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Slithers, scales and sales abound at Lexington Reptile Expo

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A reptile stands up in his terrarium while on display at the Lexington Reptile Expo, a showing for vendors on Saturday, April 3, 2021, in the Lexington Convention Center. Photo by Martha McHaney | Staff

Lavendar corn. Mack super snow. Jungle diamond. Flame dalmation. 

They may sound like random words or Pokemon characters, but these names were some of the real species for sale at the Lexington Reptile Expo, held downtown in the convention center on Saturday, April 3.

More than 20 vendors set up shop at the expo, bringing hundreds of lizards, geckos, snakes and other reptiles with them - animals to watch for the curious, and hold for the bold.

Though some vendors are hobbyists, for many the reptile business is their sole income.

Eric Cartwright owns Powderly Pet Shop in Greenville, Kentucky. He brought a few dozen animals - he mostly sells reptiles and fish - with him to the expo.

"It's a good place for someone to come that is scared of something and mess with it and handle it with somebody who's experienced, especially snakes and tarantulas,” Cartwright said. “They might not leave there comfortable holding it, but they leave there with a little bit more of understanding that snakes ain’t out to get you, spiders ain’t out to kill you.”

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A reptile is reflected in the glass of its terrarium during the Lexington Reptile Expo on Saturday, April 3, 2021, at the Lexington Convention Center in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Martha McHaney | Staff

Like many vendors, Cartwright got his start in the business as a pet owner. 15 years ago, he attended an expo much like the one in Lexington and bought his first reptile.

"I bought my first crested gecko, like with these guys, and it just kind of spiraled from there. I started breeding and decided to set up my own store," Cartwright said. He said expos are good for the community because people can see and hold animals that wouldn't find at a zoo or pet shop.

“We can educate you a lot easier and a lot better than normal pet stores can,” Cartwright said. 

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Rebeka Bridges holds her just-purchased sand boa, bought at the Lexington Reptile Expo on Saturday, April 3, 2021, in the Lexington Convention Center. Photo by Martha McHaney | Staff

Saturday’s expo was the first in Lexington in a year. Though holding the reptiles was limited, the vendors were still welcoming kids and families to the event. 

Education is the main reason Lennie Holbrook attended the Lexington expo. Holbrook, who has a full-time job, runs L&B Reptiles on the side with his wife and teen daughter. The family business is more about outreach and teaching people not to be afraid of reptiles.

“Growing up, my dad always let me have all kinds of animals who always loved animals. And then when I had my daughter, she showed interest in it,” Holbrook said. “So we were able to buy a few animals here and there.”

The Holbrooks aren't the only people for whom the reptile business is a family affair. Scaled Sisters, an Ohio-based company, is run by Jamie Klug and her sister. Like Cartwright, the pair got their first reptiles at an expo and bred them.

“Just kind of a whimsical thing,” Klug said. “We’re just like, ‘we’re both interested in reptiles, so we’ll make our passion a reality.’”

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A reptile vendor bottle feeds a squirrel, rescued after she fell out of a tree, during the Lexington Reptile Expo on Saturday, April 3, 2021 at the Lexington Convention Center in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Martha McHaney | Staff

Scaled Sisters also runs an animal rescue and were responsible for some of the warm-blooded exhibits of the day – a few guinea pigs and a blind rabbit named Lilac (“very sweet but shy”) that all needed a loving home.

Though selling reptiles is a part-time gig - both sisters are fully employed - it's still a full-time commitment. Expos are usually successful business days for them.

“We do a really good job here actually,” Klug said. “Kind of impressed that we’re open again, super excited about it.” In the past they have also attended expos in St. Louis and Cincinnati. Scaled Sisters sees a lot of first time reptile owners as customers.

“There’s some people that do long term. We do get a lot of first time some people, especially we get a lot of kids to come in,” Klug said. They started out selling bearded dragons, but leopard geckos have become their most popular species.

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A vendor at the Lexington Reptile Expo passes a crested gecko to an interested expo attendee on Saturday, April 3, 2021, in the Lexington Convention Center. Photo by Martha McHaney | Staff

Most of the vendors sold a mix of reptiles. But Matt Luther is a specialist, selling one thing and one thing only - axolotls.

