Learning to Love Reptiles

I have been a lifelong fan of floofsters and puffballs. From terriers and corgis, to maine coons and persians, I love them all. And I’m not the only one with a love of mammals: it seems like every week BuzzFeed comes up with a new listicle describing the cuteness of our feline and canine friends. There are entire Instagram accounts dedicated to cute cats, dogs, rabbits, even mini-horses. I follow all of them.

Reptiles, on the other hand, have not always been my favorite. They’re cold-blooded and there’s something almost primally repulsive about them, as though we humans are programmed to be averse to reptilian looks and behaviors.

I wondered: is it possible for a lifetime mammal-lover to learn to appreciate reptiles? I spent some time with reptile-enthusiasts at the Tucson’s Repticon Reptile Show to find out.

The reptile show started off fairly smoothly as I entered one exhibition hall and strolled past vendor tables that displayed closed plastic containers occupied by snakes of all patterns and colors. This is fine, I thought. Just a bunch of snakes behind glass, like at the zoo.

After walking into the second exhibit hall, I was drawn to a long table with dozens of quart-sized plastic tubs. I looked closer at the contents and saw hundreds of little roaches. Each tub was labeled “Dubia Roaches” and had a section of cardboard egg carton in it. The roaches were busy climbing over each other around the cardboard, making a sound just like rice crispies cereal as their exoskeletons crinkled against each other. The man at the table, Nathan from FeederSource.com, explained that these roaches are originally from Central and South America, but his facility in Georgia breeds about a million per month. Customers buy them to feed reptiles, amphibians, and tarantulas.

Still a bit shaken from the sound of the roaches, I asked to see what other kinds of foods FeederSource supplies for its customers. Nathan opened up the freezer to show me rows upon rows of plastic bags full of baby mice, mature mice, and rats. At any given time, FeederSource holds about 150,000 mice and about 30,000 rodents, and Nathan explains that most snake pets only require one mouse per week. That lucky mouse gets to be thawed in hot water for a while and fed to the snake. Snakes like warm meals.

I looked up from Nathan’s freezer to observe the growing crowds. There were people with iguanas on their shoulders and snakes wrapped casually around their necks like python is on-trend for the summer. I realized that I was not adequately prepared to be around so many reptiles, and their snacks, at once. I felt like I could become a snack and suddenly I just wanted my mom.

Then I saw it.

A giant, yellow and white snake laying on THE FLOOR. Not in a plastic container or behind a glass case. Just hanging out, with people–CHILDREN– nary a foot away. I walked a bit closer and saw the snake move. I instinctively jumped back, ducking behind the shoulder of a guy next to me.

“It’s ok, she’s not going to do anything to you,” the guy said, not the least bit perturbed that a frazzled woman is trying to use him as a human shield.

At this point I had tears in my eyes and walked away for a moment to process. Yep, there’s a giant snake on the floor and no one cares.

I rekindled my humanity and returned to the display to talk to Preston, owner and operator of Preston’s Pythons, who introduced me to the snake: an 80lb Burmese python named Eve. “She’s completely harmless,” he said, and explained that non-venomous snakes, like pythons, are actually not aggressive at all. According to Preston, snakes are one of the few animals that you can encounter in the wild and take into captivity without a lot of trouble. When a snake realizes that you don’t pose a threat, they can acclimate to anyone or any environment.

Preston also described how, due to a lack of education, people think that snakes and reptiles are out to get them, when in reality, snakes and reptiles just like to be left alone. TV doesn’t help either (this sentiment was repeated by everyone I spoke to).

As Preston and I talked, I noticed something moving by the gray tupperware bin by his feet. A black and white speckled tail flailed out of the bin followed by a little claw grasping at the edge of the box.

“Holy shit!” I said, and took a few steps back.

“It’s ok, that’s just Monty, my tegu,” Preston said as he reached into the bin and pulled out a 3 foot lizard that honestly could have been a komodo dragon. I shook my head. These people are TOO CASUAL with the reptiles.

“How much does he weigh?” Monty looked like a solid 30 pounder.

