At the Reptile Expo


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There was plenty to look at. Mostly reptiles, of course, but also people who buy and sell reptiles, a colorful bunch that you wouldn’t want to quarrel with, but that, in the context of the Reptile Expo, were very friendly.

At a table near the entrance, a mother-daughter team sold lizards — bearded dragons, to be precise, arranged in basins according to age, from month to about a year (full grown). I joined a small group who were comparing the babies, tiny whippet-thin creatures, to the adults, Yoda look-alikes with mellow dispositions. The mother-daughter vendors were explaining how sweet these lizards were, and I have to say, stroking the bearded dragons under the chin (the way they like), I did find them sweet. I even considered buying one were it not that I’d have to clean the cage. (Having spent an extended period of my life cleaning cages — I mean rooms — of two children, I wasn’t about to do this for a reptile, no matter how cute he was.)

At the next table, under a sign that read “Randolph’s Reptiles: Captive Bred Reptiles for the Discerning Collector,” were an assortment of emperor scorpions ($6.99 or two for $12), and some blue-tongued skinks ($100). A father with a little girl in pink overalls was leaning over a skink: “Isn’t she pretty?” the father said. “Can I have one?” the daughter pleaded.

I don’t know whether the father indulged the daughter with a $100 skink; I had moved on to the table with the geckos. Geckos are cute, as you probably know from those car insurance commercials, and there were lots of varieties to choose from at lots of price points.

Still, one doesn’t go to a reptile expo to look at geckos, or even blue-tongued skinks. One goes to look at snakes, and here I was not disappointed. Everywhere you looked, someone was holding a snake — or rather, allowing one to wrap itself around an arm or slither down a leg. Spirited exchanges were in progress on such topics as eventual size, preferred diet, and mating habits. There were small snakes with brightly patterned skins that looked like the lanyards I used to make in summer camp, and large snakes with big muddy bodies. You could go from a Northern Emerald that resembled a luminous necklace in its glass box to an Angry Ball python that looked, well, angry.

I was most interested, predictably, in the poisonous snakes and was sent over to a vendor pleased to show me a Gaboon viper, a fearsome creature with a slab of coiled body and a big triangular head. Unlike the smooth elliptical heads of non-poisonous snakes, the poisonous ones have swollen heads where they store their venom. “Cut off the head, peel and cook,” noted one cheerful visitor, who seemed to think I had a culinary interest in this particular snake. “Tastes just like chicken.”

“Why would anyone buy a venomous snake?” I asked the vendor, and received what I came to learn was the standard reply: “Why skydive or bungee jump? It’s the thrill, the extreme.” He brought out some of the hooked poles used for handling poisonous snakes. Had he ever been bitten? Every five years or so, he shrugged. “The first time I went to the hospital and got the anti-venom, but the other two times I just held out — it wasn’t fun. If this one bit you,” he indicated the Gaboon viper, “you’d want to shoot yourself between the eyes.”

I moved to another table where a kinder and gentler Papuan python was on sale for $825. Though already 8 feet and destined to grow as long as 18, this python was “a sweetheart,” according to its vendor, with a diet of mostly smaller snakes, jumbo rats, and rabbits. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a table where plastic bags of dead rabbits and guinea pigs were being sold, much in the way, I suppose, we buy our prepared foods in the supermarket. I side-stepped this table and followed the suggestion of the python vendor and went to speak to Tom the Critterman.

Tom, it seems, gets free space at reptile expos because of his voluminous knowledge of all things reptilian.  He is about 65 years old with watery blue eyes and long gray hair. I asked his real name, but he insisted on Tom the Critterman. His parrot, Peanut, was hopping on the table and hopped up to me, being “partial to the ladies.”

The Critterman and I discussed reptiles. He’d grown up in El Paso, Texas where his “playground was the desert.” He explained some of the adaptive features of reptiles: the difference, for example, between the crested gecko with its suction cup feet (for holding onto wet leaves in the rain forest) and the leopard gecko, a dessert dweller, whose thick tail allows for storage when food is scarce. He also expounded on the two varieties of poisonous snakes, simplifying for the layperson: vipers that attack the blood and elapids that cause respiratory failure — then detoured into the difference between the male and the female tarantella. (I neglected to mention that there were turtles, mice, frogs, crabs, and spiders at the Reptile Expo; though not strictly speaking reptiles, they apparently appeal to reptile-lovers.) Tom the Critterman produced a female tarantella from under the table and stroked her affectionately (“Only got into spiders late in life; wish I’d appreciated them sooner”) and encouraged me to do the same. I did, if only to say that I’d touched a tarantella.

I left the Reptile Expo with a new sense of appreciation. The bearded dragons were cute, and I could see the appeal of the snakes, at least the non-poisonous ones. “They’re very clean,” as one enthusiast noted, “and they like to hug.” At one point a vendor, hearing that I planned to write about the show, pleaded with me to be positive. “We need all the good publicity we can get,” he said. “The Bible gave us a bad rap, you know.” • 31 March 2011


Paula Marantz Cohen is Distinguished Professor of English and Dean of the Pennoni Honors College at Drexel University in Philadelphia. She is the author of 12 books, including six scholarly/nonfiction works on literature and film, and six novels, some spin-offs on Jane Austen and Shakespeare, and a thriller involving the James family and Jack the Ripper. She is a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal, The Times Literary Supplement, The Yale Review, and The American Scholar, a co-editor of jml: Journal of Modern Literature, and the host of the nationally distributed television interview show, The Civil Discourse (formerly The Drexel InterView). Her book, Talking Cure: An Essay on the Civilizing Power of Conversation will be published by Princeton UP in February.