“A lot of people love them,” Luther said. “People keep multiples, lots of pairs and love to breed them.” As a full-time job, reptiles are “pretty good business” for Luther.

His wares are different from most on display at the expo – axolotls live in water full-time, staying in their neotenic form their whole lives. He enjoys the energy and camaraderie of reptile expos.

“It’s great to see people people connecting,” Luther said. “It’s great to see kids smile when they walk up.”

According to Derrick Burnett, that sense of community is part of why the expos are held in the first place, in addition to being an outlet for the vendors.

“Non-pandemic, it was a place to hold things,” you can’t in a zoo, Burnett said. He is one of three organizers of the Lexington Reptile Expo and of similar shows in Cincinnati, where he owns A-List Animals along with a comic store.

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A chameleon perches on the frame of a vendor set-up during the Lexington Reptile Expo on Saturday, April 3, 2021 at the Lexington Convention Center in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Martha McHaney | Staff

He's been in the business for 20 years, but got his start in reptiles by accident.

“My wife bought me a snake, accidentally let it out, bought me a second snake. The first snake returned. I had two snakes, I said I should breed them,” Burnett said. So he took his pair to a friend, where he was told he had two males, and bought a female – bringing his snake count to three.

“Two weeks later, he told me that he had a friend that was wanting to sell his collection,” Burnett said. “I bought 50 snakes in that collection. And so now I have about 1600 animals.”

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A potential customer holds a snake during the Lexington Reptile Expo on Saturday, April 3, 2021 at the Lexington Convention Center in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Martha McHaney | Staff

Though some people think of reptiles as rare and unusual pets, Burnett said they're more common than people think.

“There are probably just as many or more reptiles in the households as there are cats and dogs,” Burnett said. “We just don't take them outside, we're not walking them, there aren’t snake parks. And the average reptile owner probably has five to six.”

Reptiles can have a stigma attached to them, he said - that they're taboo or that snake owners are “bad guys." But Burnett said it’s a tight-knit, supportive community.

"There's tragedies that happen. And it's amazing what we do when people lose their homes, when people have cancer," Burnett said. "The community comes together and raises money to take care of those people."

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Snakes in plastic tubs are displayed for customers to peruse during Lexington Reptile Expo on Saturday, April 3, 2021, in the Lexington Convention Center. Photo by Martha McHaney | Staff

Events like the expo held reptile owners find like-minded people.

“You definitely meet your people when you’re here. Obviously, you'll have people that are dog, cat owners, stuff like that,” Klug said. “There's definitely specific reptile people that you'll meet. There's a difference from snake people and then from like, geckos, so we all have our own little group.”

“It's just like a way to kind of connect with people that share similar interests, cause not everybody's pumped to see a snake,” said Rebeka Bridges, who purchased her first reptile – a sand boa – at the expo.

“What they do is they bury themselves underneath the sand to keep warm, stay hidden and wait for prey,” she said. Bridges, an Indiana resident, came to the expo at the encouragement of a friend who owns several reptiles and is connected to the community.

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A snake twines itself around the wrist of an attendee at the Lexington Reptile Expo on Saturday, April 3, 2021, at the Lexington Convention Center in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Martha McHaney | Staff

“It's very free-flowing here, a lot of self-business and I wasn't expecting that,” Bridges said. “I thought it would be more of like PetCo and things like that. But kind of blew my expectations a little bit here, just because there's such a wide variety of animals.”

Besides snakes, vendors sold a veritable menagerie of animals: turtles, tortoises, hedgehogs, rats, isopods, tarantulas, frogs, guinea pigs, chameleons, bearded dragons and several gecko species.

“I’ve never seen this many reptiles up close,” said Darrion Oldham, a Lexington resident. Prices varied widely, with common snake species going for $25 while rarer specimens approached $300. Of the warm-blooded animals, a 10-week-old hedgehog was listed for $200. Lizards hovered in the $100 - $175 range.

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Warm-blooded welcome too: a customer holds a hedgehog while listening to a vendor explain how to take care of the animal during the Lexington Reptile Expo on Saturday, April 3, 2021, in the Lexington Convention Center. Hedgehogs, like snakes, can fetch hundreds of dollars. Photo by Martha McHaney | Staff

Burnett said the reptile industry can often be thought of as an investment, with some snakes going for as much as $10,000. The expo serves as a brick-and-mortar option for newcomers to the business.

