The guy who runs the Know Your Rep Reptile Shows table definitely has a name, but I don’t catch it, so for our purposes, let’s call him Donny Osmond, because he looks like a blond Donny Osmond, if Donny Osmond had a no-bullshit cop stache.
Donny Osmond has a story about an anaconda he used to own. It’d eat two whole chickens per meal, he said, and to kill them the snake would coil around one unlucky bird and smash it into the ground until “it was in pieces or it stopped moving.”
Once, the anaconda smacked a chicken into the ground with such force that an egg popped out. His partner at the time, Tony, picked up the “perfectly good egg” and fried that sucker up.
Donny Osmond tells this whole story with a nine-foot Columbian red python coiled around his neck, which elicits approving nods and comments (“Girthy!”) from those who know what’s worth approving, crowded around him and his daughter. She Vanna-White’s other reptiles and products at his behest.
The Rochester Reptile Expo, better known as Rexpo, is in its third year, and these are the types of stories told this past Saturday at the family-heavy affair, billed as being “Herpetoculture for Herpers by Herpers.”
Hundreds of reptile enthusiasts crowded the Main Street Armory, where rows and rows of vendors hawked an Ark’s worth of snakes, geckos, frogs, tortoises, and more. (The Armory looks a little church-ish in the daylight, beneath those massive windows.) The vendor logos range from crude Photoshop to downright corporate, to the point that you might forget they deal in venomous frogs from Madagascar; the Vivariums in the Mist logo looks like it could be advertising a Disney World-roller coaster.
Patrons walk around with snakes slung around their necks, and no one seems to shy away from handling any of the reptiles. A lot of them are wearing camo, and I say that not as a David Brooks-ian social signifier but just to illustrate how difficult it was to tell whether someone had a snake around their neck or it was just the pattern on their jacket.
The dietary needs of the various reptiles necessitates an ecosystem among the living merchandise. For every few snake vendors (most of whom elect to display their wares in stacked plastic boxes that are IKEA-level efficient), there’s a rat and mouse breeder not too far away. One mouse breeder describes the process by which he likes to thaw his frozen mice when he feeds his snakes: snakes are attracted to the higher body heat of rodents, so to appease them, he dips sandwich baggies full of dead frozen mice in to boiling water. If there’s still more heating to be done, he uses a blow dryer.
If you’ve purchased a reptile, there are terrariums and containers ranging from the most Spartan wooden boxes to, like, crystal terrariums complete with miniature deck furniture. After that, there’s feed to be bought, décor to consider, and of course, free of charge, expertise.
It cannot be understated: the vendors, as well as most of the patrons, know this shit cold. Which reptiles will mix well, which will bother each other, how big a container has to be for each stage of a reptile’s life, the best time of the year to mail crested geckos in cold weather regions, and more. The two herpers running a Wellsboro, Pa. outfit called Canyon County Reptiles claim to be better forecasters of the genetic mutations and number of babies in a given season than an online calculator of such things, “without fail.” One educator weaves some serpentine fun facts into a story about a nun, an old professor, and an eight-foot indigo snake.
Throughout the afternoon, it’s a deep, abiding curiosity in all matters reptilian that unites the crowd (duh), but beyond that, there’s a real sense of camaraderie in the community. Yes, everyone’s trying to wring a buck out of this, but vendors take precious time away from sales pitches to indulge every question they field, from greenhorns like me to experts who ask questions they already know the answer to, just to make conversation. One woman hands out a $30 frog to a little girl going through chemo over the protest of her father. (“Let me give you something.”)
Vendor and customer alike traveled from hours away to get to Rexpo; the furthest I hear is five, which is definitely traversable, but it’s still a commitment to something more than just the inventory they’ll move or buy during the day. I think it’s the idiosyncratic nature of the whole herpetoculture that creates the warmth and fervor of the vendors, the ticket sellers, and everyone who came to find the perfect ball python for their collection. I think Rexpo is, ultimately, the type of community of self-aware weirdos that a lot of online fandoms aspire to be.