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Snakes Alive!
A first-year medical student and his reptilian passion

Ray Robinson, MS1 and herpetologist, at Reed Hall, where snakes are unwelcome.

Reed Hall, the on-campus residence some medical students call home, has the inevitable list of rules: no toaster ovens, hot plates, crockpots, etc. It doesn’t allow pets, and that, much to the dismay of dorm resident Ray Robinson, includes snakes.

Robinson, a 36-year-old, first-year med student, is a herpetologist, or someone who studies reptiles. He’s cared for them ever since he was a boy growing up in the Los Angeles area. At one point he had about 1,500 reptiles, including 700 snakes.

It was during a 10-year stint as a counselor for California’s Department of Mental Health that Robinson began breeding reptiles professionally. By chance, he produced specimens with color or pattern mutations. He enrolled in community college, took a biology course and was soon able to refine his breeding techniques.

Meanwhile, his 2,400-square-foot garage was teeming with chameleons, lizards, geckos and snakes. Lots of them. Pythons, boas and dozens of colubrids, a family of smaller, non-venomous animals like king snakes, rat snakes, garter snakes and water snakes.

Immature Western diamondback rattlesnake, c. atrox. Mutation will reveal itself when snake produces its young.

He launched a reptile and snake-breeding business, Living Proof Reptiles, and began selling these slithery creatures to collectors, zoos and researchers working in antivenin, a serum containing antibodies against poison in the venom of snakes, spiders and scorpions. In 1999, he was the first to produce genetic mutations in rattlesnakes and a type of boa.

“It was exciting to see the mutations I was able to create,” says Robinson. “To be the first on the planet to do something is not a place everyone knows, and I can say I’ve been there more than once.”

Realizing he had a real affinity for science, Robinson enrolled at UC Davis and pursued biology. “I tried to figure out how I could put together my interest in working with people and science,” he says. “The best way to do that, for me, was a career in medicine.”

He downsized his business, concentrating only on California native rattlesnakes. He estimates that today his snakes are dispersed in more than 200 collections around the United States. Many have made their way to Europe.

Robinson, left, and friends with a normal adult, 18-foot Burmese python, weighing 195 pounds.

Even now, Robinson keeps a hand in Living Proof Reptiles. His business partner does the breeding and the selling; Robinson—between classes, homework and countless other activities that are part and parcel of student life—stays in touch with clients.

He realizes that medical school will make increasing demands on his time. “But once I’m done, I’ll have my hobby at home.” And then, he says, he’ll never live without snakes again.

—Lydia Levis Bloch



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