After a nearly daylong search, investigators in Santa Ana said they pulled 404 snakes -- more than half of them dead -- from the cluttered home of a Newport Beach elementary school teacher.
Reptile specialists called to the five-bedroom house said the surviving ball pythons would be treated by veterinarians and then offered to zoos, schools or collectors. One of the specialists estimated that the surviving snakes were worth at least $100,000.
William Buchman, identified as a snake breeder, was arrested on suspicion of animal cruelty, a felony.
In a police video that showed officers first entering the home, the investigators wore gas masks and clutched Tasers as they slowly advanced. Rats scampered over furniture and scores of clear plastic boxes holding the snakes lined the walls.
"I got rats everywhere," one officer can be heard saying.
There was no evidence of either food or water in any of the cages, said Sondra Berg, Santa Ana Police Department animal services supervisor. Four of the bedrooms were filled with racks, each holding 30 to 40 snakes.
Buchman is identified on various reptile collector websites as a ball python breeder who was using a process known as "morphing" to achieve different patterns on the snakes.
But at some point, Buchman appears to have gone from a hobbyist to a hoarder, Berg said.
"It's pretty sad. Hoarding is pretty much a mental condition. They need help," she said.
Authorities said Buchman's mother died in 2011, and that her death appeared to have affected him profoundly.
Residents in the tidy Santa Ana neighborhood on Fernwood Drive said Buchman was pleasant but that the smell from the house had become overwhelming.
"We thought someone was dead," said Forest Long Sr., 62, who lives next door. "We couldn't open up the bedroom windows. My wife started to gag and throw up."
Last year Buchman, a Baltimore Ravens fan who lived alone, came over to watch the Super Bowl with neighbors, said Forest Long III, 18. But the snake breeder seemed to become reclusive after that.
Long said a white van would sometimes pull up and deliver cages packed with mice.
Animal control visited the home about a year ago, but didn't observe any of the conditions they saw Wednesday. Reports from neighbors prompted further investigation.
Buchman, they said, started to park his car at a nearby park and walk home in order to avoid investigators.
Jason Haywood, president of Southern California Herpetology Association and Rescue, who was helping transport the snakes to a veterinarian in Yorba Linda, said one of the snakes he spotted was a white and yellow phantom butter ball python he estimated was worth about $5,000.
Sam S. Makki, director of Reptile Rescue Orange County, said he was called on to help with the pythons, but that the scene inside the home was depressing.
"Animals are awesome and it can be a rewarding experience" to breed them, Makki said. "But don't bite off more than you can chew."