"Killer Clowns Multiplying" opens with a trio of guys clustered around a plastic tray full of magnolia-colored eggs with thick, rubbery shells. The tray is lined with something that looks like kitty litter, and there’s one small snake curled up into a neat tangle in the corner. One by one, the eggs are carefully sliced open as Jay — the man wielding the razor blade — exclaims in delight. "Oh man!" he says, "What’s going on? I got a Tiger Anthrax, and he got a Tiger Anthrax. This is cray-" He slices open the next egg, spilling out blood and yolk. "Oh, no way," he shouts, hooking in a finger and pulling out a tiny baby snake that dazedly curls back on itself. "It’s another Clown! Platinum!"
"Like a kid opening up a Pokémon pack and constantly finding rares."
It’s clear that Jay gets very excited about snakes. Luckily for him, he’s parlayed his enthusiasm into a job. Jay Brewer — that's his full name — is the owner and founder of Prehistoric Pets, a reptilian superstore in southern California that specializes in morphs — custom-bred snakes with unusual pattern mutations and idiosyncratic names. I stumbled across the video of him opening a clutch of Clowns (a type of reticulated python) on Reddit, where one user described the video as, "watching a kid open up a Pokémon or [Magic: The Gathering] booster pack … and constantly finding rares."
It’s a perfect comparison — Jay’s excitement is heart-warming — but there's also something weirder happening. On the one hand, we’ve got the genre of the unboxing video, where YouTube users open up newly purchased consumer goods (usually expensive clothes or electronics) for an audience that enjoys the comforting rustle of packaging and the second-hand feeling of ownership. And, on the other, there’s this unknown territory of baby snakes (are they even cute?) who aren’t unwrapped so much as they are liberated in this terribly organic mess of blood and yolk and egg shell. It's a hell of an unboxing.
"I refuse to grow up," Jay tell us by phone. "I’m 50 years old, and I’m doing what I love. [Snake breeding’s] been going on for about 28 years in the US, and I’ve been at it from the beginning. I pretty much got in on the bottom floor playing with it all, and it’s been amazing, amazing."
Each clutch played out on the end of increasingly delicate line of genetic code
To Jay, a snake’s genetic code is a color chart with an index of odds attached. He finds the snakes he wants, breeds them together, and crosses his fingers that the right patterns will show up when he slices open the eggs. Sometimes the mutations he’s trying to create are more than a decade in the making; recessive genes for rare colors tracked down from generation to generation, each successive clutch of eggs played out on the end of an increasingly delicate line of genetic code. The Platinum Clowns that were hatched in the video at the top were the end result of at least eight generations of snakes, says Jay, combining genes from Platinum, Anthrax, and Super Tiger morphs — each of these the result of their own previous breeding programs.
"You dream about them," he says of his snakes, "You dream about the sound, you dream about the color, and what it looks like, and then when you see that nose hanging out the egg and... Sometimes it’s like your dream, and sometimes it’s twice as good as what you wanted. When you’ve been waiting for five, eight, ten years and you get to see it! Oh boy, it’s quite a feeling."
This type of specialized joy is something that plays well online, maybe because we feel privileged to see it. The sincere YouTube protagonist is one that gushes over double rainbows, heritage trains, and thundersnow, while we, the viewers, get that warm feeling of witnessing genuine happiness, safe in the knowledge that we will never have to care about this thing as much this person does. It's a pleasurable twofer and also an experience that must have been relatively hard to come by before the internet, before YouTube.
With Jay’s videos, you get the vicarious delight — but you can also dive into his world, if you so choose. His channel’s been running for more than seven years and features hundreds of videos: here's Jay cutting open eggs; here he is showing off his snakes; here, shooting the shit with a rotating cast of breeders and fans. The other enthusiasts tend to appear without speaking roles, like fans pulled on-stage at a concert, though Jay’s team of breeders become slowly recognizable if you watch enough videos. (Tim, the head breeder and my favorite supporting character, has a mustache and says little. He does speak, though, like when he quietly lets Jay know that he’s moved within striking range of an angry python.) Most of the videos only have views in the low thousands and tens of thousands but a handful, like "Ruby Eyes… Part 1," have crossed over the million views mark.
The snakes sell for anything from a few hundred bucks to $20,000
Jay says he keeps around 1,200 reticulated pythons at his facility. He and his team mainly produce entirely new morphs, catering to the smaller-scale breeders which make up the the bulk of their customers. The store has sellers across the world including South Africa, Shanghai, and the UK, with "base" morphs selling for a couple of hundred bucks while more genetically complex specimens go for as much as $20,000. "When we sell them we’re basically selling people a piece of life," says Jay.
However, like any good breeder, Jay keeps the best and rarest specimens for himself, to breed even more exotic snakes. He claims that because of this his store is responsible for as many as 50 percent of new morphs made in the US. Other videos on Jay’s channel demonstrate this variety, with Jay pulling a succession of snake morphs out of storage, reeling off the names (Caramel Tiger, Sunfire Golden Child, Motley Super, Green Lantern, Platinum Titanium) like a man sorting a particularly exotic sock collection.
Jay's behavior towards the snakes looks a little impersonal in these videos, but it sounds like treating snakes any other way just doesn't make sense. Unlike traditional pets, snakes never bond with humans. Scientists say the main emotions they feel are fear and aggression. Unlike dogs, snakes aren’t social; unlike cats, they haven’t been domesticated. They are, in some sense, alien.
What would you say the aspirations of a python are?
They're also happier in spaces that might seem cramped. In the wild, snakes generally only head out into the open when they’re hunting. Even then, they're usually looking for some nook or cranny to leap out from. In a big, empty tank, the snake doesn’t have anywhere to hide — which can be stress-inducing. It may seem like a fairly dull and muted existence to hang out in a drawer all day, but then what exactly would you say the aspirations of a python actually are?
Jay is perfectly happy with the snakes’ welfare. "We don’t usually have much of the animal cruelty situation," he says. "The only thing that people complain about is cutting the eggs, and I say look, in the wild the snakes sometimes die naturally in the egg, and I don’t want even one to die. It’s just a C-section in a way. Women — our wives, our daughters — go out and get C-sections, so what’s wrong with it?"
Jay stresses that he waits for the first snake in a clutch to cut its way out (baby snakes have a special "tooth" of pointed skin just for this moment) before opening up the rest of the clutch. He wields the razor carefully — so as not to nick the snake as he slices the shell. Although some of his videos do feel a little exploitative (especially those when he's just hauling big snakes out their cages to show them off), it’s obvious when he talks about this job that he cares for his animals deeply — even if they don’t feel the same way about him.
Is youtube a record of civilization or countless little moments of intimacy?
Recently, Alexis Madrigal of Fusion pointed out that YouTube’s greatest value may be as a record of modern civilization — a place where all those home movies and unwatched vlogs add up to something grand and important. This seems true, but also somehow incomplete; it misses the strange intimacy of many of these videos. Despite what people say about the web not being as wild as it used to be, it's still possible to aimlessly click around and stumble across a stranger who has recorded something that’s important to them — and also clearly bizarre.
This is what makes "Killer Clowns Multiplying" so compelling. Think for a moment: How often do you get to meet someone with a deep interest in something you’ve never heard of? Maybe more frequently than you know — how often, after all, do people explain their strange passions? Videos like these are little shots of intimacy and passion and they're thrilling, they really are. Jay compares cutting open snake eggs to humans having C-sections because the two things really are similar to him, and we'd never have known, never have guessed walking by him on the street, if he hadn’t put his videos online where we can all watch them. We’re lucky to see this stuff.