Designer Snakes

A Cinnamon Pastel sells for $1,000. A Pastel Ghost for $15,000. A Lavender Albino for $40,000. These are snakes, bred and interbred not for temperament or size or any quality other than beauty, which is skin deep and several feet long.

A friendly (and pricey) Cinnamon Pastel.

Beauty expressed in color and pattern. It's that simple. In the wild, snakeskin varies according to reproductive mutations. In captivity, snakes are bred to create new colors and patterns. They're called designer morphs. They fetch high prices, initially, but both breeders and pet-owners say they buy them for their beauty.

Red Axanthic. Blonde Pastel. Lemon Blast. Lesser Platinum. Peach Ghost. Orange Ghost. Butterscotch Ghost. Snowball. Banana. Caramel Albino. Yellow Belly. Goblin. Clown. Pastel Jungle. Bumblebee. Killerbee. Calico. Mojave. Pewter. Piebald. Pinstripe. Sable.

(Clockwise, from top left) Lesser Platinum, Carmel Albino, Clown, Sable, Pewter and Pastel Jungle ball pythons.

These are not Pantone colors, paper stocks, fabric patterns, paint swatches, ice cream flavors or mixed drinks. They are the names of ball python morphs. Ball pythons are popular because they're calm, slow, rarely bite and remain small (under six feet). They eat mice and rats. One two-foot-long female inhabits a terrarium on my son's desk.

As a kid, I caught garter snakes in tall weeds. I kept them for a couple years, and when one had 19 live babies, I released them in a nature preserve. I wanted an indigo snake—large, aggressive and gorgeous-and I read a few books on them. But my fascination ended quickly. My son, however, has the power of the internet. And at age 10, he knows enough to host his own reptile show on Nickelodeon.


Spider ball pythons.

He wanted a snake. Badly. “Let's do the research,” I stalled. Dozens of books and hundreds of websites are devoted to snakes, especially ball pythons. My son spent as many hours staring at python pics as he used to spend staring at Pokémon characters, and the comparison of the two is worth noting. Pokémon characters are endlessly varied; they “evolve,” and new characters come out every other day. Same with ball pythons. There are hundreds of morphs; the morphs are bred to make more morphs, and new morphs arrive on the market every year. My son bought countless Pokémon magazines. Now he buys reptile and snake magazines.

Curiosity. Variety. Obsession.

My son bought his ball python at a reptile show in Raleigh, North Carolina. Several hundred people attended the show. I was amazed. The people who buy snakes for pets run the gamut, but the people who breed and sell them are all business. This is a serious subculture. People truly love snakes. They appreciate their beauty. They spend money, time and occasionally their working lives on them. Meanwhile, we named our snake Miracle because it was a miracle my wife let it into the house.

Axanthic ball python.

Albino snakes lack dark colors; axanthic lack yellow; and hypomelanistic, the “ghost” pythons, have less melanin than normal. Breeders get deep into the genetics of crossing morphs. The Pewter morph, for example, is a cross of a Cinnamon Pastel and a Pastel Jungle. The Piebald python looks like a regular python in a ripped white tube sock.

Designers could, of course, recreate python patterns on curtains, sneakers, pillows, handbags, ties, belts, socks and scarves. A type designer could create a snakeskin-glyph set called Slitherer. Beauty can inspire, and it can be reproduced. But I'm more fascinated by the process of morphing itself: the design of living things for accidental beauty.

Piebald ball python.

Snake design depends on genetics, mating parents of different genotypes to produce offspring with various phenotypes, some predictably patterned, others surprisingly so. Over the centuries, dogs have been bred for utility; dog breeds are like tools in a Swiss Army knife, a dog for every job. Ball pythons aren't bred for utility. They don't do anything but eat and grow. They're bred for their looks, and they're bred experimentally. Who knows what they'll look like? Just keep mixing them up. They're more like mutts. Mutts are accidents, beyond human influence. Python morphs are designed, by people, to look good.

Designer snakes set off associations. The synthetic snake in the movie Blade Runner was a kind of robot. The cows, sheep and shark suspended in glass aquariums of formaldehyde by the artist Damien Hirst are fetish art, dead things that resonate with meaning. Artist Xiao Yu grafted the head of a human fetus (with the eyes of a rabbit) onto a bird as “a way for them to have another life.” Figuratively, of course. Literally, these are dead things, body parts, stuck together like a mythological creature.

Which brings us to the question: what is beautiful? Aside from the ethics of eugenics and corpse art, the search for new beauty drives people to crossbreed pythons for their skin patterns as much as it drives designers to experiment with line and color. Designs can be reproduced or mutated. So can snakes. Value derives from the investment of effort, the rarity of an outcome, the thrill of accident. And there is the living body, wherein lies natural resources to be mapped, harvested, and sold. Beauty is a business and an obsession both.

(Clockwise, from top left) Genetic Stripe, Lavender Albino, Pastel Sulfur, Hypomelanistic, Mohave and Lemon Blast ball pythons.

Appreciating the living beauty of a python moves people to buy it, to own it, like property, like art. The satisfaction of ownership leads to more buying, and possibly to the start of a collection to sustain the high of owning beauty. Gotta catch 'em all! My son, naturally, wants another ball python. He's always hunting morphs online.

The thing about morphing familiar beauty into unfamiliar beauty is that the surprise of the new wears off. Soon, the mutant Cinnamon Pastel is as conventional as a normal ball python. And so you cross a Cinnamon with a Jungle to get your Pewter. The Cinnamon has descended from beautiful to useful. Beauty is what you plead when you're caught liking something too much. Utility is what's left when you've fallen out of love.