LLLReptile's Interview With Bob Applegate

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In an effort to diversify the content of our newsletter, we have branched out, and will now feature interviews with some of the biggest names in herperteculture. It seemed only fitting to feature the one and only Mr. Robert Applegate in our first interview. Truly a pioneer in the field, and an all around nice guy, Bob is a local herp hero here in sunny southern California. So, without further ado, I present to you the first installment in the LLLReptile interview series! (join our newsletter for future interviews!)

Jonathan Rheins: Among anyone who has spent any time in the world of breeding snakes, you certainly require no introduction. But we cater to a diverse readership, and to some, your name may be unfamiliar. How would you describe your current role in the world of herperteculture?

Bob Applegate: My current role would be as an outspoken specialty breeder, working with a few choice species. Trying to keep production down to under 500 babies a year so I can actually have a life outside of reptiles and enjoy my retirement!

JR: How did you get started playing with reptiles? Was it a childhood interest, or one that bloomed later in life?

BA: According to my parents, if you were afraid of something, I wanted one, and would terrorize the neighborhood with anything I could get! (You know the type kid, back then, a pain in the ass smart Aleck kid. but today, a disturbed child with special needs, that somehow society failed and owes him something!) Caught my first snake at about 5 years of age. It was not allowed in the house and escaped from the ham can I had it in under the house the first night. Dad then built me a good cage and the next was allowed into the house. By age 10, I had 60-70 snakes in my bedroom, including a boa that had the run of the room.

By Junior High I was collecting local reptiles and trading them to dealers in FL and CA for more exotic species. By High school I was keeping select animals, but collecting and selling local stuff. Out of school and into marriage I started importing and exporting, and continued commercially collecting. Sometimes some of what we collected laid eggs and we started to understand how to hatch them. Some accidental breeding occurred, but nothing regular, although in 1977 I successfully bred Argentine Boas, which was the first known breeding outside of Argentina!

JR: At what point did you decide to breed snakes full-time and on such a grand scale?

BA: I never actually went into this full time! I never knew what I wanted to be when I grew up (still don't), but any job involving reptiles didn't pay well enough to support a family, so I went with being a fireman, lots of benefits and time off to "play" reptiles. In the late 70's herpetoculture started really taking off, and the laws protecting and prohibiting importing began to reduce the supply of wild caught reptiles so some of us decided to try to do some captive breeding to meet the ever increasing demand for reptiles as pets.

At first most efforts failed, long term captives didn't seem to want to breed, even though a fresh caught male would breed a long term captive female, and the opposite was true also. The "knowledge" then was if snakes were allowed to get too cold, they got mouth rot and died, so we kept everything close to 80-85 at all times. Then a couple guys from AZ, frustrated with failures, decided that snakes got cold in the winter in the wild, they would allow their captives to get cold as well, and the next spring their snakes bred! With that bit of knowledge we were off and running and haven't looked back since, but that was a major break through!

JR: I know that aside from kingsnakes and milksnakes, you are also working with both Heloderma species. When and how did that project come about?

BA: I used to commercially deal in many reptiles, including Heloderma and other venomous stuff. Earlier the State of CA demanded that I get rid of 3 generations of Mountain kings by a certain date, or they would arrest me (they had just passed protection for the kings) and I chickened out and sold them to a Texan by the date demanded. Later they did the same thing with the gilas, and I stood my ground and fought and was issued a permit to keep them.

JR: What are the specs of your current facility? How many animals do have in your collection?

BA: My wife and I have cut back seriously. We have 113 glass fronted cages with drawers under each. 48 medium sized sweater box for growing breeders to size, and 1008 shoe box cages for babies and growing future breeders for the first year or so. I haven't counted lately, but I would guess about 200-250 breeders or future breeders.

JR: If I'm not mistaken, in addition to captive breeding, you also do quite a bit of field herping. Has observing these animals in the wild helped you gain insight to their captive management?

BA: I have 15 acres of fairly wild land I live on, and I do often take walks and observe my local stuff, and in the past used to commercially collect around the U.S. and Mexico. Observing their behaviors, especially the seasonal and daily moving about rock piles has helped me design my newer split level cages with different heat at different levels. I am sure over the years I have picked up a little here and there, but nothing really jumps out. With all the available information in print today, a person could become a successful breeder and never even see an animal in the wild. Today I do very little in the field, except as outlined above on my property.

JR: Do you have a favorite species? If so, which, and why is it your favorite?

BA: All I have now are my favorites. It's like asking a parent with many children which is their favorite! I was never in this for the money, did it when it cost money, was fortunate to be doing it when it made very good money, and would still do it if it again cost me, so the species I have chosen to keep are the favorites. It is a pure coincidence that some of what I have kept are the most expensive ones!! I try to keep only species that can hibernate so I can cool them for the winter and actually do something besides cleaning and feeding reptiles!

JR: What is your favorite thing about working with reptiles? Meeting the people interested in reptiles and just getting started. Their enthusiasm takes me back vicariously to my earlier days.

JR: What is your least favorite thing about working with reptiles?

BA: Meeting the people, there are some that are living proof it is a good thing in nature that some parents eat their young at birth! For the most part I really enjoy the people, but unfortunately there are some mixed in with the good ones that are rather an unpleasant experience to meet.

JR: What is your most memorable reptile-related experience?

BA: Probably some of the early smuggling experiences or perhaps when I was arrested and went to a jury trial for contraband, illegal weapons and a loaded gun in a restricted area (had 4 rattlesnakes the one year they were protected in CA!)

JR: You have been in this business for a long time. In fact, some may say you even helped establish snake breeding as a business in general! What changes have you seen in the industry? How about in reptile keeping as a hobby?

BA: In the last 20-30 years there has been ever increasing interest and refinement in the business, but now that it is big business I would expect that 20 years from now we will look back on now and wonder how we could have had any successes as primitive as we were. I hope I am around to see it!

JR: What is your beer of choice?

BA: OP is my favorite (other peoples). When someone buys you a beer and you can drink and talk herps there is nothing better tasting!