MONEY ON THE SCALES
Is it possible to make money from reptiles?
A New Market?
There is no doubt that there has been an explosion in the career of herpetoculture in the past few years. What was once very much a minority and sometimes ill-thought-out hobby or study has now become quite noticeable, with more and more people (especially the young) keeping snakes, lizards or other herps (reptiles and amphibians) and more shops and other outlets stocking them. There are also established companies selling products for the herp market, notably UV lights, vivaria, heat mats and thermostats and other accessories. More recently, more people seem to be selling livestock as small companies or individuals, as the classified columns in any herpetological magazine will testify.
This article addresses two groups who may be tempted to go for gold but who could be in danger of getting egg on their faces: the private breeder and seller, and the pet shop. This is not to discourage either from breeding reptiles (or importing, although breeding is preferable) or selling them, but simply to point out a few pitfalls.
Pet shops are still a primary outlet for most reptile purchases despite competition from specialists and private breeders. To a certain degree this is natural as they can perform economies of scale: they already have the premises, access to holding facilities at retail prices, and similarly the ability to bulk buy the food needed for these animals at bulk prices. Likewise they presumably have links with importers or primary wholesalers of stock. Nevertheless if you are a pet shop owner who has not had much to do with reptiles up to now, I urge you to consider the following:
- Knowledge. It should go without saying that, ethics aside, it is bad business sense to try to sell a product (if one can use that word about an animal) about which one knows very little, either about the individual species or the class of animals as a whole. If so far you have been accustomed to selling mainstream pets such as cats, hamsters and budgerigars, then you have a learning curve before you should start to sell snakes or lizards, or even the old family favourite, the tortoise. While reptiles have a good deal in common with mammal pets in that they are all vertebrates (as are fish, birds and amphibians!), they also have some important differences. It may be good news for the customer that the snake only eats once a week, for example, but are you aware that most lizards require ultra-violet light (and not just the fluorescent strip lights sold for fish tanks)? If you sell geckos, do you know where they come from, what their ideal environment in captivity is, and whether they can climb walls? A customer will not be amused if he buys a Tokay Gecko for his young daughter only to find it bites her hard every time she tries to stroke it. Likewise, reptilian young grow proportionately much larger to their original size than do mammalian young. A cute young iguana or boa may grow to ultimately become a burden on a customer, or if it is not sold, on you. Also, without knowledge of the species involved, you may find yourself talked into taking a group of reptiles that actually turn out to make very poor captives and thus never sell. This brings us to:
- Shifting the stock. Unlike rodent pets, which have a lifespan numbered at a few years at most, most reptiles live long lives. This means that a young leopard gecko or bearded dragon bought for a young person will live into the child's adulthood or even middle age. So, firstly, there is the much-diminished "replacement factor" - a family may purchase several rodents or two or three rabbits during their children's lives, or possibly their own if they are enthusiasts themselves, but unless they are not keeping the reptiles competently (in which case they shouldn't be keeping them at all!) they are unlikely to buy "replacements" for their lizards or snakes. Secondly, there is the "upkeep" factor for a keeper. It is still considerably cheaper for a keeper, especially a young keeper, to buy and maintain a rat, a gerbil or a rabbit (even with the cost of the cage) than even a common reptile such as the leopard gecko, bearded dragon or corn snake. The initial outlay even for such an "easy" reptile such as the Corn Snake is greater because of the cost of the tank and any heating: lizards normally need UV lights in addition. While snakes can also do with a couple of mice once a week, lizards need the insect food or in some cases the greens or feeder goldfish. These two considerations, plus the fact that in the UK anyway space in most people's houses is limited, means that even if you sell two or three reptiles to an enthusiast, you are not likely to sell many more. I consider myself an enthusiastic keeper, but with the demands of time and space and the fact that I now nearly have what I regard as a complete collection means I now rarely buy new species: perhaps once a year.
- Beware of the specialists. While reptiles are now more popular than ever, they are still really a niche market. You may find yourself talking to reptile enthusiasts who say how much they'd like to keep and breed chameleons, iguanids from Madagascar or Asian box turtles, etc. In the enthusiasm of the moment it is easy to forget that these people are a very small minority and that you often don't see them for months, if at all - and then it may be at a herp exhibition or fair rather than in your own shop premises. The fact is that specialised reptiles, including all of the examples just mentioned, rarely sell unless you are a known reptile specialist and/or you have a heavy presence in the specialist magazines and on the Internet. I have seen at least two shops where theoretically interesting reptiles were purchased but in fact sat in their tanks for months because they had no appeal (for perfectly valid reasons) to the average buyer. It's no good claiming to be a reptile specialist, incidentally, if you keep a few geckos and Corn Snakes at the back of the shop next to the cages of rodents and heavily advertise kittens for sale at the same time: most herpetological enthusiasts won't swallow it and are more likely to shun you.
