The Snake Charmer: Public Safety Officer Breeds His Love For Snakes

John Dalton holding one of his pythons.
Snake Whisperer: John Dalton, a snake enthusiast, shows off his biggest python. The snake is one of 70 that he owns. OMAR NEGRIN THE REPORTER

When a black racer snake was found roaming around Kendall Campus’ building K three months ago, the campus’ Public Safety Department knew exactly whom to call to catch the slithery creature.

They sought  the experience of John Dalton, a 67-year-old, 5-foot-9 inch stoutly built, tattooed public safety officer, who is also a snake breeder and longtime reptile aficionado.

“Some [people] had long poles…and it wasn’t necessary,” Dalton said. “I just grabbed it. I mean, it bit me, but it wasn’t a big deal. Before I could get it under control and get its head, it bit me probably four or five times. They’re very aggressive.”

The black racer is a non-venomous snake that is common around the area, Dalton explained. He released it to the Kendall Campus Environmental Center, where several of these snakes are housed.

Serpents are no stranger to Dalton, who breeds 70 with his wife in their house’s garage. They breed ball pythons, also a non-venomous, but less aggressive, type of snake.

The longest ball pythons they have are between 3.5 to 4 feet long and their oldest is eight years old. These  pythons are a popular snake pet choice and can live up to 25 to 30 years if they are properly taken care of, Dalton says. They are called ball pythons because of the ball-shaped position they often adopt.

Dalton and his wife carefully breed the female and male ball pythons based on their colors to create different morphs, which are determined by the snakes’ colors and patterns. They trade snakes with a Cutler Bay pet store called Pangea Pets while also trading them with other breeders and selling them to people as pets.

Born and raised in Miami, Dalton has shown interest in snakes throughout his life. In his younger years, he caught water moccasins and rattlesnakes in an Everglades area called Loop Road and sold them to the Miami Serpentarium.

Before becoming a part-time public safety officer at Kendall Campus two years ago, Dalton held several other positions, including police officer for the city of Miami for 30 years, where he was commander of the motorcycle unit and supervisor of the major narcotics trafficking section.

He was also a sergeant promoted to lieutenant in 1980. Dalton earned an associate’s degree in public safety management from North Campus in 1971.

“He’s very innovative, motivative, [and] really loves his job as a public safety officer here at Miami Dade College,” said Kendall Campus public safety chief Robin Starks. “He stays on top of the radio. He’s always very punctual…cares about his job, cares about the students. He has a wealth of knowledge as a retired law enforcement officer, so he does have an extensive path in that field. He’s one that I would feel comfortable in any situation knowing that he would be able to handle it accordingly.”

Dalton’s duties as a public safety officer consist of ensuring the safety of the students and smooth operation of the campus, as well as securing rooms and answering calls for service.            

After returning home from work, Dalton and his wife clean the plastic bins where the snakes live. Each snake occupies one bin containing wood shavings and a water container. They have to check the bins daily, cleaning them if the snakes defecate and making sure the snakes have water.  

The rack system with sliding, temperature-controlled bins is found on the 15-by-30-foot garage in the right front side of Dalton’s house. Each bin has a label with the snake’s name, color coded in pink for females and white for males.

The snakes don’t have pet names. Instead, they are named based on their morphs, such as pastel pied, banana pied, purple passion and mojave. Their very first ball python was a pastel brought by their son from Dynasty Reptiles  about two years ago.

Because the bins are cleaned every day, the snakes don’t exude any odors. The cleaning process takes roughly an hour and is completed after dinner around 8 p.m. Once done with the cleaning, Dalton enjoys throwing darts with a friend onto a dartboard set up in the garage.

Dalton has extra responsibilities when the ball pythons are in breeding season. He keeps a log to write down when the females are ovulating, which is indicated by their swollen tails. He and his wife place the females in with the males. When the eggs hatch, they are placed in substrate vermiculite and the humidity level is maintained. After 55 days of incubation, the eggs hatch.

“It is very interesting to see the eggs when they come out and see what you make,” Dalton said. “That’s what I find interesting…just because you breed the right snakes doesn’t mean that you’re going to get what you want. Sometimes you’ll get things that really surprise you, very unique patterns and colors.”

His favorite snakes are the blue-eyed white ones. Two brown snakes called mojaves make this type of snake, while two white ones usually make a mojave. It all depends on the specific genes of the snakes, which sometimes make these predictions untrue.

Baby regular ball pythons are sold for around $40 while a white python with blue eyes costs $500. Dalton recently purchased an albino ball python for $1,000, which, after breeding, can produce one-of-a-kind snakes that no one else has.  

In exchange for the snakes he trades with Pangea Pets, the store offers him a credit to buy rats to feed the snakes. Dalton feeds 75 live rats to the bigger snakes and mice to the smaller snakes every Saturday.

The couple does not need a license to breed snakes. A license is only needed if the snake is venomous or a bigger size, for which a chip is required as well as permission from the state’s wildlife department.

“If you’re interested, I would say go for it, if you’re not afraid of it,” said Tish Dalton, 68, Dalton’s wife of 47 years. “It’s not a cheap hobby though. To feed is about $120 a week.” 

According to Dalton, people are amazed the first time they touch a ball python. Many think these snakes are slimy and wet, but when they hold them they realize this particular snake is dry and unaggressive. They only bite when they are hungry or scared. Dalton was recently bitten by an albino snake for about ten minutes, but he said no serious injuries result from these bites.

“You do get bitten quite a bit,” Dalton said. “The snake is a creature of habit. They’ve got a very small brain, and every time that bin opens they think it is time to eat. They strike thinking there’s a rat coming in, and sometimes they get you.”

Dalton and his wife plan to expand their snake breeding business in the near future. After his wife retires in about a year, they will move to the Ocala area or another place in northern Florida such as Gainesville or Orlando. There they will have a separate building dedicated to snakes and have more space for breeding more unique morphs.  

“There’s been several people here that have asked me: ‘You’re the snake guy?’” Dalton said. “And I say ‘Well, I have snakes.’ [They ask] ‘Well how do you do that?’ and I say ‘Why don’t you come to the house and I’ll show you.’ And I’ve had people come from the College over there, I’ve had people I work with that have come to my house and I’ve given them snakes, and it’s kind of a nice thing to do.”

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Adriana Falero

Adriana Falero, 17, is a mass communications/journalism major attending the School for Advanced Studies at North Campus. Falero will serve as the forum editor for The Reporter during the 2016-2017 school year. She aspires to become a multimedia journalist and cover international news. Her interests include learning about different cultures and protecting the environment.

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