LOW-MAINTENANCE PETS Reptile show draws snake lovers


The colorful black-and-white-banded Desert Phase California King Snake slithered from one of Joe Geiss' hands to the other as its tongue flicked in and out. "I just love snakes," the Catonsville 10-year-old declared yesterday.

And so do lots of other people, of all ages and both sexes.

More than 500 people poured through the doors in the first hour yesterday as the Maryland Herpetological Society's first Mid-Atlantic Reptile Show opened at the Marriott Hunt Valley Inn, on Shawan Road.

The event will continue today, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., with more than 80 vendors of snakes and other reptiles, along with books and magazines on reptile care and feeding and even jewelry and T-shirts proclaiming one's herpetological attachment.

Only reptiles bred in captivity are permitted, said Tim Hoen, who spent more than two years organizing the show. "We don't allow imported or wild-caught animals. We promote captive breeding so the wild ones will be left alone. And there are no venomous reptiles. That's for the experts and the researcher, not for hobbyists," he said.

Show profits will go toward buying land in the Talamanca-Caribbean Biological Corridor project in the Costa Rican rain forest as part of the international Ecosytem Survival Plan. "We try to buy critical habitat wherever it might be," said Mr. Hoen, who works in bio-physics at Johns Hopkins University.

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources had two people on hand to explain the importance of environmental and habitat conservation -- particularly around Chesapeake Bay.

The growing number of reptile breeders ensures there is an adequate supply of domestically bred snakes and lizards for pets or for investment.

Snakes are low-maintenance pets; "you can go away and leave them for a week and not have to worry," said Mark S. Bell, 31, of Fraser, Mich., a reptile breeder for 10 years.

Children are the most curious and ask lots of questions, Mr. Bell said, but he will only sell to them when a parent or older sibling is present to understand that the care and responsibility for a snake or lizard is the same as for any other pet. "They are not toys," he said.

Snakes as investments?

Right, explained Marc Spataro, pointing to two snakes -- creamy bodies with terra-cotta colored markings -- in their brightly lighted glass cages. The price for each: $10,000.

The 18-inch snakes are young albino boa constrictors and were bred by Peter Kahl, of Long Green, who specializes in boas and pythons.

Not all of the snakes carry such fancy prices; thousands of them sell for as little as $10, while others fetch $5,000 and more, with most somewhere between.

Cosmetology student Allura Fine, 19, of Rosedale, bought a 4-month-old python, which she promptly named Elvira. She was lining up to buy food for the snake -- baby mice, a wriggling pink mass in their boxes on the table.

"Pinkies" are one to five days old and "fuzzies" are five to 10 days old, and they sell for 35 cents apiece. Snakes usually eat once a week or so, and their size usually determines how much they consume.

The baby mice also are available frozen, said Sophia Lis, of Oley, Pa., who works with her husband, John, at the business. They sell mice, rats, hamsters and guinea pigs, as pets but mostly as reptile food.

"We have thousands of breeders," Mr. Lis said.

While most of the snakes and lizards spent yesterday coiled on wood shavings in the type of plastic containers normally used for holding nuts and candies or salads, the "Shively kids" were enjoying life in their own room at home.

The Shivelys -- Liz is development director at the Baltimore City Life Museums and Orbie is a lawyer -- had left their their "kids," three green iguanas named Oscar, Willie and PeeWee, in a bedroom in their Dickeyville home that has been converted to an "iguanatorium."

"They are beautiful creatures with gorgeous colors," Mrs. Shively said. "And with them you're in touch with animals from the reptilian age." The iguanas "have personalities -- and they're paper-trained," she said.

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