Cold Blood, Warm Hearts

Courtesy of ReptileFest

Visitors rushed into the jaws of a ten-foot-tall inflatable serpent to enter “the nation’s largest educational reptile and amphibian show.” ReptileFest 2011, which ran for two days in the Physical Education building at the University of Illinois at Chicago, was the sixteenth anniversary of the Chicago Herpetological Society’s (CHS) annual reptilian extravaganza.

Yet, it was not only CHS members who exhibited their beloved pets at UIC last weekend. Over a hundred people from within and without Illinois brought their troupe of scaly compatriots to Chicago. In fact, the number of slithering, crawling, swimming creatures in the room seemed to outnumber those whose bipedal locomotion propelled them from stall to stall. Many visitors reached greedily for their camera phones, and it was difficult to blame them–suppressing photographic impulses when confronted with the milky white scales of an albino Burmese snake is futile.

Still, the exhibitors had a serious tale to tell.  “So many snake habitats overlap with human habitats,” said Lauren Grande, undergraduate exhibitor from Loyola University. “There are not enough national parks, especially in Illinois. Snakes like the garter snake, which are most suited to our climate, suffer when their hibernaculums [the nests in which they escape the winter] are exterminated.” It’s a challenging situation, but all of the exhibitors at ReptileFest were dedicated to the conservation of these slithering marvels. “It’s sad, they’re actually nice animals,” said a ranger, lifting a saltwater crocodile lovingly out of a Dunkin’ Donuts box. “This guy was gifted to us. He’s still only two feet, the runt, he should be about twelve feet by now–but he’s a good little thing.” Indeed the yellow, slit eyes of an Australian crocodile looked on harmlessly while a child stroked its vulnerable underbelly.

The plethora of chameleons, turtles, sirens, toads, salamanders, newts, tortoises, and geckos was so adored by its keepers that it was no surprise to see an iguana dressed in a pink frock. “I’ll love my boy, no matter how he dresses,” said his owner, stroking his spiny tail. Tripping dizzily out of the exhibit, my hands dusty with the chalky residue of bull snake eggs, I found myself wishing that my tongue was also a bit forked.