It’s inspiring to hear stories of people who risk following their passion as a means of livelihood.
Much of the time, it takes a desperate situation to push them into that territory, as satisfying as they know it can be. It sounds too good to be true.
Yet hobby and livelihood are two very different things. The best stories are when, through research, hard work, a little luck and the right publicity, they find themselves smiling at the results – and loving what they do.
That just might be Ryan Bates’ story, too.
Ever since high school, Ryan has had an interest in mice.
“I just liked mice; they’re interesting to watch and are a very low maintenance kind of pet,” he said. “I’d see them in the pet store and got curious about them.”
He actually raised finches and geckos in addition to the mice, but soon focused solely on the little rodents. He and his younger brother read books on the subject, experimenting with different types of cages, especially those without lids. As much as anything, he liked building elaborate “habitats” for his pets, glassed-in affairs complete with painted mountains and rivers.
His array of pets took up the whole shed.
They experimented with genetics and various food supplies and bred “fancy mice,” capitalizing on genetic mutations for color and hair type.
“Take the brightest Nike orange you can have and that’s the color of the mouse,” he said.
Last spring, unemployed, it was iffy whether Ryan and his wife, Tricia, with three growing boys and a mortgage were going to be able to make ends meet. Something had to happen – and happen fast.
Well aware of Ryan’s penchant for mice, his brother, who’d recently attended a Reptile Expo, encouraged him to consider raising mice as a business – both as pets and as feeders for reptiles, birds of prey – even carnivorous fish.
“I was skeptical,” Ryan said.
“No, no, no, no, no – you don’t understand how big the market is,” countered his brother.
A methodical type, and not one to jump into something on a whim, Ryan resumed the research of his teen years – but now, from a production and marketing standpoint as well.
“We actually prayed about it quite a bit and it seemed like the right thing to do – as long as the research proved it was possible.”
He thought through every single step of the process, ferreted out the information that several large mice breeders had recently gone out of business due to their own medical issues.
The rates on mice would jump upwards of 300 percent in two weeks – pricing some in the reptile business out of the industry.
Ryan set out to see if he could compete with large, national rodent breeders – those capable of lower rates because of production volume and costs, and with large, dedicated markets such as zoos and pet store chains.
After looking at the overhead costs and the markup he’d need, Ryan believed he could undercut the competition – and bring the market closer to home again. With cutting-edge technology, he believed could raise higher quality mice and rats and improve the health of reptiles, whose diets often consist solely of water and one mouse a week.
Using his own stock, Ryan started a couple of “breeding harems,” aiming toward superior traits and careful to avoid overtaxing the mothers and inbreeding. His three boys help tame the pet mice.
The rodents get the finest of fare: plenty of water and a “lab block”; nothing else is required.
“It’s designed for laboratories; they have to have a quality feed that’s 99.9 percent consistent,” Ryan said. “The information on what’s in it is literally two sheets long.” He buys them locally whenever possible.
He built a bank of cages he considers a competitive advantage.
“Because of the 15 years of caging experience I’ve had, I know what works and what doesn’t,” he said. “These are space saving and virtually escape proof. We have yet to have an escape out of the racks that we built.”
He strives to make the animals’ set-up as healthy as possible – even allowing for several days’ care should something prevent human tending.
Operating as RMB Pets & Feeders, he started quite small, with one Salem reptile owner to whom he delivered two or three mice once a week.
Through advertising and word of mouth, he started hearing from owners of snakes, lizards, birds of prey – he has even seen a bird-catching tarantula with a 4- to 5-inch body and a footprint about 8 inches in diameter.
You can imagine the reactions he gets when Ryan tells people what he does.
“…But they usually come around pretty quick, especially when you tell them about the clients we have and the type of money we’re making.”
In addition to private clients, Ryan now sells to pet stores, and other entities, including the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport, where, Ryan said, they have a top-notch snake exhibit.
“We have inquiries from north of Everett through south of Eugene and east to the Tri-Cities,” he said. “There are more snake owners around here than you can even imagine,” he said. “They range all the way from a baby snake a few inches long to ball pythons. There are even pedigreed snakes that can cost up to $4,000.”
Being able to put a natural interest into play as income and see it thrive, Ryan said, has been “amazing; surprising; fulfilling.”
“It’s a pretty amazing business – you feel like you’re actually doing something worthwhile for other people by providing a service nobody else in the area can,” he said. “People own this stuff and they need to be fed.”
While Ryan could expand his business – and some plans are in the works – at this time he’s not sure how big he wants to get.
While he ponders, Ryan has recently added a job as an emergency medical technician on the graveyard shift.
“This has been a strange year of unemployment,” his wife Tricia reflects. “God has provided in ways I never even would have thought.”
She is a kindergarten teacher at Bethany Charter School and gives piano lessons at her home. In the past year, she began getting requests for the beaded jewelry she creates as a hobby.
Next came a windfall of materials from others who decided beading wasn’t their thing. She plans to set up shop on www.etsy.com, an online marketplace for handmade goods.
“I can’t believe we’re still in this house,” Tricia said.
“I had garage sales because I thought we were going to have to move into an apartment.”