The wonder years
I was fascinated with monster movies when I was a kid, and Godzilla was a favourite. The closest I could get to chasing dinosaurs was to look for reptiles in my local woodlands in New Jersey. By the early 1970s, when I was 16, my family had moved to Florida and the number of herps available to find in my backyard went from a handful to dozens of different species. Within six months I’d got my driving licence and travelled all over Florida looking for animals. Moving to Florida and getting a car opened the floodgates for my reptile craze. Then, one day I saw a classified advert in a fishing and hunting magazine for the National Herpetological Society based in California. In reality, I’m pretty sure it was just one guy publishing any clippings he found in the press, but at the back of the society’s newsletter was a section where members would list the reptiles they had available. I sent off dozens of letters in the mail every week, arranging swaps with other herpers from other states. I’d get hold of a field guide from a specific state or area and make contact with someone in the society who was based there and could get me the species I wanted. Soon I was in touch with reptile enthusiasts from all over the USA and, predictably, my collection of reptiles just grew and grew.
Around that time Miami was a major port for reptile importers and dealers. I’d visit them as shipments came in to cherry-pick the best animals, adding non-native species to my ever growing collection. It was a seminal time which laid the foundations for the keeping and breeding of reptiles all over the world, and lit a fire in me which has never gone out.
Life on the road
By 1976 I was travelling all over the USA looking for and collecting reptiles. One day I stopped at the mall to buy a field guidefor whatever area I was in and there, in the mall, was a reptile exhibition. I chatted for a while with the people who ran the exhibition before going off to buy the guide and find more snakes. A few weeks later the exhibition came to Florida, so I went along to meet up with them again. One of the owners of the exhibition was Kathy, who I later married. But, before that, I managed to get a job with them travelling around the USA with the exhibition, spending the next two years on the road.
During that time I got to meet some of the most important herpers in the USA as we visited zoos and wildlife parks with the show. This was around the time when keepers and zoos were starting to breed reptiles more consistently, and building my list of reptile-expert contacts proved to be invaluable in the years to come. Eventually we grew weary of the nomadic lifestyle so we began looking for ways to work with reptiles that didn’t involve so much travel.
Tom Crutchfield and Glades Herps
The 1980s were a really busy time for us. Kathy and I settled down in Florida and set about building up a decent-sized breeding project featuring mainly colubrid species. In the meantime, I went to work for Tom Crutchfield. Crutchfield was already one of the largest and best-known reptile importers and wholesalers in the USA and I got involved in everything I could, from unpacking shipments, housing and maintaining the animals, packing orders and anything and everything that needed doing. I spent a few years there at around the same time that Tom acquired the infamous Albino Burmese Pythons. He had two males and a female and had a tough time attempting to breed them. Eventually he sold one of the male albinos to Bob Clarke, and the rest is history.
At around the same time we became friends with Rob MacInnes. He was working at Pet Farm, one of the other big reptile import businesses and, between us we had a lot of knowledge and experience under our belts. We hatched a plan to start a similar business of our own and, by 1989 Rob and I became partners to create Glades Herps. Selling cherrypicked imported reptiles and any captive-bred animals we could buy, the business became well-known and successful rather quickly. Our reptile livestock price list was legendary and we’d send it out to businesses and keepers all over the world – which was a mammoth task in those days before email and the internet. Printed on our trademark green paper, the list featured information about the animals we had available. 5000 lists were folded, stapled, put in an envelope, stamped and addressed by hand – a process which took several of us 200 hours over the course of a weekend every month.
The list, by the standards of the day, was enormous and featured some of the most sought after animals of the era. You name it, we probably stocked it at one time or another. In fact we probably stocked a dozen or more. Eventually the list would not fit on one sheet of paper. However, it wasn’t enough for two pages, so I fi led the remaining space on the page with a column of text I called ‘Shop Talk’. I’d talk about what we were up to and answer any questions we might get about the animals we offered, often adding photographs to accompany the text. We wanted people to take the list to read on the toilet and keep them there until their legs went numb. By all accounts, it worked!
In 1975 I got a call from a construction crew who had found a ‘white snake’ on their site. I was expecting a Pygmy Rattlesnake or a young Eastern Diamondback. Back then, few people had seen albinos or colour morphs and white snakes were unheard of, so I wasn’t expecting anything other than one of those typically light-coloured snakes.
The construction workers arrived at my house with a toolbox in which they had caught the critter. When they opened it I knew straight away that it was something special – a white, assumedly leucistic, Eastern Diamondback. I named the animal Snowflake.
Snowflake turned out to be a female and I raised her to be about five foot long before bringing in some normal Eastern Diamondbacks to mate her with. Unfortunately I never managed to get any babies and, ten years later, I sold Snowflake to Tom Crutchfield, along with the normal males I had, for around $2500. The snake lived for around a year and a half and then, for seemingly no reason, died unexpectedly. The world will have to wait a little longer for a white Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake, it seems.
Soon my ramblings on the price list got noticed by Reptiles magazine and they asked me to write a column each month. This was 1992 and I still write that column today. By 1996 the business was doing great, but I was getting tired of dealing with people. I’d stopped enjoying running a business and wanted to get back to what got me started in the first place – the animals. I’d come to realise that writing about reptiles and taking photos was a lot more fun than running a reptile business. So I decided to sell our shares in Glades Herp to Rob.
Writing and photography
I started taking pictures of animals way back when we were running the touring reptile exhibition in the 1970s. I still have thousands of slides taken at zoos and herpetological collections in each of the local areas we visited. Back then a friend of mine met an author who was writing a field guide and was in need of images of different reptile species, so he put us in touch. The author used dozens of my photographs and I netted $1600 – quite a decent amount of money in those days.
