Happy New Year!
As we embark on 2014 together, I am hoping this monthly article will serve to shed some light on the inner workings of the reptile segment of our industry as well as allow me to share some adventures from the field and the various personalities I come across. We’ll tackle some issues and topics relating to reptile keeping and the reptile influence on the pet trade as well.
As for who am I, I have been involved in the pet industry for most of my adult life, most recently with two of the largest product manufacturers in the world. I have been obsessed with keeping and studying reptiles all my life.
In fact, much of my childhood was filled with chasing, catching and keeping the reptiles and amphibians that I found in the wilds of upstate New York, or trying to con my parents into letting me have one of the various creatures I’d see in our local pet shop.
For our inaugural segment I thought it would be best served by interviewing a true of the reptile industry, as well as a close friend, Tom Crutchfield. He is without a doubt one of the most storied individuals in the business with a long and colorful life story surrounded in reptiles.
Crutchfield lives in his native Florida where he breeds albino iguanas amongst hundreds of other species of obscure and rare reptiles. Lately, he is also involved in many serious conservation efforts and educational lectures around the globe.
Rob: Hi Tom, thanks for doing this interview, there are so many questions but I guess we’ll start by asking when and where did you get your start?
Tom: Well, I’m a sixth generation Floridian who was raised in Marianna, Fla. When I grew up we were very poor like everyone else and didn’t really have much more to do than chase animals and adventure.
As a kid everyone thought I was an idiot out their chasing reptiles. There was a TV program when I was little in the 50’s called “I Search for Adventure” with Jack Douglass that made me want to see the world and have the same adventures he went on, so I did, and more than I bargained for.
I guess, I got my real start catching snakes for the Snakeatorium, which was a tourist attraction where I also wrestled alligators and milked venomous snakes for the public to see. I then also worked for Ross Allen’s Reptile Land in Panama City doing the same.
Rob: Who were some of your mentors, or heroes growing up?
Tom: Well, Denny Sebolt, Ross Allen of the Reptile Institute in Silver Springs and Bill Haast of the Miami Serpentarium. Denny was a true mentor as I worked quite a bit with him but they all influenced me.
Rob: What originally sparked your interest in reptiles?
Tom: Dinosaurs, I loved reading books about dinosaurs and alligators. I had my first pet alligators at 7 years old, you know?
Rob: Well, that being said, what were your favorite pets growing up?
Tom: Believe it or not I loved ringneck snakes and salamanders that I’d catch outside and baby gators. My mother used to work at Greyhound and someone had found a dead female on a nest of hatchling babies and brought some to the terminal. My mom brought some home for me and I kept them until I was 18, then I gave them to Ross Allen to put on display.
Rob: So, that explains your beginning interest in the hobby but where was your first professional start?
Tom: Oh, I guess I started at Waltzing Waters Aquarama in the 70’s. This was like an aquarium that wanted to have some reptile exhibits, so I set those up and then helped design and write curriculum for their environmental education classes and pamphlets for alternative education classes.
After that I went on to open my own crocodilian farm and then reptile wholesale company.
Rob: I know, I remember waiting for those brightly colored pricelist to appear in my mailbox. So, now for the good stuff, what are you best known for?
Tom: Rarities. I’ve always looked for the rare and obscure.
Rob: That’s probably why we get along so well, but what I mean is what animals were you responsible for bringing us?
Tom: Well, as I said, I’ve always looked for the rare and hard to breed and tried to breed them, and I was pretty successful too. I was first to bring in Albino Burmese pythons, Veiled chameleons and one of the first to bring in Bearded Dragons. I brought in 300 to start.
I was first to breed Indian pythons. I was one of the first, if not the first to breed Rhino Iguanas in the 70s. In 1984, I was first to breed Grand Cayman blue iguanas and in 1985, I was the first to bring in and then breed Sri Lankan star tortoises. There are more, I just forget.
Rob: As a very notable breeder, what do you see as the role of breeders in the industry?
Tom: Well, there is an art to breeding and it’s not something that should be used solely on chasing morphs or just to make money. Don’t get me wrong, the morph thing is cool and everything, I just think there should be a large effort to try and also breed for purity. Imagine how nice it would be if every herper picked just one species and bred them to try and take pressure off the wild populations and to ensure the species doesn’t go extinct.
In the 70s I coined the phrase “conservation through commercialization,” and everyone laughed at me. Well, they’re not laughing now are they? To borrow the title of one of my favorite books, the world would be a poorer place without the monsters of god. With education and responsible harvest and captive breeding, we can help conserve all the beautiful animals.
Rob: Wow. What do you see as a pet shop’s role in reptile keeping?
Tom: Many times, that is right where it starts. A good store puts reptiles in homes like they do with tropical fish. By displaying and educating their customers on some of the friendlier, easier to keep species, they bring nature to people who might otherwise find it hard to appreciate and help conserve.
Rob: Great points. Any tips you might throw out there to stores carrying live reptiles or contemplating it?
Tom: Buy and sell animals your store and employees can keep. Strive to gain knowledge of perspective charges before you acquire them. One of my biggest regrets and the reason I stopped wholesaling was having to buy and sell animals that had high mortality and were hard to keep alive back then.
Rob: Tom, what do you think of the reptile industry and where do you see it going?
Tom: It is far beyond anything I could have ever imagined. It’s absolutely amazing. We had no calcium powder or UVB bulbs. The only heat we could offer was from regular light bulbs from the hardware store, and heat is essential, I mean that’s why lizards like Bearded Dragons are flat after all, to soak up the rays. Now there are so many options available, so many companies and so many great products. Every year I’m blown away more and more.
As far as the hobby, I’d love to see unification and more education. It would be great if breeders and businessmen could unite with zoos and academia to work for the greater good. Some of the organizations like U.S. Ark and PIJAC are doing a good job to do this but we need more help.
– Rob Stephenson