Here There Be Dragons
St. Clairsville Teenager Starts Reptile Breeding Biz
ST. CLAIRSVILLE — The unusual enterprise that is Cliffhanger Reptiles, LLC started out as the story of a boy and his dragon. Or, not his dragon as the case was for two long years of campaigning for one.
“My mother shot it down: ‘No reptile pets,'” joked the 18-year-old Blake McNeely, company president.
But, McNeely’s dad had fond memories of an iguana he had in college. And a friend got a leopard gecko. McNeely eventually prevailed. On a pivotal day in 2017, the family wound up at a reptile store in Washington, Pa.
“She actually sort of liked the look of a bearded dragon. I got her to hold one,” he remembered of the happy moment when his mom caved. “Like a typical teenager, I begged until I got one.”
This teen didn’t stop with a single, happy pet, though. Long sessions of watching YouTube videos about dragon care soon turned into a full-blown investigation of dragon breeding.
“I started to do the math,” McNeely said of the moment he realized how many offspring a single dragon pairing can produce and what eager pet owners are willing to pay. “To me, it seemed like, ‘Why isn’t everyone in this business?’ “
A plan was hatched. Three more dragons joined the family within a few months. Soon, baby dragons came along.
Fast forward four years: The 2021 Linsly graduate now has 60 resident reptiles in a sterile, temperature-controlled hatchery.
And, he has learned how to use everything from punnett squares to basic paint mixing techniques to produce a bevy of colorful reptiles that ship out by the thousands.
Yes, the thousands.
“Breeding bearded dragons kind of sounds like a silly business idea,” McNeely acknowledged of how people outside the tightly-knit dragon community find what he does hard to fathom.
But, nearly four years into the business, he’s moved far beyond watching videos made by other breeders. He’s formed such a solid network inside the community that Cliffhanger Reptiles has grown large enough to sell to East Coast pet stores in addition to individual families across the U.S.
(Only 2 percent of sales are local.)
This year, he expects to overnight ship as many as 3,000 dragons.
“I’ve learned a lot from them,” McNeely said of his friendships with fellow breeders. He stopped to shrug and smile ruefully. “They don’t go and tell me all their secrets like I’d like them to.”
Nor, does he share all of his. Particularly when it comes to a certain green dragon.
Dragons come in an array of colors beyond the tan variety most commonly seen in pet stores, he explained. His hatchery also includes vivid oranges, yellows and reds and a white variety. And, that green adult male.
That last one’s unusual, McNeeley said. Generally, green babies — who have a body about the size of a quarter when hatched — turn yellow by the time they reach their full 20 inches (measuring nose to tip of the tail) at 10 months of age.
This one didn’t.
And, this would be where those genetic charts from biology class and paint mixing come into play, he noted. The American dragon population — which began from wild animals exported from Australia — has about 14 genetic mutations and multiple colors with which to work.
McNeeley has to think it all through when it’s time to select mates. Sometimes, it’s quite simple — like mixing paint, he explained. A red dragon plus a yellow dragon will produce offspring that are red, yellow or orange.
Adding in the mutations — which can be used to create a dragon with, say, translucent skin or solid black eyes — is a bit more complicated, he said.
“I have it memorized at this point. If I breed this to this, I get this.”
The wee green reptile is different.
The color is highly desirable, but McNeely knows it is going to be slow going to produce more than one, let alone a line of green dragons. Committed to doing his part to keep the American population genetically strong — Aussie exports are now banned — he knows he cannot inbreed even though that is what would be most likely to produce more of the same.
That kind of strategizing feels comfortable to McNeely, who plans to maintain and grow Cliffhanger Reptiles while beginning online studies in business this fall.
He’s already had to make multiple tough decisions and deal with problems most teens haven’t even pondered. Ruger, his first dragon, died from a breeding problem called egg binding, for example. He is now certified as an animal euthanasia technician by the American Veterinary Medical Association.
Deciding how often he is willing to breed the dragons in his care was also an issue, he noted. He said some breeders will breed females for four straight seasons. He chooses to do only two seasons per female, with a year off between broods.
Given that dragons live up to 10 years, he finds homes for females at this point so they can have the individual attention they enjoy.
“They are surprisingly friendly, which you wouldn’t expect because they look kind of spiky and mean,” he said of the animals having highly individual personalities and quirks he finds similar to those of dogs. “But, they still do things that mammals don’t.”
Growing the business has also been a work in progress. He’s invested his profits back into Cliffhanger so far. The hatchery is a large temperature-controlled, sterile room at his family home. Dragons require 40-gallon tanks to be happy.
“We’re at a really comfortable size right now,” McNeely said, noting that the hatchery has the capacity for 150 resident adults, more than double what he maintains now.
Customer service and care — such as feeding a steady diet of crickets and collard greens — are routine for both McNeely and his dad, who helps with feeding. He’s also hired a remote team to help with his website and customer service.
It all feels good, said McNeely, who said he has felt like an adult most of his life given that he is an only child.
“People asked when I was little what I wanted to be,” he added with a laugh. “A lot of people say doctor or lawyer. I just wanted to be the boss. I’ve always been entrepreneurial.”
Combining his evolving love of business with a fascination with seeing life unfolding all around him has been a win-win.
“Every dragon we produce becomes part of a family,” McNeely said. “It’s definitely satisfying in that regard. Fulfilling.”