Herald-Whig

LIFE STORIES: Rare snake breeder finding feet in niche market

Chris Turner holds a female yellow belly pie bald ball python outside his Quincy home. Turner is breeding the snakes to get ones with unique markings that are considered valuable. | H-W Photo/Phil Carlson
Phil Carlson 1|
By Herald-Whig
Posted: Jul. 23, 2018 9:45 am

QUINCY -- Descending into Chris Turner's basement, there's little doubt the 27-year-old Quincyan has found his passion in life.

At the foot of the stairs is a large glass-door cooler, housing two tubs of avocado-sized eggs. A sharp right from the cooler takes the visitor into an adapted lab, where he breeds rare, recessive-gene ball pythons.

There are three large containers and a space heater running constantly in the small room. Snakes require a warmer room temperature because they are ectothermic, meaning they cannot warm their bodies from within, and so, passing through the plastic sheets in the doorway and into the room where Turner houses his 20 or so pythons means a notable shift in temperature. The three racks, each of which holds several slide-out plastic drawers, house snakes at different stages of the life cycle.

From the top drawer of one, Turner snatches a baby banana clown and an all-white baby albino without hesitation. The snakes are entirely docile and don't react to being handled.

"One of my goals when I started was to breed a banana clown," he said with the snake in his hands. "They're worth about $900."

Even more impressive than the setup is Turner's knowledge on the niche subject. After countless hours of research, he is able to easily retrieve the names and interactions of most recessive traits -- traits that alter the appearance and marketability of offspring. His passion shines through as he discusses trying to isolate a certain gene and the game of chance that comes along with breeding ball pythons.

"The odds of getting (a specific gene) from these eggs are about 1 in 16," he said, pointing back to the cooler that houses a dozen eggs from his most recent clutch -- the word for a group of eggs laid at the same time. "It's exactly like gambling. I never know what's going to come out of those eggs."

Both sides of the fence

Living with his wife Bobbi and two sons, Ryatt and Rayce, in a home he owns, working as a supervisor at Quincy Teen Reach -- an organization he attended as a child -- and three years into a professional snake breeding operation, Turner's life seems pretty well put together, but he had any number of chances along the way to sabotage it.

Turner was raised by a single mother and his grandparents. His father spent most of his young life incarcerated -- he was released when Turner was 16 but died less than a year later from complications from diabetes.

"I saw both sides of the fence," Turner said. "I lived on Section 8 and welfare."

He credits having his mother, who worked as a CNA, and his grandparents, who both held full-time jobs, as role models who steered him in the right direction in life.

"My grandpa played a big role," he said. "He taught me to fish, to ride a bike, to be a man, really."

Turner was able to pull himself out of a tailspin when he started to spiral and get into trouble in his late teens. By 22, having left college due to his poor attendance and working at a fast-food restaurant, he saw no future in his lifestyle and knew he needed to make a change.

"It seems like everybody I grew up with either doesn't like their job, is depressed or made a decision they can't come back from," he said. "When I had my first son, I made a mental decision to step up. There was a lot I wanted to accomplish, so I redirected my ambition toward school."?In default on a student loan from his first attempt at college, he spent a year making regular payments to rehab his credit. When he was able, he enrolled at John Wood Community College.

He received his associate's degree from John Wood. Without any real consideration about pursuing a bachelor's degree, he submitted an application to Culver-Stockton College on a whim and was accepted.

Taking the leap

In his first semester at Culver-Stockton, Turner rediscovered the love of snakes he had lost from his childhood. His family had moved in just down the street from Quincy's "Snakeman" Gary Liesen, who mentored Turner and helped him to acquire his first snake.

Going all in on the hobby, Turner took all the money he had -- $5,000 he had received through a student loan -- and funneled it into his burgeoning business.

"It was a leap," he said. "There was a year that I was in doubt, that I was scared I would be out on the street with all these snakes."

While the business grew, he continued pursuing his education and received a bachelor's degree in marketing from Culver-Stockton College. By attending large breeder conventions with Liesen, particularly the North American Reptile Breeders Conference in Tinley Park, Turner has been able to develop relationships with other breeders across the country. Last time he attended the conference, he again took all the money he had, and even borrowed a bit more, to purchase snakes from a particular, well-known breeder.

Turner is currently working on "proving," or breeding out, a rare gene in one of his snakes. If he is successful, he would one of only a few people nationwide selling the particular gene, which means, based on the market demand, each snake could sells for thousands of dollars.

He recently began working for Quincy Teen Reach and, like Liesen, he hopes to start delivering speeches and seminars for students to educate them on snakes.

"For five or six years, I did what I thought was cool and not what I actually wanted to do," he said. "I want to fight the stigma of snakes, and if I can help a kid to be themselves, I want to do it."