Despite having her leg amputated after a motorcycle accident, Kolleen Conger continued to compete in motorsports and racing. [Photo courtesy Kolleen Conger]

Kolleen Conger and her daughter, 10-year-old Canyon Ross, were ready for a fresh start when they moved to Moab in the spring of 2019.

Conger had been a competitive motorcyclist for years, often taking home medals and trophies, since the early 2000s. An accident in 2008 shattered both her ankles, and she spent over four years undergoing surgery after surgery before deciding to have her right leg amputated just below the knee. While she says the amputation brought her some pain relief, doctors told her she would never race again.

“I was like, ‘Alright, challenge accepted. Somebody take me to my bike,’” she joked.

Conger rode competitively again using a prosthetic leg, participating in the prestigious 2019 Mint 400 event on a team with three women.

However, that year her return to the sport was hindered by a cancerous mass detected in her abdomen. The mass was successfully removed, but to be safe, doctors prescribed an oral chemotherapy regimen that left Conger constantly exhausted.

At the 2020 Winter X Games, an annual extreme sports event hosted by ESPN, Conger won the bronze medal in the Adaptive Snow Bikecross event, competing against all men. That achievement seemed like a good high point to celebrate before retirement.

“I kind of felt like that I wasn’t going to be able to top that,” she said. Conger said the physical toll of the sport was getting to her and she decided to move to Moab full-time.

“I moved out here to be in my happy place,” she said. “Waking up to the red rocks, I think, is what saved me. It’s what made me healthy again.”

She landed a job she loves—working as an HVAC technician with Moab Heat-N-Cool—and she and her daughter, Canyon, still ride motorcycles together, but they also share another hobby: breeding bearded dragons and ball pythons along with the bugs and rodents the reptiles eat.

Dragons and Exotics

“I was always a pet lover. Just crazy, as a kid, about every pet,” Conger recalled.

She worked as a veterinary technician for seven years and, in addition to the reptiles, has a lap-sized dog named Mojo and a 27-year-old horse.

Early on, Conger saw a kingsnake in a petshop and began her journey into “a whole world of snakes.”

“I love information,” she said. “Anything that I want to learn about, I will research, research, research, and learn.”

Conger eventually became a breeder of large constrictors in the Salt Lake City area. After her accident, she had to sell her snakes in order to focus on recovery. When she decided to retire from racing, her interest in reptiles returned.

“I started again, and in force,” Conger said. “I don’t do well unless I have stuff to do all the time. If I start laying around, I will go into depression.”

In one room within the Conger home, bearded dragons live in home-built enclosures made hospitable with UV bulbs and driftwood perches. Most are comfortable being handled. Bearded dragons are native to Australia and live for about 10 years.

“They all have personalities,” Conger said. “A lot of them know their names. A lot of them want to be with you.”

She and Canyon described how they’d ended up with several of the “beardies.” Some were purchased or bred by Conger, others were rescued and nursed back to health from poor care. Others were adopted from less dire circumstances.

Canyon introduced a beardie named Blondie, holding the reptile affectionately in her lap and explaining how the creature’s “third eye,” a sensor on the top of its head, can help it avoid predators. Her mother looked on proudly.

“She’s super knowledgeable,” Conger said. “You can tell when a kid likes something because when someone comes over, she will be the one that’s doing the talking and the teaching and the showing.”

Conger pointed out the various genetic traits in each dragon, identifiable through the patterns and colors of their scales or the colors of their eyes and claws. She explained what cross of genes could produce each trait, and what the offspring of hypothetical matches might look like.

Her encyclopedic knowledge and enthusiasm are obvious, as is her love of the animals.

“No matter how bad I’m feeling, coming in here and being with them before work just starts the day off so awesome,” said Conger.

The beardies are fed fruits and vegetables, as well as live worms and cockroaches.

For her lizards, Conger raises her own cockroaches, a tropical variety that can’t reproduce without high humidity (ensuring one escapee won’t infest the house).

“These are like popcorn shrimp to them,” Conger said, pointing out the shiny cockroaches’ fat, nutritious abdomens. The roaches scurry from the light as she opens the lidded bin they’re kept in.

During mild weather, Conger takes the bearded dragons and snakes out separately for “enrichment” exercise outside, where the creatures can slither in the grass and climb up and down the front steps.

Conger’s snakes, mostly ball pythons, live in a humid room in her basement. Native to Africa, in the wild the snakes live in burrows and, in captivity, they prefer small, dark places where they can coil up tight—thus the name “ball.”

Conger’s interest in the genetics of the pythons is, if anything, more intense than in that of the bearded dragons. She explained how breeders seek individuals with rare gene expressions and spend years breeding certain types of snakes to try to create desired outcomes.

Conger’s breeding project is to create a “Clown Piebald,” a snake displaying two recessive genetic traits that show up as a unique pattern with reduced coloring and pure white rings or splotches, respectively.

Ball pythons can cost anywhere from under $100 to thousands of dollars. A rare individual could go for as much as $10,000, Conger said. Just raising a female snake from a juvenile to breeding age can triple its value.

When Conger lived in the Salt Lake area and bred constrictors, she brought snakes into school classrooms to give kids the opportunity to hold them and learn more about the creatures.

She still relishes sharing facts about the snakes’ habits and care, marveling at how snakes have adapted to hunt without appendages.

The adult snakes eat about once a week, on Monday nights.

“That’s our family night,” Conger said—she and Canyon will feed the snakes rats or mice, either live or frozen and thawed, depending on each snake’s taste. For that, Conger also raises her own feeder rodents in clean, wood-shaving-lined bins in yet another room of the house.

Conger sells feeder rats to a few clients and some rats are available for sale as pets. Even though many of the rodents are destined to become snake dinner, Conger still keeps careful track of their genetic traits.

“I always breed for cuteness, because why not have fun with it?” she said.

Conger said the reptile breeding community has grown a lot in recent years due to social media. Conger communicates with clients and other breeders through Instagram, where she goes by moab_dragons_and_exotics.

She said the reptile community is like her old motorcycle community in that everyone supports each other.

“When you have a group of people that has the same common interest, everybody treats each other like family,” Conger said. “Everybody just takes care of each other. The world needs more of that right now.”

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