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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