What To Expect at a Reptile Convention
Crocodiles, leopard gecko morphs, and other living curiosities
Reptiles and amphibians are a common part of life, but not often a beloved one. Snakes are representative of deceit and evil in the media, and have been for years; they rank somewhere close to rats in terms of ‘Animals the Public Really Likes’. Crocodiles are notorious for...not coexisting well with people (of no fault of their own). Frogs and turtles are possibly the exception; while your mother may have screamed and/or attempted to throw your frog-in-the-pocket ‘gifts’ from childhood, they don’t typically strike fear into people in quite the same manner as snakes. Overall - Reptiles and amphibians don’t usually come to mind when people think of their beloved family pets. But for some people, reptiles are even more than that; keeping and breeding reptiles is their life.
Repticon is currently one of the biggest companies running reptile expos. My first experience at a Repticon show was out of pure curiosity, not a desire to adopt an animal. It wasn’t that I disliked reptiles; at the time of attending my first show, my girlfriend’s late bearded dragon, Neville, was still alive & held a special place in my heart. There just wasn’t the time, place, or money for any new animals in my life, particularly those that have high care requirements. Admittedly, I shied away from the various people in line cradling snakes around my height in length; I don’t dislike snakes, but I do feel uneasy around them. The snakes weren’t the only animals visitors brought in. Bearded dragons wearing harnesses, a caiman in a cat carrier, a hedgehog simply held. Most of them seemed unfazed by the action; the throngs of people and tables occupied by rows and rows of reptiles, amphibians and other exotics. It gave me the sense that for a lot of the visiting animals, it wasn’t their first time being brought out to an event like this.
I spoke to Skip Peel, an event coordinator for Repticon shows, about Repticon and the processes behind the shows. While attendance numbers vary per show, on average a two-day crowd of a few thousand (3-4000) people will attend an average show. However, getting a show up and running in the first place can be an ordeal. “Finding adequate venues for our shows is often difficult, as we have specific criteria for our type of shows, mainly in terms of venue sizes, venue costs, temperature concerns, and if the local laws are favorable to exotic animals. Ultimately we do basic research on venues and their locations in a metro region where we would like to host an event, and then contact them and ask a laundry list of questions. Very few venues refuse us because the event would include exotic animals, but sometimes that does happen.” said Peel. “We require that all animals displayed are healthy or vendors are not allowed to offer them. Many of our staff are experts in keeping these animals and can identify any such issues. We always require our vendors to follow the local laws in reference to what they offer the public. Only one show we run (Columbia SC) includes any venomous reptiles, and the protocols there are extremely strict with professional escorts over-viewing the specific section of the show with those animals. A vast majority of these animals are harmless, though anything with a mouth can bite. Guests and vendors are encouraged to handle animals they know they can control, which is also the case with any pets guests bring in from the outside, or the animals handled during our hourly live animal presentations. Owners and vendors know their own animals for temperament, either by species or individual animal, and any incidents are extremely rare.”
Repticon vendors and employees are also familiar with the distaste held for many of the animals on exhibit. “There are many people, usually middle age or older, who are simply afraid of the animals, particularly the snakes. Any stigmas associated with these pets are gradually vanishing. People are learning through exposure that most all their fears are not grounded. The animals themselves are generally quiet and clean, and they make great pets that often require less care than other traditional pets. Some of our old timers who have long been in the exotic animal hobby are still the tattooed biker types somewhat outside of the societal mainstream, but the majority of our reptile show attendees are families where the kids more than anyone are interested in the animals and the whole family attends as a group and enjoys these creatures together.”
I was also curious about how vendors and employees tried to ensure that animals went to appropriate homes that were educated on how to care for their exotic animals. “Guests who are in the hobby of keeping reptiles and exotics are in a greater position to best care for these animals as pets than ever before, and coming to our shows represents an even better opportunity for them to keep their animals happy and healthy. Good information on the care of various exotics is now more readily available and accurate, and more appropriate supplies and products now on the market, so that owners now have no excuse to best care for their pets. We encourage guests at our shows to ask questions, attending the hourly seminars on various popular species, and to make sure any new pet is the best fit for them. Our vendors care very much about the animals they breed and sell, and the captive bred animals they produce are very healthy, and everyone does the best they can to make sure new pet owners are informed.” said Peel. Although it wasn’t as if I could have possibly examined each one of hundreds of animals, as a general observation the majority of the animals were kept in spacious, well-cleaned enclosures, and seemed happy and healthy, if a little intimidated by all of the noise and people. But unfortunately, I also saw lots of living purchases being made by those who immediately after went and found a too-small cage and a lack of adequate enrichment. With that being said, it's pretty much impossible to find an animal-related event where sales like this don't happen.
Repticon also works hard to promote responsible pet ownership practices. “We offer hourly seminars and live animal presentations at every show, allowing for guests to learn more about the most popular species of pets before they purchase,” explained Peel. “Our events also bring under one roof the supplies, caging, food, and scientifically developed products best suited for these pets which can be rather difficult to find elsewhere. Every show is also filled with a number of exotic animal experts in our vendors, and anyone who wishes to mine the years of vast knowledge available on reptile keeping has only to start asking questions. If they do not know where to start, they should stop by the Repticon Info table at the event entrance and get suggestions.” Many expos don't make the same attempts to educate their audience and future pet owners.
One of the biggest surprises about entering Repticon was just how many animals were there - reptiles or not. “ In addition to reptiles, which as pets includes snakes, lizards, and turtles, amphibians and invertebrates are the most common other exotics seen at the shows. These would include frogs, toads, and salamanders, while the most popular invertebrates are spiders, usually numerous tarantula species, as well as scorpions and centipedes. At times there are also exotic small mammals, such as sugar gliders, hedgehogs, and chinchillas. Occasionally shows offer larger mammals, though typically those are display animals only, used to promote an animal rescue or other non-profit animal organization.” said Peel. At the show I attended, I encountered a porcupine, pot-bellied pigs, purple moon crabs, and an Amazon parrot, none of which I had expected to see.
While Repticon is an informative and fun event for all ages, I personally wouldn’t recommend purchasing any animal, though in specific an exotic, without doing lots and lots of prior research. That doesn’t mean you can’t have fun at an event like Repticon. Although I didn’t purchase any animals during my visit, I enjoyed looking over all the animals on display & attending the live animal presentations. There’s no shame in going even if you are a little afraid - you aren’t obligated to touch or hold any animals - just don’t make rude comments about anyone’s pet, even if you might not understand their function. For some people, these animals fit better with their lifestyles and personalities than a more typical pet could. “In some ways it is a matter of taste of what animals people like - as many of these exotics are fascinating and beautiful in their particular ways. The types of reptiles and exotics kept in the hobby are quite varied. Some are more like keeping aquarium fish, while others are pets that owners can more often handle, interact with, and even carry around on their shoulders or via leash. So it depends what each person "gets" out of keeping that pet. For some with allergies, reptiles don't affect them. Reptiles are quiet. Most reptiles, and guests do need to ask questions and research to find out, but they can be far easier to care for than a cat or dog. Some of these animals are bred for endless coloration and patterns, making for some very beautiful specimens for those who love them.” says Peel. If you do decide to go, go into it with an open mind - even if you might not want to share your home with a ball python or leopard gecko, that doesn’t mean you can’t appreciate them for being wonderful pets for someone else.