Glades Herps was another fantastic opportunity to take photographs of reptile species. I had a small photographic studio there and would spend hours taking shots of the interesting reptiles we had in stock over the years. I think having a good knowledge of reptile behaviour is a huge advantage if you want to take photographs of these animals. All too often you see images which show unnatural behaviour. You see lots of shots that have obviously been taken just seconds after a snake has been sheltering under a tub. You can tell because the snake is still sitting in the same shape as the tub was. Pictures of animals doing what comes naturally are much more engaging, and that’s what I try to do.
My catalogue of images came to great use when I began writing and presenting for a living. I’ve written for a great many reptile magazines over the years, in the USA, UK, Europe and other parts of the world.
Madagascar and beyond
My company, Blue Chameleon Ventures was started on the back of my fascination with Madagascar. It started in the late 1980s when I met Olaf Pronk, a Dutch national who became a specialist herpetologist and exporter in Madagascar. Glades Herp was one of the first companies in the USA to import from Madagascar during the early 90s, bringing in spectacular species that hadn’t been seen in the hobby for generations. Panther Chameleons, Parson’s Chameleons, Day Geckos, Leaf-Tailed Geckos and much more. Snakes were difficult to import because most Malagasy people are afraid of them, despite the fact that there are no venomous species there.
We bought in a few shipments and realised we were onto a good thing, so I arranged to go over to Madagascar to learn more about the specific habitats these animals came from, and also to cement our relationship with Olaf Pronk. The trip was a dream come true for any reptile keeper – I was finding more animals than I could photograph! Radiated Tortoises, Sanzinia, Ground Boas and chameleons seemingly hanging from every tree. I was in heaven! I immediately started thinking about how amazing it would be to bring herpers out to Madagascar to see all of these fabulous animals in the wild. Few of the herpers I knew had ever been, and it was obvious they were missing out.
Over the coming years I led 12 trips to Madagascar with tour groups and I’ve explored most of the country. It was on Olaf’s recommendation that we went to explore Ambanja and it was mind blowing to see the spectacular chameleons you can find there. I think I put Ambanja on the map. Sadly, Olaf Pronk is no longer with us. He died just a couple of days after I sent him my autobiography. He was a great friend of mine and I often wonder if he read what I wrote about him before he died.
I’ve also been herping in Brazil, Peru, Mexico and many parts of Europe. I’ve been to Russia three times, Australia four times and, of course, all over the USA. A few fi eld trips stand out in my mind as being particularly special. Visiting New Caledonia with Phillipe De Vosjoli in 1997 was one I’ll always remember. We found countless geckos of all kinds – it was amazing. Phillipe offered me a few Cresties when we got back to the USA, but I turned them down because, at the time, I was only really keeping snakes. Looking back perhaps it wasn’t the best business decision I ever made, but I guess the money doesn’t matter really. Another trip that stands out is one where I went to Madagascar, Mauritius and Round Island with Jim Pether and Tony Jones.
We went to a small, uninhabited island off the north coast of Madagascar for a few days before flying out to Mauritius to visit an Aldabra Tortoise farm, and then caught a lift in the government’s Military Police helicopter to visit Round Island – which is supposed to be closed to non-scientific visitors, but somehow we managed to arrange a trip there. If you haven’t heard of Round Island you should look it up and then you’ll understand how special that trip was. I’ve recently returned from Paraguay too. I was looking for Tricoloured Hognose Snakes because Kathy and I breed these in our collection. I found lots of amazing animals, but didn’t find any of the hognose unfortunately.
Embarrassingly I ended up in hospital there and had to cut the trip short after being bitten by a small Cat Eyed Snake (Leptodeira annulata). I found it crossing the road and, knowing they’re not particularly dangerous, I picked it up. Predictably, it bit me and chewed on my hand for a while. I wasn’t that worried at the time, but in retrospect I should have stopped it biting. I’m guessing I got a decent dose because it made me quite ill with neurotoxic effects.
The Loves today
Kathy and I left Florida in 2011 to set up home in Arizona. We felt like were were ready for a new adventure and we wanted to spend some time in a different climate. We bought a small property way outside Phoenix in a place called Apache Junction. We’re still breeding reptiles, focusing on Tricoloured Hognose snakes. I’m not sure if you see them much in the UK, although I know there are a few breeders in Europe producing them.
They’re cool pets, and many people believe they’re a colour morph of the more common Western Hognose. Of course, they’re not related, but they look like a cross between a Western Hog and a Milksnake. I think they’re one of the most exciting things in the modern market, particularly because they offer everything a designer colour morph does, but they’re like that in the wild. We sell most of ours to breeders who are looking to set up with this species. I’m always reluctant to say any animal might be the hobby’s next big thing, but this species is certainly increasing in popularity in the USA.
I’m lucky to have had quite an adventurous life and have amassed a few good stories in my time. People were always telling me I should write a book and, about two years ago, I made a start. ‘Reptile Odyssey – Adventures of a Herp–Oriented Life’ is about my journey across the herp hobby and industry over the past 50 years. I’m very pleased with how it came out, featuring well over 200 quality photos. Many friends and acquaintances are pictured and mentioned, plus oodles of stories of triumph, pain embarrassment and humour of a herpetological flavour. Up and coming herpers will likely learn a lot from my life, and seasoned herpers will chuckle and wince at what are bound to be many analogies in their own lives. Copies ordered directly from Kathy and I are $29.95 per book, plus postage of $35 per copy for International Priority Mail to Europe. I will personally sign every book purchased from me, of course. You can order via PayPal by using Kathy Love’s email address: email@example.com.
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