The spider ball python is an exquisitely beautiful snake. Its cream-colored body is splattered with dark veins in the style of a Jackson Pollock painting. A fractal crown adorns its head, shaded with a subtle gradient of browns and blacks. The end of its tail curls into a distinct “C” shape as if to show its owner’s demure character.
After its introduction by breeder Kevin McKurley in 1999, the spider ball exploded in popularity and remains one of the most in-demand pythons. Virtually every snake breeder sells at least one spider variant with many offering their own hybrids. Many in the reptile community celebrate the spider ball, not just for its contribution to the hobby, but also their livelihoods.
So why do so many people want to ban it?.
In 2018, the International Herpetological Society (IHS) prohibited the sale of spider ball pythons in their shows. The news sent shockwaves throughout the reptile-keeping world. Heated arguments both for and against the decision flooded online forums, reptile magazines, and YouTube videos. As the controversy inflated in size, it spilled out of the insular world of snake husbandry and into the general public. Petitions to outlaw the breeding of spider balls appeared left and right, as did response articles to those petitions. Many snake veterans saw this as an assault on their hobby from outsiders, and many outsiders were appalled by the culture defending spider ball breeding.
The controversy stems from a single issue. A single gene, in fact. It turns out that the genetic mutation responsible for the trademark spider patterning has unintended neurological consequences. Spider ball pythons are born with a central nervous system disorder that causes their head to tremble, known in the reptile-keeping world as the “spider wobble.” The severity of the spider wobble varies greatly between each snake. Some spider balls struggle to feed themselves because of their lack of motor control, while others wobble so imperceptibly that their owners aren’t even aware of the condition. What is for certain is that the spider pattern and wobble are inexorably linked. There is no way to “cure” the spider wobble without removing what made the variant so beloved in the first place.
The spider is only one of hundreds of ball python “morphs”—artificially bred variants of a single python species, Python regius, with notable color or pattern qualities. Unlike dogs or cats, pythons aren’t particularly interactive pets. Their primary draw is their aesthetic appeal, the endless combinations of stripes, spots, chocolate browns and banana yellows that make up each snake’s appearance. The most desirable and rare “designer python” morphs can fetch anywhere from a few hundred to tens of thousands of dollars.
In fact, a sizable number of spider ball fans consider the “cute” spider wobble to be one of their best features.
The argument against the continued breeding of spider ball pythons is obvious. This is clearly a case of putting an animal’s looks before their quality of life. Animal welfare advocates have criticized the reptile breeding community for ignoring the spider ball’s suffering to continue selling these morphs at a high profit. Indeed, the IHS ban has done little to stop the demand for spiders from online vendors and non-IHS reptile shows. The breeding of these neurologically-impaired snakes is still perfectly legal in the United States.
Even more alarming is the fact that many of these sellers don’t disclose the spider wobble condition to customers. Ball pythons are extremely popular snakes, routinely advertised as a perfect beginner’s pet. Given how ubiquitous the morph has become, it’s very possible that an unsuspecting customer might purchase a spider ball without understanding the extra care it requires.
For a seemingly open-and-shut case, snake breeders are very ambivalent. A survey of both breeders and scientists specializing in animal welfare found startlingly differing opinions on the impact of the spider wobble. Whereas breeders generally reported that spider ball pythons enjoyed a comparable quality of life to normal ball pythons, 89% of welfare scientist respondents believed that the spider wobble would pose “moderate to severe” effects on the animal’s wellbeing. Perhaps most tellingly, one of the breeders reported that even their most severely affected spider ball pythons are able to breed and “lay good eggs.”
Proponents of the spider ball python have put forth several arguments to defend these breeding practices. Of course, spider balls have great ornamental value. They’re also a major part of many people’s businesses. But one point these spider ball defenders bring up is worth discussing, not just because there’s no clear response to it, but because it has implications for much more than the snake keeping microcosm: what is a healthy animal?
All python morphs are “genetic deformities.” Every human-picked color and pattern has consequences for the animal’s health, no matter how small. Spider balls seem to represent a plain case of sacrificing an animal’s quality of life for selfish reasons. But what about albino pythons? Albinism is bred for aesthetic value, but it might also cause the animal’s eyes to be slightly more sensitive to bright lights. The actual effect of this sensitivity might be tiny, but this is still an example of putting an animal’s beauty before its wellbeing.
Genetics is infinitely subtle. A single mutation on a gene that codes for an animal’s appearance can have a cascade effect on hundreds of other traits, interacting with other genes involved in everything from brain development to reproductive health. When humans create a new breed with a certain trait, its descendants inherit all of these adjustments. Not only does this make evaluating each morph far more difficult, it also raises the question of what should be used to measure them. There’s no consensus on what “morph zero”—the standard set of phenotypes for ball pythons—is supposed to look like.