“Just 7 pounds. He’s mostly hollow inside.”

As it turns out, this hollowness allows Monty to enjoy a tasty diet of fruits and vegetables, like pineapple and zucchini.

Preston cradled Monty in the crook of his arm and Monty stuck out his forked tongue at me. “Monty is pretty chill, too. He just likes to eat and get belly rubs.”

Dear god, I have something in common with a tegu.

I thanked Preston for his time and moved on to a slightly less unsettling chameleon display where I met Vince, founder of Blue Panther Chams, who sees chameleons as therapeutic, albeit demanding, pets. Vince has always loved raising animals and is especially fond of chameleons, who are originally from Madagascar and have cool features like a prehensile tail and independently functioning eyes. These features make them great hunters, but they’re fussy pets. “On a scale of 1-10, 10 being most difficult to raise, chameleons are like a 6,” Vince explained, but the payoff is great if you stick with it. Vince has been raising them for years and, through strategic cross-breeding, finally developed chameleons with a deep blue color. “The ones previously have this white stripe on the side and are a robin’s egg blue color, but over time, we’ve managed to get them to this really nice deep blue coloring that you see here.” It’s true–the chameleon was gorgeous. But make no mistake: it wasn’t changing colors in front of my eyes. “That’s kind of myth people get from TV–not all chameleons change color.” Color-changing or not, I thought the chameleons were very nice and definitely therapeutic after the encountering the gigantic Burmese python and the unpredictable tegu.

I walked over to the Reef and Reptile Co. table to talk with Michael, a trained biologist. He was open and informative about the benefits of reptiles as pets and echoed some of the points I had heard earlier: that TV has ruined reptiles for many people, and that snakes and reptiles are actually quite docile. So what draws people to having snakes and reptiles as pets? “They’re low-maintenance. If you look around here, you see lots of young adults. They can stay out later, or even travel, without having to worry because snakes can be fed once a week, or once every two weeks depending on the size.”

Michael mentioned that snakes can be “designer” pets in the most literal sense: you can design snakes in particular patterns and colors. He showed me one of his own creations: the hieroglyph Burmese python. Its distinctive pink, yellow and white color patterns are the result of strategic breeding practices.

The designability of snakes is just one benefit for people who are seeking a more demanding non-human companion. Michael explained that reptiles and snakes are great for animal lovers who really want to work to understand their animals. “Unlike a dog or a cat, a snake won’t communicate too much with you to tell you what it needs, so you really have to study the species and observe it to maintain a relationship with it.”

Michelle at JM Snakes and Cages acknowledged that although snakes and reptiles do have a reputation for being low-maintenance, this kind of thinking sometimes leads to trouble for snakes whose owners don’t take their responsibilities to heart. “There are lots of misunderstandings about housing and care. They underestimate temperature requirements because snakes are picky about how warm it is.” As Michelle outlined these common pitfalls of snake-ownership, she had a ball python coiled around her neck. When I asked why she’s comfortable with that, she said “it’s a symbiotic relationship we have here. The snake feels nice and cool on my skin, meanwhile the snake is retaining some of my warmth to feel comfortable and happy.”

After a few hours of being face to face with creatures who, by and large, are not at the top of many people’s favorite animal lists, I did get to feel comfortable, maybe even a little bit happy, about being surrounded by snakes and reptiles and the people who love them. I learned a lot from the vendors. Did you know that when snakes lay a bunch of eggs it’s called a “clutch,” while some skinks (a member of the reptile class) give live birth to litters?  Snakes have personalities just like cats and dogs: some are grumpy, some are more active and energetic, some are super chill. And snakes never stop growing–their growth just slows down until it’s not noticeable to the naked eye.

It’s hard to deny the joy of cuddling with kitten in your lap, or scratching the belly of a fluffy golden retriever, but not every pet needs to be an angelic fluff ball. Reptiles and snakes are a true animal-lover’s animal, suitable for those looking to extend their understandings of animal life beyond the fluffballs that crowd our social media feeds. Reptiles and snakes may not need us, but we could all benefit from developing more appreciation for them.  

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