“It's a way to not have to go online and do something where you're not seeing the actual animal. So you can come talk to the breeder, you can pick the animal yourself. And whether it's a pet, or you're going to get it for investment, it's that step where we’re putting the product in your hand,” Burnett said.

However, Cartwright said that most vendors don't turn a large profit.

“If you're getting into it for money, there's no money. I mean you'll make a living, but you're not going to get rich breeding snakes,” Cartwright said. “Most of us get into it for the love of the animals, to see it prosper, to see better and better animals be produced. If it's about money, go to the stock market because it's not going to be in ball pythons.”

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Vendors say events like the Lexington Reptile Expo are a good way for people with phobias to overcome their aversion to snakes, lizards and the like - by getting up close with the animals, as this customer holds out a hand to a reptile on Saturday, April 3, 2021 at the Lexington Convention Center in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Martha McHaney | Staff

At the other end of the price spectrum were the rats, available for $2 as adults. Baby pinkie mice were only 75 cents each - a low price because these animals are being sold as food, not pets. The dozens of rats and mice for sale were waiting just across the walkway from their eventual predators, though both parties were temporarily confined to boxes.

Oldham was buying at least two reptiles for himself, a chameleon and a gecko. His mother has owned a snake for years, but he decided he wanted his own pet to name and take care of.

“Reptiles have a place in my heart,” Oldham said. “I never really think that I would like reptiles as much as I did until today. I've always had a thing for them but never really wanted my own until like right now.”

He specifically wanted a chameleon, but is undecided on a name.

"My joke name was Gerald, but I don’t know. I’ll have to see how he is," Oldham said.

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A young snake explores the limits of his holding box while on display at the Lexington Reptile Expo on Saturday, April 3, 2021, in the Lexington Convention Center. Photo by Martha McHaney | Staff

Burnett and his family name their reptiles before display and assign each species a fandom - Game of Thrones, Marvel, Pixar, Disney.

“If a customer walks in and their favorite Marvel character is Groot, they buy it. They don't even care,” Burnett said. “They don't even look at what the animal is.”

“They walk off with Groot and then I'm like, Okay, well I have to name another one Groot.”

The naming system spawned a running joke with the Marvel character Doug, who in the Thor movies becomes New Doug.

“I kept a New Doug in the case for a year and a half,” Burnett said, with a new New Doug appearing every week after the old New Doug was bought.

Although some customers decided on pets in the moment, others came to the expo with a desired reptile in mind.

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Assistant general manager at Rupp Arena Jasmine Causey holds a land waterfall salamander during the Lexington Reptile Expo on Saturday, April 3, 2021, at the Lexington Convention Center in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Martha McHaney | Staff

Jasmine Causey said, an assistant general manager at Rupp Arena, said she has been looking for an axolotl for a few months.

“I'm probably going to purchase an axolotl, that pretty thing over there,” Causey said. “And then probably a land waterfall salamander.” 

Causey and a few co-workers popped over to the expo because she's a reptile fan.

“It's very inviting and you get to learn more about the species,” Causey said. “And once you educate yourself a lot more about them, you're not as so standoffish, so skittish about the animal itself.”

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"Really he’s a sissy," said the owner of this reptile to a group of listeners at the Lexington Reptile Expo on Saturday, April 3, 2021 at the Lexington Convention Center in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Martha McHaney | Staff

With eager buyers and curious attendees, the reptile expo had an air of excitement rare during the pandemic, one removed from the fears many people have of things that slither.

“I've noticed a few people who are a little jumpy about it, spiders seem to keep everybody out,” Oldham said, but for the most part everybody seems excited.

The passionate environment allowed an expo attendee to overhear snippets of lively conversation as they walked through the venue, from one vendor saying the reptile perched on his arm is "huffy puffy - acts like he’s a badass, but really he’s a sissy" to another vendor saying “I like stuff that when it gets full grown it can really hurt me.”

For the reptile lovers, the expo was a day of community and fun, bringing their passion to people like Oldham and Bridges.

“I’m pumped,” Bridges said of her new pet. “I came a while to get this guy.”

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A vendor at the Lexington Reptile Show holds out a gecko to a group of curious children on Saturday, April 3, 2021, at the Lexington Convention Center in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Martha McHaney | Staff