This dilemma is best illustrated by a more popular choice of pet. The American Kennel Club recognizes 190 dog breeds alone. These breeds are divided into seven categories depending on their original job, including sporting dogs and scent hounds. Some dogs are considered more “unhealthy” than others for a variety of factors. The most notorious case is the English Bulldog, the poster child of genetic deformity. It’s prone to overheating, struggles to breed through its snout flaps, and fails to breed on its own. Combined with an ever-shrinking gene pool, the bulldog has long attracted both love and scorn. Like the spider ball python, animal rights advocates have petitioned for the restriction of bulldog breeding, sometimes successfully.
But also consider breeds that are generally considered healthy, like Pembroke Welsh Corgi. Corgis live nearly twice as long as bulldogs, but they also suffer from a variety of hip and spine issues due to their long bodies and short legs. If you believe that bulldog breeding is unacceptable, do corgis also cross the line?
The issue here is that we cannot compare bulldogs and corgis to a “default” dog, a hypothetical standard-bearer to which we measure the net effects of all the genetic alterations that go into the makeup of a breed. There is no universal threshold for when breed characteristics sufficiently interfere with the animal’s health to make their continued existence unethical.
These examples are made all the more complicated by the lack of absolutes when it comes to life or death. Neither bulldogs nor spider balls have a lethal gene—some mutation that will eventually end their life. They may certainly succumb to diseases common to their breed, and in many cases their phenotypic changes render them helpless outside the care of humans. This raises yet another question of whether it is ethical to create animals that depend on humans for survival.
One often-suggested moral measure is to consider the breeder’s trait-selecting philosophy. Maybe it’s not about how much a genetic change interferes with an animal’s life, but rather how the change was picked. If the change is meant to improve the animal’s health and happiness, it’s acceptable. If it’s only meant to make the animal more appealing for humans, we may object to it. Indeed, this is a guiding principle for many recent developments in canine breeding, such as the efforts to revive pre-inbreeding variants of bulldog with less face flaps and leaner frames. Under this lens, both severe and mild cases of genetic impairment, spider ball and albino pythons alike, represent an abuse of breeding power.
This proposal opens its own can of worms. For one, there’s the question of what falls under the “appealing for humans” genetic alterations. Certainly this includes cases where animals are bred for their appearance, but what about livestock? The domestic chicken is an avian monstrosity. Compared to its junglefowl ancestor, it lays an absurd number of eggs year-round and grows inflated breasts for meat. Wild sheep are able to shed their wool every year, but domestic sheep continue to cling onto their coats until a human shears it off. Not doing so poses a serious threat to the sheep’s health. These seem to represent instances where animals serve a far more important purpose to humans than ornamental value, but they are still genetically modified at their expense.
Returning back to snakes, it seems as though what truly disturbs us about spider ball pythons is how easily their breeders seem to disregard the responsibility of animal life. The “designer python” label isn’t just about how dazzling these morphs look. It’s describing a pervasive attitude towards the creation and sale of snakes as fashion items. It’s true that snakes are nowhere near as friendly as dogs—for many owners, the most interaction they’ll have with their python is a monthly mouse feeding. It’s also true that ball pythons come in many beautiful breeds. They live for quite a long time, are easy to care for and easy to trade. This naturally encourages snake enthusiasts to collect ball pythons like paintings, prized for their looks, not companionship.
So when breeders continue to produce spider ball pythons despite the risks to their neurological stability, it reminds us that snakes are, first and foremost, a business. As long as spider balls are a hot item, the market has no reason to refuse demand. When breeders argue that all morphs are, in fact, man-made abnormalities just like the spider ball python, they’re absolutely right. The spider ball is just one of countless genetic permutations, each with its own set of benefits and risks. It’s a single cage in a rack of animals sculpted generation after generation to maximize consumer appeal.
And maybe we shouldn’t be okay with that. Although the IHS ban made a great symbolic statement, it hardly changed the status quo in the reptile-keeping world. Spider ball pythons are, if anything, more common and cheaper than ever before. Without legislative restrictions, it’s unlikely that consumer demand will go anywhere anytime soon.
But which would we ban first, bulldogs or spider balls?
- Admin. “Pembroke Welsh Corgi Dog Breed Information.” American Kennel Club, 6 Nov. 2017, www.akc.org/dog-breeds/pembroke-welsh-corgi/.
- Clauer, Phillip. “History of the Chicken.” Penn State Extension, 9 Mar. 2021, extension.psu.edu/history-of-the-chicken#:~:text=Domestication%20of%20the%20chicken%20dates,jungle%20fowl%20from%20Southeast%20Asia.&text=The%20sport%20of%20cockfighting%20had,of%20fowl%20throughout%20the%20world.
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