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1 Million Snakes Slither Their Way to Tinley Park for Reptile Extravaganza

Thousands from around the U.S. converged in Tinley Park over the weekend for the North American Reptile Breeders Conference — one of the largest reptile shows in the world.

Bolingbrook resident Jeremy Browning has 40 snakes, 60 geckos, seven monitor lizards and 100 poison dart frogs.

And to him, it's not enough.

"I would always welcome more," said the 13-year-old Windy City Reptiles volunteer, who let a 2-year-old anaconda coil around him Saturday during an interview. "This is my passion. It's the only thing I want to do."

Young Browning was among about 9,000 reptile enthusiasts, members of animal organizations, breeders and curious potential pet owners who flocked from all over the country this past weekend to for the North American Reptile Breeders Conference. The was host for the two days to more than 1 million animals, the majority of which were snakes, said Bob Ashley one of two coordinators of the 11th annual event.

"This is really to educate people and get them to meet some of the animals," he said. "A lot of people don't know how great reptiles truly are."

Showcasing Animals That Slither, Crawl and Hop

Statistics from the United States Association of Reptile Keepers indicate that the reptile business yields more than $2 billion of revenue each year in the U.S.

Breeders, cage manufacturers and owners of feed companies were cashing in during the weekend's conference.

The extravagant show featured snakes, lizards, frogs, turtles and even a 8 1/2 foot-long, 220-pound alligator named Bubba, who tolerantly posed for photos with show-goers. The gator was joined by owner and handler Jim Nesci, host of the "conservation through education" animal show, Cold Blooded Creatures. He talked to Bubba casually and even kissed him on the snout when he began to squirm on the long table where he lay.

"They call me the alligator whisperer," Nesci said, grinning from ear to ear. "They really do. Bubba is 9 years old."

Alligators live an average of 35 to 50 years, he said, but some can live up to 70 or 80.

All animals at the conference, including Bubba, were "captive bred and born," Ashley said, and no wild animals were in the building.

They were also all non-venomous—pet owners aren't allowed to have venomous reptiles in Illinois without a special permit, according to the Chicago Herpetological Society.

Brian Barczyk, owner of the Michigan-based breeding business, BHB Reptiles that's featured on SnakeBytesTV, brought about 1,000 snakes to the weekend-long event. Among them was a 15-foot long yellow and white albino reticulated python.

"I think this is about educating the masses," Barczyk said. "It's about meeting people who share that passion but also connecting with people who are interested and curious. Snakes are not evil, but beautiful."

He focuses on teaching people about the animals and finding a pet that's right for them, he said.

"The vast majority of snakes are friendly," he said. "Just like a dog or cat, you'll occasionally get one that likes to bite. For the most part, they really aren't that way."

Reptile Lovers Converge From Far and Wide

The warehouse-sized room in the convention center was lined as far as the eye could see with thousands of clear compartments featuring reptiles—and amphibians, too—of all shapes, types, sizes and colors.

Some visitors came to look and others came to buy.

"We really couldn't resist this little lady," said Therese Anan, 29, of Hammond, Ind., who held a baby orange corn snake while standing beside her husband, Lucas. "Ain't she purty?"

Animals ranged in price from $25 to $20,000, Ashley said. Asked what they loved about reptiles, attendees gave a range of answers including, "they're beautiful," "they get a bad rap," and "they're a lot more affectionate than people think."

Some even compared them to dogs or cats.

"If you want them to be affectionate, you have to take them out and 'walk them,' if you will," Browning said. "If you handle a snake, or other reptile, a couple of times a day, it's going to be friendly."

He suggested a bearded dragon as a pet for first-time reptile owners.

"They're so relaxed and they're affectionate," he said. "Mine is one of my favorite pets. He will just hang out on my shoulder for hours."

Robin Johnson came all the way from Augusta, Ga., to check out the conference. She didn't bat an eye while holding a vertical tree branch filled with several snakes—a ball python, an Amazon tree boa and a spotted python, to name a few—near the center's entrance.

"Snakes are calming, very loving and very misunderstood," she said. "People really need to give them a chance. They're remarkably beautiful."

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Southside2 October 12, 2011 at 08:18 PM
These reptiles are not meant to be "pets". Many of these creatures end up in animal shelters (yes, animal shelters to be passed on to temp fosters). Ruthless breeders that make 1000's of dollars off them just add to the overpopulation of unwanted creatures!
Russ October 13, 2011 at 02:41 AM
There are responsible owners.I am sure many reptile owners will disagree with you.The same can be said about all animals that are purchased as pets and end up in schelters ,from aquatics to dogs and cats.
EricWI October 14, 2011 at 02:30 PM
@Geoff- Placing blame on breeders of most mid to high end specimens for any perceived "overpopulation" is no more reasonable or founded than placing blame on the automobile manufacturer for the actions of a drunk driver. Responsibility for the issue in which you bring up should be placed where it belongs; the irresponsible owner...
Jeremy Browning October 16, 2011 at 05:27 AM
Personally, i am one of the reptile breeders featured in this article, and i have to say MOST owners of reptiles are responsible. As with any thing that has the slightest potential for irresponsibility there are bad owners. Just like there are bad dog and cat owners. Does that mean we should not be allowed to keep dogs and cats or reptiles? no. Additionally illegalizing any animal will put that animals in worse shape as all the responsible owners don't buy them and the bad owners do along with people who buy them because its illgal most of which are bad owners.
Science Guy October 16, 2011 at 12:05 PM
Can we blame Smith & Wesson for shooting deaths? McDonalds for obesity? ExxonMobil for arson? "Hoarders" has shown us exactly what can happen when animal ownership goes wrong; the animals suffer, but not because they were sold by irrisponsible breeders.
Jeremy Browning October 16, 2011 at 05:33 PM
Thank you science guy for you're comment and you're right there irrespionsible owners of animals just like with any hobby personally i always educate people who don't know about the animal they want, even if i don't sell it myself and as far as big snakes and big lizards go, i don't sell them to people without pictures or other evidence that the area they will be keeping it in is sufficient, and meets the animals adult needs.
Jeremy Browning October 16, 2011 at 05:34 PM
Additionally as far as alligators and venomous go i sell neither partially because they're illegal in IL.
Jeremy Browning October 16, 2011 at 05:41 PM
Ruthless breeders? really if i just wanted to make money then i would breed ball pythons yet i dont have a single one if i just wanted to make money then why would i personally rescue monitor lizards give them an enclosures costing an average of 1000$ ea. and nurse them back to health w/out ever breeding them selling them or making any money off of them?

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