Recently I sadly noted that a shop I had quite admired had cut back their reptile section considerably. When I asked my friend why, he told me that the shop had simply not been making money on them - and in fact, since the reptiles still needed food, heat and often UV light, really they had been losing money. That's not a criticism of the creatures or the shop, simply one of the laws of economics of trading in animals. In fact the shop seems to have made the sensible decision to concentrate on selling the peripherals and food which are always needed by reptile keepers, and to sell fewer but more broadly-appealing reptiles such as bearded dragons, anoles and pine snakes. For this reason I think also that some pet shops will inevitably concentrate on snakes, since they are less economically demanding than lizards or chelonians (turtles and tortoises).
If you are determined to beat the odds and become a reptile specialist, be aware that there a number of already well-established businesses out there who have built up a good reputation. You can improve the odds in your favour somewhat by doing the following:
- Accumulate a great deal of knowledge about reptile husbandry and the natural history of the animals in the wild.
- Start your business either in a densely-populated area (eg London, where traffic is often so heavy that people don't want to drive miles to buy or peruse) or else in a remoter area that is a long way from other reptile sellers.
- Specialise in one or two related breeding projects, preferably ones that can't be undercut by importers bringing in wild-caught specimens.
The Private Seller
If you are an individual with a reasonable collection of reptiles, some space and a passion for and knowledge of cold-blooded terrestrial vertebrates, you may be smugly thinking "None of the above applies to me - I don't have the overheads of premises or staff, VAT don't know about me, and my bearded dragons can turn out about 90 eggs a year. I'll book my holiday in Madagascar right now!"
REALITY CHECK: like most get-rich-quick schemes, this just won't work in practice. Briefly consider the following:
- You may not have premises or staff to pay for, but the fact is that your reptiles still need food, water and light, plus tank space. If you have a day job to pay for this, all well and good - if not, don't assume that selling a baby bearded dragon for £35 through a column is going to even pay for a couple of weeks' maintenance of your animals, let alone put food on your table and keep a roof over your head. Read the above remarks addressed to pet shops about Shifting the Stock.
- FACT: VAT and other offices of the government will soon find about you if you sell regularly, even if you fancy yourself as a bit of a geezer with only a mobile number to track you down with. I know of at least one private seller who ran into trouble after his local council decided he was running a full business from his home and acted accordingly. Selling a few animals as a small sideline is quite legal and free from taxation: trying to run a full-scale business without declaring it is not only unethical but can land you in a big financial mess, not to mention ultimately getting you disqualified from being a director of any legitimate business.
- It is true that some reptiles, like Bearded Dragons and Leopard Geckos, can be prolific breeders. But do you really think that you can find 90 people to buy a young bearded dragon each? And if you can't, and even manage to sell 50, what are you going to do with the other 40? Either you are stuck with them and have to provide them with their own food, heat and lighting (thus driving your costs ever upwards, despite being able to buy in bulk via online food suppliers), not to mention having to cram them into every bit of wallspace in your house: or you sink your conscience, dump them in the wild (where they certainly won't survive a winter unless you live in a similar climate) and then find more officers of the law and government knocking on your door (this time from environmental agencies). Before you know it you could be heavily fined and even have your beloved animals confiscated. It has been known to happen.
- Finally (and this applies to all sellers of reptiles), all crazes do have a short life, whether it's for hula-hoops, collectible trading cards or certain pets. It is a risky business trying to stay ahead of the latest fad, especially if it involves animals that you may be stuck with as the public moves on to the next thing. It can also be very harmful, as the short-lived boom in the purchase of terrapins showed following the Ninja Mutant Turtle craze. Turtle-keeping in the UK and USA is still reeling from the after effects of this.
There will always be room for enthusiasts to sell animals privately, especially if captive-bred with loving care and attention. I do think private sellers (and pet shops) are justified in charging reasonable prices for their animals: firstly because care and attention has (usually) gone into the animal's upbringing, but secondly and equally importantly, the saying is true, "that which we receive cheaply, we esteem lightly". I would even go so far as to say that the prices for some species are still too low, inasmuch as they do not reflect the animal's rarity and undercut serious and responsible efforts to breed the animals in captivity. And this brings me to a final point: most serious reptile enthusiasts breed their animals and sell them primarily with an ethically responsible aim in mind, namely to provide captive-bred animals so that fewer are taken from the wild, which means a healthier future for the species as a whole. Money received for so doing is welcome and indeed necessary and right, but it is not the ultimate goal.
NB My qualifications for writing this article are not that I run a pet shop or sell privately (I don't do either at the moment), but I do know pet shop owners and private breeders, and I am self-employed (but again, money was not the final end of "going it alone"). So there!
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