By Scott Wesley
Philippe de Vosjoli is an innovator in the reptile industry, a highly respected author of most of the main care books used in the industry, a breeder and so much more as we will find out in this interview!
1. We typically start off our interviews with this same general question. Can you tell us what got you started into reptiles, and what was your first reptile or reptile experience that got you hooked?
From the time I was very young I always had an attraction to nature. When I was in France, a period where I spent four and half years in a Catholic boarding school, I would stop during my weekend visits to Paris to a little pet store run by a former keeper at the Jardin des Plantes. He had these large mixed species vivaria at the back of his store that housed things like leopard geckos, giant day geckos, flat rock lizards, monkey tree frogs all in the same enclosure. In other tanks he had Malagasy dwarf chameleons, carpet chameleons and other species I can’t remember. Those visits made me realize there’s a wonderful mysterious natural world to be discovered. I was hooked.
2. You wrote most of the original reptile “care” books used by almost every breeder out there today, and care information / research is always changing. Looking back – what were a few things that you maybe had written back in the day that don’t apply today or opinions have since changed on the care, products, etc?
I wouldn’t change much. I think that excess oral vitamin supplementation, particularly vitamin D3, is a problem with many species, such as chameleons, various treefrogs and geckos. I wasn’t as aware of that when I first wrote care books and it took time and experiment to figure that out. I’ve been criticized for advocating feeding any amount of animal protein to green iguanas but I still don’t believe that feeding insects to juveniles and the occasional mouse to adults is harmful. One study showed that in one area adult iguanas were significant predators of juveniles. One of the biggest problems with green iguanas and all larger reptiles is providing enough heat. A proper heat level optimizes metabolic rate which will affect growth, health, and the rate of clearing of uric acid through the kidneys.
3. Personal note from the interviewer. In college – I wrote a paper on the American Federation of Herpetoculturists (AFH) for one of my Poly Sci classes (seriously). Is this something you were glad to part ways with (meaning too much work / not enough reward), or wish it had grown to be the industry leader for lobbying our interests, and have you ever thought about bringing back another industry magazine like The Vivarium?
The AFH and the Vivarium were founded by herpetoculturists whose primary goal was to represent the accomplishments and interests of private hobbyists. It wasn’t a commercial venture and the original founders all worked for free on weekends and in the evenings to get it off the ground. We were the first to publish a nationally distributed color magazine dedicated to the keeping of amphibians and reptiles and tested the grounds for the viability of this kind of publication. We also were involved in fighting unsound restrictive legislative proposals and in developing standards for responsible care. The involvement of large corporations in the pet industry had dramatic effects on the distribution of books and magazines. We were not able to compete against these large entities. I worked part time for free for 13 years as president of the AFH and contributor to the Vivarium and put in tens of thousands of dollars to keep it going. Looking back I’m not sure the effort and the financial and personal costs were worth it. I think Reptile and Herp Nation are doing a good job at filling the herp magazine niche. Starting another herp magazine is out of the question for me.
4. How is the work coming on the New Caledonian Geckos updates – and anything really exciting or new that we can look forward to in these books?
The gargoyle gecko book is now ready to go to press. It should be available at the beginning of 2013. I also have a book co-authored with Frank Fast and Allen Repashy, The Life of Giant Geckos, in the works that focuses on the natural history, social behaviors and herpetoculture of leachianus. I presented some of this information with Allen Repashy on Gecko Symposium at the 2011 National Breeder’s Expo in Daytona, an event hosted by Exo-Terra. The talk can be seen online (http://www.exo-terra.com/en/explore/gecko_symposium_2011.php) but the book contains a wealth of additional information. Chahoua will be the next project we’ll be working on.
5. You are a leader in the captive reptile breeding world. Can you tell us a few of the species that you were the first, or one of the first to work with and breed here in the US? Also – what species are you most proud of that you were able to produce in captivity?
I bred my first leopard geckos in 1968. As far as I know I was the first to breed the Malagasy giant water skinks (Amphiglossus waterloti) and reveal they were a species transitional to becoming ovoviviparous. I had bred the Okinawan viper (Ovophis okinavensis) in the 70s, which is another species that is evolving toward being live-bearing. With Bob Mailloux we did several first captive breedings including Chacoan horned frogs, walking frogs (Kassina leonardi, Kassina maculata), Rana ishikawae, Chilean wide mouth frog (Caudiverbera caudiverbera) and more recently Caatinga horned frogs (Ceratophrys joazeirensis). My last cutting edge snake breeding was producing leucistic puff-faced watersnakes (Homalopsis buccata) With Frank Fast we were the first to breed crested geckos, at least in the US. That showed that unlike the museum specimens that all had pointy tail nubs, crested geckos originally hatched with well developed tails.
