Peter Kahl's mother didn't mind his keeping a bathroom full of snakes in the house; she thought the hobby would keep him out of trouble. She didn't think it would turn into a business.
But 10 years ago, the Towson High School graduate realized there was big money in his hobby, and last year his Peter Kahl Reptiles company on Manor Road in Long Green grossed about $500,000. He plans to add two full-time staffers to the one he already employs.
Mr. Kahl reached into a cubicle and pulled out a yellow and black snake. "This is a beauty, worth about $2,000," he said.
The jungle carpet python, pink tongue flicking, curled its 4-foot length around his arm.
"I've always found snakes to be mysterious and intriguing," Mr. Kahl said. "I've had snakes since I was 10, a bathroom full of them. My dad thought it was neat."
Mr. Kahl, 31, has about 200 snakes of breeding age, mostly boa constrictors and pythons. He sells the offspring to hobbyist-breeders, zoos and pet stores at prices that range from $40 for natives, such as king and black snakes, to $20,000 for exotics. It takes about 2 1/2 years for a boa or python to reach breeding age, and they normally produce one brood a year.
Mr. Kahl slid the python back into its cubicle, where it quickly slithered under a piece of plastic bark. He reached for his most valuable possession, a piebald ball python, an albino with brown splotches of color.
"It came from Ghana, and I have four of only six known in the world," he said. "Its babies go for $20,000."
Unusual mutations and weird colors mean big bucks. Mr. Kahl pulled a small albino sand boa valued at $1,500 from its cubicle.
"People say, 'I got to have it. Give me two,' " he said. "A solid white rainbow boa went for $60,000. Unfortunately, it wasn't mine."
Mr. Kahl said he acquired an albino boa for $25,000 in 1989 from a consortium in California, gambling that he could successfully breed it with six Colombian boas he had purchased. Of the first hatch of 22 babies, three were albino. The albino progeny bring $6,500 or more each, and one customer paid $49,000 for seven albino boas.
Snakes are relatively easy to raise. They need to be fed only once a week, are susceptible to few diseases and parasites, and are usually happy to just wrap themselves around a plastic limb and snooze.
Mr. Kahl's snakes are fed defrosted rodents at a cost of about $300 a week.
Mr. Kahl doesn't handle venomous snakes. "There's no money in them, and there's that risk," he said.
But there is also some risk in handling boas and pythons.
"They can be nasty," he said, rubbing scabs on the back of his slightly swollen right hand. "I got careless and reached in a cage where a male was curled up with some females, and he clamped on my hand quick. They usually don't bite, but I've been bitten many times, anyway."
Pythons and boas grow to about 30 feet in the wild, and about a third less in captivity, but Mr. Kahl sells them before they become unwieldy.
"I've had a couple of big ones, but moving 200 pounds of snake around is more trouble than it's worth," he said.