GONZALES — Hairy tarantulas. A 10-foot alligator. A boa constrictor capable of eating a human head. All these critters, plus thousands more snakes, lizards, turtles and frogs were on display or for sale Saturday at Repticon in the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center.
Families, many with young children, ambled around the tanks, picking up various snakes and trying them on for size — allowing them to slither around their arms, necks and heads.
“It’s fascinating owning a snake,” said Joshua Babin, 26, of Baton Rouge. “Most people are scared of them. I look at it as a pet.”
Aside from the “exotic factor,” snake breeder Joel Robinson said, many people like owning snakes because they are fun to play with.
“Every one of them has a personality,” Robinson said. “I’ve got one that wants to eat you, but he’s not big enough. Another one thinks he wants to sit up on your head. That’s his thing.”
Robinson, 34, who runs Texas Reptile Exchange based out of Paris, Texas, said the reptile industry has been booming during the last five years.
Like many of the vendors at Repticon, Robinson said he travels almost every weekend to Repticons — similar to the one under way in Gonzales Saturday and Sunday — held around the country.
But even though there is high demand for snakes, many breeders said they have to be selective about the kinds of snakes they sell to customers.
Owners of large or venomous snakes need to have a certain level of commitment and maturity, breeders said, as well as quite a bit of money and time.
“I make a lot of people mad,” said Lee Hornsby, a rattlesnake breeder whose company, Southeast Exotics, is based in Atlanta.
Many states prohibit sales of venomous snakes to anyone under 18 years of age, but Hornsby said he personally doesn’t sell to anyone younger than 21.
“I ask them why they want a rattler,” he said. “Just talking to them, I can usually tell if they’re competent enough. Some people say, ‘Oh, it’s OK, it won’t bite me’ — I don’t want to sell to those people.”
“It’s not a matter of if (a pet snake will bite you), but when,” said Robinson.
At a nearby table, breeder Mark Huntley was selling smaller “beginner snakes” for around $75 each to children and their parents.
“This is a starter snake, a gateway snake,” Huntley said, holding a wriggling orange snake about the thickness of an adult finger and the length of an adult arm.
“It’s small, really docile. And, you’re not looking at a big investment.”
Huntley, whose company, SandBoaMorphs.com is based in Birmingham, Ala., said he bases his prices on the rareness of the snake’s genetic mutations. His most expensive snake on display Saturday was a female albino striped snake that cost $600.
With all the thousands of critters sold Saturday, pet owners also needed to stock up on food for their new pets.
That’s where Georgia farmers Nathan Ramats and his father came in.
The duo had set up a sales booth stocked with tanks of cockroaches, crickets and other insects.
Those tanks stood next to ice chests filled with frozen mice, rats and rabbits that, Ramats said, must be microwaved to as close to 100 degrees as possible so the infrared-seeing reptiles will be tricked into thinking they’re alive.
As the sponsoring exclusive feeder provider at Repticon, Ramats said he sold Saturday more than 40,000 crickets and 12,000 rodents.
“It’s a little crazy, isn’t it?” he said.
Ramats said at his farm in Cleveland, Ga., he had a shed filled with more than 1 million cockroaches.
“Most people would think it’s just infested, but they’re all containerized and everything’s clean,” he said.
When asked how girlfriends have reacted to his insect-filled sheds, he laughed — “They say, ‘eew!’ of course.”