NEWBERRY — Less than a mile from downtown Newberry, hidden almost in plain sight, sits a group of unmarked gray warehouse buildings that contain either endless wonders or the stuff of nightmares, depending on how you feel about snakes.
The Gourmet Rodent, established in 1986, is a 56,000-square-foot indoor reptile farm that houses 70,000 reptiles at any time, most of them snakes.
The compound boasts a hundred different species of snakes, lizards, tortoises and other scaly critters, plus a few dozen scorpions, said co-owner Mike Layman, who bought the business from the original owners with his wife, Betsy, in May.
The business also ships frozen feeder rodents — hence the name of the business — which, while it's less fascinating than the snake-breeding part, accounts for about half of the company's revenue, Layman said.
In decades past, Layman said, reptile breeders, especially those dealing in snakes, had a tendency to hide in the shadows because of the general public's queasy feeling toward slithery pets.
But the Gourmet Rodent is one of the two largest reptile suppliers in the world, and Layman, 40, says he's in a place to help break down some of the stigma surrounding snakes.
"We've got nothing to hide," he said.
Layman grew up in South Florida and got his love of reptiles from his mother and grandmother, who were involved with the Miami Serpentarium.
"(They) always just fascinated me," he said. "I was always more interested in reptiles than I was in dogs or cats," although he added he's a lover of furry creatures as well.
Not the case with Betsy Layman, who said she was terrified of snakes to begin with but grew to accept them as her husband exposed her to them more and more.
"Nothing ate me in my sleep over the years," she said.
Now, she even sports a snake tattoo, although she still prefers her Great Dane, named Andre the Giant Dog.
Layman started working at the Gourmet Rodent in 2001, when original owners Bill and Marcia Brant were running the company on a smaller property outside Archer.
The Gourmet Rodent moved to its larger, current home in Newberry in 2006.
Eventually, Layman said he hopes the business, which occupies four warehouse buildings in a commercial park, will encompass the entire property.
It already takes about 75 people to run the operation, including Layman's two sons, Matt and CJ, plus a geneticist/biologist, shippers, tank cleaners, people who feed the animals, people who breed the animals and a man named Besana Ross, who performs ultrasounds on female breeder snakes all day, every day.
The Gourmet Rodent ships frozen rodents and living reptiles Monday through Thursday to clients as far away as Europe, Africa and Southeast Asia.
The business also has an agreement with a national pet store chain, which Layman declined to name. The Gourmet Rodent supplies all 1,200 of its stores.
Trends in reptile keeping in different parts of the world keep the company busy raising multiple popular groups of snakes, Layman said.
For example, when ball pythons became the pet to have about a decade ago, he couldn't get anyone to buy snakes like the Mexican black king snake, which falls into the colubridae family with other king snakes, corn snakes and rat snakes.
But now that the colubrid market is becoming popular in Asia, Layman said he can barely raise the Mexican black king snakes fast enough to keep up with demand.
Snakes are bred in-house, using natural selective breeding, Layman said. There's no artificial manipulation of the animals' genetics by injection.
From the time the eggs hatch, workers keep track of the snakes' feeding behavior, color and pattern with meticulous color-coded notes stamped on their plastic pans, which line shelves from floor to ceiling in most of the rooms in the Gourmet Rodent's compound.
Some snakes are identified as pets from the beginning. Others might hatch with an unusual color expression or pattern and will be kept as breeders.
Ball pythons, the most popular species bred on-site, have 3,000 recognized color and pattern mutations.
In 2008, the Gourmet Rodent became the first to produce a mutation called the "highway" ball python, named for the broken yellow line running down the snake's back.
The original "highway" ball python sold for $23,000.
The price on those has since fallen, Layman said, and most of the pythons he sells are still priced below a couple hundred dollars.
A few of the designer varieties, such as the "honeybee" and "super gravel" ball pythons, will still fetch $10,000 out of the egg.
Some other species are collected in the wild, then kept for some adjustment time before being sold as pets, such as chameleons and Peters' banded skinks, which come from Niger.
Layman said if his colony of Peters' banded skinks does well, it will be the largest captive-bred colony in the world.
While the Gourmet Rodent is a for-profit business, Layman said the most important rule of the company is that animals must be treated with respect and care.
"They didn't ask to be put in cages," he said, adding that he has fired workers for neglecting to feed mice and mealworms. "It's our responsibility to treat them as well as we possibly can."
Reptiles might not be everyone's cup of tea, Layman said.
Even within his family, who all work at the Gourmet Rodent, he believes he's the only true "herper" — an affectionate term for reptile nerds.
Still, he said, "I can't imagine doing anything else."