By Matt Russell - Rochester Post Bulletin
Winona, MN September 10, 2005-- Matthew Martin's pet dog is a Rottweiler, a breed whose appearance, Martin allows, makes some people uneasy.
In the past Martin has had other pets that likely made people feel a little squeamish, tarantulas, scorpions and – he repeatedly said this was true – an alligator.
Even if you already know these things about Martin, there's little that can prepare you for a trip down the narrow stairs into his cramped basement, a place where you're suddenly surrounded by neat stacks of containers ranging in size from shoe box to refrigerator. There are around 40 snakes slithering and winding inside those enclosures, some measuring just a few inches and other stretching 10 to 18 feet.
"I always liked snakes, but my mom was deathly afraid of them, "said Martin, 28, who recalls getting his first snake, a 1-foot-long ball python, when he was 18 years old. "As soon as I moved out I got one as a pet and it went downhill from there."
Martin who has blue eyes, a smoothly shaved head, and the head of a python tattooed across his lift thigh, wore a sleeveless black T-shirt, hiking boots and shorts last week as gave me a look at his basement and talked about the hobby that he's recently turned into a source of income. Having two small children (ages 19 months and four years) in the house doesn't worry him, he said later, adding that he hasn't had a any problems so far and he doesn't allow the kids near the snakes without supervision.
He said keeping the snakes in his basement is a temporary measure; he's remodeling his garage and plans to move the snakes out there. He also said he wants to move out to the country in the next year or two and concentrate more on snake breeding.
Martin said he got into the business of "rescuing' snakes around five or six years ago, taking them from people who either didn't want them or couldn't have them and selling them to new owners. After a while, he said, he started selling snakes in the growing online reptile market and after that, started breeding snakes for sale. Around two years ago, he started another snake-related business: Monster Cages, a company that sells a variety of enclosures for snakes and other reptiles of all sizes. He said 90 to 95 percent of Monster Cages business is done online, with little coming from the immediate area.
Martin said one thing that's appealing about having snakes as pets is that, compared to pets such as cats or dogs, snakes are relatively low-maintenance. Still, he said, it's very important to do research about snakes before getting one because a small snake can quickly grow in size and to be properly cared for so it doesn't become a problem.
"It's definitely a different animal," he said.
The past 10 years have seen a rise in the number of people around the country who, like Martin, have gotten into having snakes as pets. Adoptions of snakes in Minnesota have been growing steadily over that time period, said Sarah Richard, adoption chair for the Minnesota Herpetological Society, a group dedicated to educating the public about reptiles and amphibians. Richard said it's to estimate how many pet snakes are out there because owners often don't want people to know about their pets, but she said one in 10 households in the United States has a pet reptile, according to one estimate.
"It's growing all the time," she said.
Showing the extent that some snake collectors go, Martin pulled up a Web site last week that showed rare snakes being sold for tens of thousands of dollars apiece. One snake, which was pure white with pure black eyes, had a price tag of $208,000.
"It's turned into a rich man's game," Martin said as hi Monster Cages business partner and long-time snake enthusiast, 51-year old Ed Jenkinson looked on. "It's either hobbyists, like we are, or people like that."