6. You are writing a novel as well? Can you tell us a bit about it, and what inspired you here?
My inspiration came in part from a book I was working on with Terence McKenna before his death. In a computer model based on information shown to him during an experience with hallucinogens in Peru, we reach an end point where life as we have known it is no more. He speculated over the years what the end point could be and his views changed from being apocalyptic to the creation of a time machine and toward the end, a technological singularity. The singularity is the point where computing entities exceed human intelligence. As a consequence, what they do becomes no longer comprehensible to us. They are as gods. According to theorists the singularity should occur sometime between 2020 and 2030. My novel is set in this time period. There are no herps in the book but bioengineered Australian blue crayfish (a species I work with) play a mind altering role.
7. You have worked with some really amazing reptiles, and some really common ones too (like pacman frogs). What is your favorite reptile/amphibian you are currently working with (either working with new morphs, or just your favorite) and why that one?
That’s a difficult question because there are so many species I like and I don’t rank them in terms of favorites. If I were to pick one species, the giant gecko/leachianus remains the one species that continues to fascinate me and that I plan on studying and keeping until I die. The way I’m wired it’s one species to which I do not habituate. Every day working with them my mind goes “Fantastic! Fantastic!”
8. How did you come up with the name Pachyforms? What got you into working with them, and writing best selling books about them as well?
As far as the name, having to describe this group of plants as caudiciforms and pachycauls everytime I talked about them was simply too wordy. A popular name for this group was fat plants, which I thought was too crude, so I came up with a more sophisticated version combining pachy ( which means thick) and form. I have always liked unusual animals and plants. Plants that develop unique individual forms and sculptural bodies to me are the supreme forms of plants as art. Like art most of these plants increase in value with age. After seeing people’s collections of specimen plants at shows and in their homes I couldn’t; believe that there was no printed record of these living works of art. I also realized that if people did not focus on their propagation, they would eventually become extinct, not in the wild but as natural works of art that could be experienced in human society. This was the same motivation that drove me to publish the Vivarium.
9. Can you share with us a few other “industry” people that inspired or helped you out back in the day and why/how?
Although I’ve kept and bred many species of snakes, my focus for the last thirty years has been lizards and frogs. Bob Mailloux and the late Bert Langerwerf were significant inspirations. I’ve learned a great deal from their methodologies using outdoor vivaria. I’ve also worked with Allen Repashy on various projects. His unique and very practical way of looking at problems and developing methods for commercial herpetoculture has influenced how I keep Rhacodactylus. His diet for keeping these geckos has had a major impact on making species considered among the rarest in the trade to becoming among the most popular.
10. Can you tell me what you see as a few positives, and a few negatives in regards to the direction of thereptile industry today and why?
I don’t think the negative problems with the reptile hobby can be attributed to the industry but more to socio-cultural factors. The Internet, the media technologies and social networking are strong attractors that have drawn people toward a more anthropocentric lifestyle and is a challenge for nature oriented hobbies to survive in this new world. I think we need to find ways to integrate the hobby with the new technology. Intermediating the experience of keeping herps by integrating digital cameras and microphones in setups could be a possible course.
I also think it’s time for us to assess the future of various species , decide which ones we want to establish before a variety of factors makes them no longer available. There are so many idiotic wildlife laws (e.g., listing non native species, such as Jamaican Boas and Black Pond Turtles on the Endangered Species Act) and legislation is so influenced by politics and radical animal rights groups that I have no faith in the people in charge. Global warming is another factor. If the predictions of global warming and sea rise are correct then many insular species will become extinct in the future. Some species that have temperature dependent sex determination will have such gender skewed populations that they will be at risk of extinction. We need to ask ourselves are there species that are ethnozoologically valuable enough that they deserve preservation, even if it is only as self sustaining populations integrated in human society. I also think we need to create programs to encourage the general public to get involved in keeping threatened species. The general public spends several hundred millions dollars annually to keep common turtles like red-eared sliders as pets. Just think if all that money could be applied to keeping rarer, less disposable species.