Don’s Legend

Mar 6, 2014
The Reptile Report
by Editor in Chief

The Reptile Report - Written by Don Hamper, recipient of TRR’s 2013 Legend Award:

My interest in reptiles began in 1956 when my Mother took me to the Cleveland Zoo to meet with John Mehrtens, author and reptile curator of the Cleveland Zoo.  I went to the Reptile Club meeting that John started.  My first introduction to a snake was when John turned to me and said, “Here hold this.”  I turned and put out my hand and, to my horror and disbelief, I was holding a six foot snake.  The fear of this “thing” in my hand was a bit overwhelming!  However, after several more sessions of holding snakes, I realized that these were harmless and actually very interesting.  My interest soon became a hobby.

young Don with turtle

I started to actively collect snakes in the Cleveland area and had a nice beginner’s collection of garter snakes, fox snakes, and black rat snakes. I had to keep my collection in the house a secret, as my father would not have approved. However, in my ignorance and much to my surprise, I had collected a pregnant garter snake and kept it in a cage I had built myself with 1/4″ screening. How proud I was of my cage! I soon found out that 1/4″ screen will not keep baby garter snakes in! At last count, we found 54 cute, little wiggly babies the size of fishing worms everywhere in the house. Needless to say, my father now knew I had snakes in the house!

My interest and collection continued to grow and gradually included venomous snakes such as rattlesnakes, vipers, and cobras. When I left for OSU, the collection came with me. The Biology Department graciously allowed me to keep my collection in one of their small, empty rooms. In 1964, at OSU, I met Robbie who immediately shared my interest in reptiles.

About this same time, I also met Pat Burchfield, now the head of the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, TX. Pat also had an extensive reptile collection. About this same time, Frank Bolin and I started our reptile import business known as Ophidia. We imported various harmless and venomous reptiles from Pakistan, India, and Africa, supplying all of the major zoos in the United States with most of their rarer specimens.

Don with imports

The snakes we imported included mambas, boomslangs, monocled, spectacle, Gold’s tree cobras, gaboons and Russell’s vipers, as well as many other snakes that most people had never seen, heard of, or handled before. I was able to photograph and amass a large slide collection of mainly rare specimens.

About this same time, I also became friends with Bill Brant, who was another reptile enthusiast.  We all began breeding of snakes before it was fashionable, and did it only for our fun and enjoyment. We did a lot of exchanging of ideas and giving each other pointers for successful breeding. We had a lot of trial and error as there were very few books or information on this facet of reptile keeping. We were just a small group in the “early days” of reptile breeding. In 1988, I started the first monthly public reptile show in the United States which is still running successfully today.

To expand my knowledge of reptiles and meet others starting to breed them, I have attended many of the IHS conferences, the Gainesville Reptile Conference, and other lectures, besides doing extensive travel to see and photograph herps in the wild and visit numerous other collections.

I have supplied photographs for several books but I am especially proud of being published in John Mehrten’s reptile book, Living Snakes of the World which was considered the “Bible” for reptile collectors in the United States.

I was one of early pioneers in captive breeding, producing the beautiful womas , black headed, Timor, ringed, Burmese, Children’s, spotted, and the high colored jungle carpet pythons. I was one of the first to successfully produce Jamaican, Puerto Rican, Fords, Haitian, Brazilian, Colombian, red- and long-tail boas (and many other reptiles that are now commonly bred) in captivity.

Besides snakes, I was one of the early breeders of knob-tails, helmeted, and, R. leachianus geckos. Many trials and errors were incurred during this time so that now most breeders just have to go to the Internet for information.

Don with leachie

I am still very active in breeding various reptiles and attending numerous reptile shows. This has been a very interesting and rewarding hobby that has grown into a part-time business. It is always exciting to see what new morphs may appear, as well as advancements in the food and health industry for reptiles.

The captive breeding of reptiles and amphibians has made a substantial impact on the importing and collecting of specimens in the wild therefore there does not have a negative impact on the wild population and the balance of nature.

— Don Hamper

Editor’s Note: Click on any of the above images to see the full-sized version.

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