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Unnatural Selection

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THERE’S NATURE, THERE’S NURTURE, and then there’s Mark Miles. The 30-year-old former auto mechanic is a leading breeder of what hip herpetologists call designer snakes—reptiles such as albino pythons and zigzag-zipper corn snakes, which display colors and patterns rarely seen in the wild. “First you find a snake with a paint job you like,” says Miles, who lives in Kearney, Mo. “You breed that one and hope its babies carry that gene. It takes two generations to get a different color.” Refining those mutations brings a higher price. Among the more than 700,000 reptile and amphibian owners in the U.S., the going rate for an ordinary Burmese python is $100; its labyrinth-patterned albino counterpart can cost $1,500. “Mark takes good care of his snakes,” says Kevin Muchnick, a client from Belton, Mo. “That’s why he’s successful.”

Miles has been a snake fancier since his Kansas City childhood. By 1985 he was working as a mechanic and tending 10 reptiles in the garage of his ranch-style home. It wasn’t until 1988, when he drove to Oklahoma City to see one of the first albino pythons bred in the U.S.—its ancestor had sold for $20,000—that he thought of going into business. Borrowing money from girlfriend Tina Pollard (they married in 1989 and have two children, Ryan, 4, and Courtney, 2), he bought three albinos; 18 months later they had produced 200 pale offspring. Nowadays, because breeding has made them more plentiful, the asking price for some non-patterned albino pythons has dropped to $150. “The designer snake market is very competitive,” says Erica Ramus, editor of Reptile & Amphibian Magazine. “Everybody is looking for that rare find that will allow them to make something unique and expensive.”

Last year, Miles used his snake profits to open his hometown pet store, Miles of Exotics, where he keeps his collection. That’s fine with Tina. “Since we’ve been married,” she says, “I was never able to park in the garage.”