Python breeders clash with city over home business

By: - November 11, 2021 5:38 pm

The city of Manning has threatened its residents with fines for having too many ball pythons in their house and selling them. (Photo and letter provided by Liz Waterbury)

MANNING, Iowa — Adam Waterbury thought his hobby-turned-business of breeding ball pythons was on the cusp of success.

For the past two years, Waterbury, 36, and his wife, Liz, have been raising the small pythons in a modest house on the south side of Manning in western Iowa.

In one room of the house, there are homemade cabinets with pullout bins that contain the creatures. The Waterburys had up to 50 pythons at one time this year.

In another room are similar cabinets filled with more than 100 rats — which they also breed — to feed the pythons.

Adam and Liz Waterbury with their children. (Photo provided by Adam Waterbury)

The operation had not been a money-maker, even though some of their pythons have fetched prices of up to $600. That’s cheap compared to the more exotic varieties that some breeders have achieved with selective breeding. The right combination of color and pattern can net $10,000 or more.

Adam Waterbury, whose day job is raising hogs in a confinement, was confident he had the reptilian know-how to be profitable if they expanded into an existing garage on their property.

Then a neighbor complained, and the city ordered the Waterburys to shut down the business or face daily fines for noncompliance.

“We finally found something that, one, could make us money and, two, I’m really good at,” Adam Waterbury said. “I don’t want to work with hogs all my life, man. It’s hard on my body.”

The city steps in

Manning, a town of about 1,400, does not have rules about exotic pet ownership, but its zoning ordinances forbid residents from operating businesses in their homes without special permission.

“We have been trying to work with them to find a solution,” said Dawn Meyer, the city administrator for Manning. “I have not ever had to deal with an exotic animal issue before.”

The business of ball python breeding is largely unregulated in the United States because the snakes aren’t venomous and lack the size of their constrictor cousins. Adult ball pythons reach lengths of 3 to 5 feet. Other species grow to more than 20.

Still, some Manning residents worry about the creatures — including the rats — escaping from their bins. Liz Waterbury said she also raises a small number of geckos.

The Waterburys use homemade chests with bins as drawers to raise ball pythons and rats. (Photo provided by Liz Waterbury)

The issue was the subject of a May meeting of the city’s Board of Adjustment, which has the power to grant special exceptions to allow in-home businesses.

Adam Waterbury explained his breeding process to the board. He pairs the pythons together once every three weeks until they mate and watches for the female’s body to swell with eggs. The female later sheds her skin and 30 days after that lays eggs.

Waterbury’s snakes produced about 50 eggs this year. He incubates the leathery eggs in a humid, 89-degree container until they hatch about two months later.

They breed African soft furred rats to save money on snake food. That species is considerably smaller than the common rat, and they are a natural prey of ball pythons in their native Africa.

Rats bought for food from a pet store can cost $8 apiece.

The board weighed Waterbury’s desire to expand his business with his neighbors’ concerns and voted unanimously to deny the request.

“I find it very irritating,” Liz Waterbury said of the neighbors’ worries. “Nobody came to us to talk first.”

Out of business?

The Waterburys refused to allow city officials inside their house for an inspection in August and continued to list pythons for sale online. They said a fellow breeder in another city was handling the sales of their snakes and hoped that would placate the city.

But a sternly worded letter from the city’s attorney in September threatened jail time and fines.

Adam and Liz Waterbury received this letter from an attorney representing the city of Manning in September. (Provided by Liz Waterbury)

“The city of Manning has been more than patient with you,” the Sept. 9 letter said. “There is no room for negotiation.”

A police officer and Meyer, the city administrator, inspected the house about two weeks later and found up to 30 pythons, numerous geckos and more than 100 rats, according to another letter from the attorney dated Oct. 1.

“In order to be in compliance, the snakes and geckos engaged in your commercial activity will need to be removed from your home,” the second letter said.

The city gave a deadline of Nov. 3.

The Waterburys deleted their business’ Facebook page and claimed they were no longer selling reptiles.

Phil Gross, president of the United States Association of Reptile Keepers, wondered whether the city would apply the same standards to other residents who run side businesses from their homes.

“Are they going to crack down on people selling crafts on Etsy or items on eBay?” he said.

City officials briefly considered limits on exotic pet ownership during a recent city council meeting. Manning residents are limited to three dogs and cats but there are no restrictions for other types of pets.

“It was brought up, however it was not well received,” Mayor Joe Maas said of imposing further restrictions on pet ownership in town. “I don’t look for anything to happen on that.”

In lieu of a new ordinance that would apply to their reptiles, the Waterburys contend they are in compliance with city laws if they’re not selling. They did not allow the city to inspect their house on Nov. 3.

It’s unclear how the city might respond. Meyer could not be reached to comment this week.

On Thursday, the city shut off water service to the Waterburys’ house because of unpaid utility bills.

“All of us in our family believe they did that because we’re fighting for our rights to keep our pets,” Liz Waterbury said.

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Jared Strong
Jared Strong

Senior reporter Jared Strong has written about Iowans and the important issues that affect them for more than 15 years, previously for the Carroll Times Herald and the Des Moines Register. His investigative work exposing police misconduct has notched several state and national awards. He is a longtime trustee of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, which fights for open records and open government. He is a lifelong Iowan and has lived mostly in rural western parts of the state.

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