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  • Ava Cargan

Reptile Expos: What are they and how should we think about them?

Reptile & Exotic Animal Expo Shows are a way for vendors to sell reptiles and other less common species. It is similar to a flea market set up where the reptiles are displayed for people to view them. Some vendors will allow you to hold animals, while others may not unless you are serious about purchasing them; some venues they are held in can be controlled, but others are not. These shows are open to the public, with or without a fee; they are not licensed pet stores but they make the animals available for public display to be sold, bought, or traded. At any of these expos, the public can see various types of rare animals like rare snakes, lizards, tarantulas, turtles, and more. In states such as New York, venomous animals are not allowed to be sold, however in states such as Pennsylvania, they can be sold.

The role of expos play in facilitating trade and their implications are less well understood. This past weekend, Professor Ryan Almeida brought his ENVST-317: Global Wildlife Trade class to the Finger Lakes Reptiles & Exotics Expo less than two hours from campus. The Finger Lakes Reptiles & Exotics Expo is usually a biannual expo where breeders and consumers of Central New York can gather to buy and sell reptiles, amphibians, arthropods, and more. Compared to pet stores, expos provide more opportunities for individuals to purchase less common or unusual species, and breeders/distributors will often travel for the opportunity to sell more “products,” depending on the size and scale of the expo. 

That’s what a reptile expo is, but what does it look like? 

When attending the Finger Lakes Reptiles & Exotics Expo, I had a rollercoaster of unexpected emotions. Initially, upon walking in, there were displays of animals set up by their vendors with people walking around to view the displays. Immediately seeing them, the displays appear to be harmful for the animals. There were a variety of animals that were being shown off: geckos (both baby and adult) were in clear plastic containers, usually with a wet paper towel. Snakes were curled up in clear containers where they would remain coiled. There were bearded dragons who were placed in a bin that had paper towels on the bottom, but they were provided with a heat lamp. There were tarantulas and spiders that were kept in plastic cups. There were a few chameleons that were in a plastic container as well, but had a branch to sit on. All animal containers would have a price tag on them for those looking to buy them.

Seeing the animals on display, and how the expos often function as unlicensed pet stores, made me think extra hard about the treatment of the animals being sold and what regulations applied to them. So, I inquired with the vendors. Many vendors I met were generally in the area of upstate New York. Getting to know the vendors gave me a better understanding of how they were treating the animals. Any conversation I started with the vendors began with me asking if I could take pictures of their displays, and all said yes: 

Examples of snake displays:

Example of the chameleon displays:

Examples of gecko displays: 

Vendors were usually happy to let you take pictures as long as you were being respectful. I was surprised that there were vendors who would let you hold their animals. I held 2 geckos, a snake, and 2 bearded dragons to fully understand the experience. I started uncovering more about the vendors while I was holding their animals as they would stand there and talk to me about them.

The first animal that I held was a gecko. After I had asked to take pictures of their geckos, the vendor immediately offered to take one out so I could get a better picture. He took the gecko out and handed him right to me; I had not expected any vendor to do this with their animals, but he was very willing to take him out of the container for me (he also took a picture of me with the gecko because the gecko was very attached to me). He talked about how they breed their animals and how they are cared for when they aren’t at expos. It was relieving to hear that this breeder took steps to take good care of his geckos outside of the expo, but despite the way that the animal display was set up, he expressed genuine care about the animals. Late into our conversation, he asked if I was interested in purchasing a gecko. I told him no because I was a college student, but that I did one day want some type of lizard or ideally a bearded dragon when I could afford to care for them properly. This specific vendor also stood there with me and talked to me about the similarities and differences between keeping geckos and/or bearded dragons for pets, and what I would have to be prepared for to take care of them. He was excited to talk about the animals, but seemed very genuinely passionate about taking care of his reptiles.

Moving through the rest of the expo, I had another gecko vendor do the same thing as the first. He took the gecko I was looking at out of the container, let me take pictures, and he also took a picture of me with the gecko. He also asked if I was intending to buy one and I told him that I couldn’t and I was a college student who couldn’t care for them properly. As his gecko liked to sit on my shoulder, he also did the same thing and talked to me about caring for different types of reptiles, which were the most high maintenance, most low maintenance, and price wise which were cheaper or more expensive so I could properly plan for care. He also talked about being a breeder, but talked in depth about the care of the animals under him.

Meeting snakes was more complicated because there were often a lot of people. I was allowed to hold the yellow snake pictured who the vendor said was really social. The snake did spend about 10 minutes with its head on my chest while I held him up. The vendor said that his snakes loved being held and they spent a lot of time playing with them because they were friendly. This vendor telling me about playing with snakes didn’t make me any less angry that his snakes were coiled into the containers, but I was glad to know that it wasn’t their whole life.

I ended the expo by spending about half an hour with the bearded dragon breeders. They had their bearded dragons in a bin but still had heat lamps for them. They would allow you to stick your hand right into the container to pick one of the dragons up. I held two of their bearded dragons. I specifically asked this vendor about their care of their dragons, both because I wanted one and because I wanted to make sure this wasn’t their usual treatment. These were the nicest vendors that I had met that day, and they went really in depth about the breeding and care of their animals.

The reptile expo was right in our backyard, but a lot of people don’t know that they exist, let alone that there is one within driving distance of us. Every reptile expo is different and has different rules that they have to follow, but the reptile expos are hard to entirely wrap your head around until you experience one. At this expo, the displays of the animals were concerning, the animals looked uncomfortable, and the containers that they were being kept in are not spaces where they can thrive and be in good health. While I hated seeing the ways that the animals were being kept during the expo, many vendors described taking great care of their animals outside of the expo; in order to fully be able to develop an opinion on the expo, both looking at the animals and talking to vendors was necessary.

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