely breathtaking: Mostly a very dark snake, it is so brown that hatchlings appear nearly black. Each GHI Mojave bp has an absolutely stunning pattern of blazing bright yellow/gold markings down their backs. My mouth dropped open when I first saw a GHI Mojave bp years ago. It hit the floor when I saw the $3000 price tag. Fuck, I would love one of the most expensive morphs available, wouldn’t I? Lucky for me, though, it’s been a few years since the GHI gene was discovered, so the hatchlings have dropped significantly in price. I still see the average hovering around $6-800, though, so if I decide to get that particular morph, I’ll be saving up for a very long time.
Be still, my heart. <3
            These are favourites of mine, but by no means are they definitely going to be the ball python I end up with. Nearly every day I’m on the picture page of the ball python forum I’m a part of, I see a new morph that I absolutely love, or variants of morphs that I love. I’m partial to the Butter/Lesser genes, which bring a beautiful yellow blushing to any morph, but I also adore the Caramel gene. When I was considering getting Prometheus a mate, a Caramel Albino Spider was number one on my list.

However, one major complication with morphs is how they change over time. Ball python hatchlings across the board are brightly coloured and boldly patterned. Bananas practically glow. Bumblebees steal your breath with their bold black and yellow contrast. Every morph is breathtaking in hatchling form. Unfortunately, much like we do, as a snake gets older, its youthful beauty begins to fade. Colours become dull (they call it “browning out”,) patterns lose their contrast. It’s a sad fact of the ball python world.

Bumblebee hatchling

Bumblebee adult

Some morphs don’t change at all: The white ones. Yes, that’s all. The rest of them tend to lose their colour. For a pet owner like myself, this purely aesthetic change isn’t the worst thing in the world, but honestly, if I’m going to spend a few hundred bucks on a beautiful morph, I want it to stay beautiful, dammit, or at least like the way it changes.  I don’t want to drop 400 bucks on a Honeybee morph only to have it look like a regular old Spider in two years! My research on morphs that retain their colour has been maddeningly inconsistent. Some genes age consistently badly: Bumblebees, Albinos, and Lessers (sad Dee!) all brown out and dull considerably. Some claim that any morph with Hypo added to it only gets better with age, that Ghost and Fire genes maintain their blushing. Some say that any morph “with good genes” or “from a responsible breeder” are unlikely to fade at all (I call bullshit on this particular theory.) To add to the madness of morph aging research, ball python breeding is an insatiable practice. It is ridiculously fast paced. Two years ago, Bananas were going for upwards of 10 grand, and now you can get a male for $350 because a new morph took its place as the Hottest Thing! Some morphs are so new that it is impossible to find a photo of a full grown adult to see how the morph ages. I have yet to see a photo of a GHI Mojave ball python over 1500 grams. Do they fade? Do they get darker? Do their gorgeous golden spots brown out? Who knows! Buy a Pied for $2000! They’re all the rage!
This little guy's a Banana morph. Hence the sticker.
In all likelihood, I think I will end up going to a reptile show after I’ve bought and tested out the enclosure and components, and buy the little snake that melts my heart at the right time. And who’s in my budget. I found Prometheus online, but his photo and a description from the breeder was what sold him. I may hold out for a Hypo Queen Bee or take a risk and see how my beloved GHI Mojave ages for myself, but I think the reptile show thing will be more likely. Looking at endless photos of hatchlings of various morphs online kind of numbs you to the fact that, regardless of morph, ball pythons are one of the most beautiful creatures on this planet. Holding that ball python at the pet store reminded me of that. He was a simple single gene Butter ball python, maybe 800 grams, and I couldn’t stop staring at him.

To conclude…I’m tired of all of the terrible things that everyone wants to talk and talk and talk and talk about, and so are you, if you’re reading this sentence, because you just read a 3000 word rant about snakes.

You’re welcome.

BONUS SIDE NOTE! I realize that I didn’t mention gender as a factor in getting a ball python. Though some will disagree with me, in my research and experience, there is no discernable difference between a male and female python temperamentally. Breeders will argue with me on this, but I think that is because they often deal with gravid and laying females. If you’re not planning on breeding, in all likelihood, you won’t see a difference. I have seen a lot of speculation about males being more likely problem eaters and females being less amendable to handling, but every one of these posts I’ve looked at dissolve into bickering and inconsistencies.

There are only two big differences in males and females: Price and average size. As with many snake species, the female ball python is the bigger beast; while her mate averages out at four feet, she usually gets to five, and some have claimed to have a female who comes close to six feet! There are some variances—for example, my friend Kitty’s Spider bp, Apollo, is gigantic for a male—but on average, girls are bigger. This fact draws me to females, because if I end up with a ball python of a particularly calm temperament who is less prone to stress, I will not deny the possibility of belly dancing with them, and a larger snake will have a bit more oomph for an audience. However, females are also where the money is, because the ladies make the ever-lucrative babies. Depending on the morph, the difference in price between a male and a female can vary from $50 to holy-shit-are-you-serious-they’re-the-same-fucking-snake-you-asshole. So that’s another thing to think about while I save up for my next scaly familiar.