More than just a snake show; Reptiles: Tim Hoen has transformed a dream into a popular show that has helped to save more than 2,600 acres of endangered rain forest.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A lifelong romance with snakes and horned and leathery creatures may not seem to project the proper image to launch a love story.

So this story will open, instead, at a gun show in 1991, when Tim Hoen, surrounded by machine-gun cartridges and small arsenals for hobbyists, heard a voice say: "Wouldn't it be great if these 300 tables had captive-born reptiles on them instead of guns?"

It was as if someone had whacked him on the head with a hammer.

"This is a beautiful thing," he says.

Few would understand. But few have idled away hours in eagles' nests, swum with turtles in Carolina swamps, danced with bears, nuzzled an 18-foot python or bred rare moths in their living rooms.

Can you imagine the trials of a woman married to such a man?

No, Diane Hoen understood.

She knew her 38-year-old husband did not want to create just another snake show. Tim Hoen hoped to save the rain forests.

Today, when it opens in Timonium, eight years after the gun show, the Hoens' Mid-Atlantic Reptile Show will be one of the country's largest and will have raised enough money to protect 2,606 acres of Costa Rican jungles, mountains, beaches and coral reefs.

"I had a moment of insanity," Tim Hoen says now. "Then I dragged my wife and all my friends into it."

When Tim Hoen first discussed his idea with Jack Cover, curator of the National Aquarium in Baltimore's rain forest exhibits, Cover warned him that the show would take over his life.

"You're insane," Cover said.

Cover had grown up with his friend in Baltimore, where, as a teen-ager, Cover started reptile breeding grounds in a warehouse at the Maryland Training School for Boys. He understood insanity.

He also knew a way to buy land for preservation in Costa Rica through a zoo-keeper who had raised hundreds of thousands of dollars by collecting quarters from used parking meters he placed at zoos and aquariums around the country.

"Here's a place about the size of West Virginia where there are more species of birds, more species of reptiles, more species of plants and insects than all of North America," Cover told his childhood friend.

Tim Hoen said, "But, Jack, I don't have the knowledge. I don't have expertise. I don't know lawyers. I ask questions and all I hear is, 'No, no, no, you can't do this.' "

An auspicious start

When the Hoens opened their first show at Marriott's Hunt Valley Inn in 1993, they expected to sell, maybe, 200 tickets.

More than 3,500 people showed up.

"People were coming through the doors like buffalo," he says. Amid the excitement, one of the girls who was helping them fell and had a seizure five minutes after the doors opened.

"We had to push people out of the way to get the gurney in," Tim Hoen says. "And people were like, 'Get out of my way, I've got to get to those snakes.' "

Tim Hoen's anxiety is still high. Most mornings this time of year, he is awakened by nightmares.

This week, he is dreaming that only 300 people have lined up for today's show and that a government agency is trying to shut him down.

What could happen?

The same visions strike every year before the third weekend in September, when the show opens at the Maryland State Fairgrounds.

What could go wrong?

A hurricane, for one thing.

For two days, veterinarians and curators from the aquarium and the Baltimore Zoo quietly inch along more than 180 tables of reptiles inspecting for ticks, mites and signs of abuse.

Every year on the Friday night before the show opens, volunteer Holli Friedland is unnerved. She starts giggling during supper and doesn't stop until she cries herself dry.

"The tough part is, I have to be a businessman now," says Tim Hoen, a high school graduate who makes a living as a laboratory technician at the Johns Hopkins University. "It's very much a business, but instead of buying more equipment or paying employees, I'm buying rain forest."

Precious land

These two days, which the Hoens prepare for on the 363 other days of the year, bring them satisfaction.

They will be able to purchase some of the richest, most precious land in the world, which the Hoens will give back to the Costa Rican government for permanent protection.

Most of the 6,000 to 8,000 people who attend the show every year proably have no idea that their $6 tickets will save cedar trees, protect nests of sea turtles or preserve winter habitats for Baltimore orioles in the forests of Talamanca and Guanacaste.

Little boys come to buy their first snake. Newcomers gape at the ravishing colors of newly bred geckos. Hobbyists scrutinize the latest brood of albino turtles. Some people drop in to see Bernadette, the Hoens' 18-foot python.

Conservation is not as sexy as things that slither and hiss. When the Hoens talk about biodiversity, reporters ask to see the giant iguanas.

Ties to forest

For the first four years, the Hoens never made a direct connection with the land the show purchased. Their modest trailer in the woods of Harford County was the closest they came to the wilds of Costa Rica.

"We'd tell ourselves that someday, we'd have to get there," Diane Hoen says. "But in reality, we just couldn't afford it."

One day, friends surprised them with $2,000 in cash for a trip. Tim Hoen cried. Diane Hoen made an itinerary.

In April 1997, the couple traveled to the northern cloud forests of Monteverde.

They waded through philodendron the size of elephant ears, stepped into detritus and fragrant humus up to their thighs, sat 12 inches from the noses of 2,000-pound tortoises as they laid their eggs at the mouth of a dry river and braced themselves for inky nights amid the whirring of bright-eyed dart frogs and strangely unfamiliar insects.

Saving the trees

The morning after they saw the turtles, they hiked 30 miles through the rain forest in Talamanca.

They were picking ticks off their backs; Tim Hoen lost three toenails stumbling across roots and rocks. Then they entered an area of large trees marked with blue spray paint.

"I was looking at these trees," Tim Hoen says. "They're so massive, four of us couldn't even get our arms around them. But they had numbers on them -- 520, 331, 440-something -- so I asked our guide, 'Who's putting these numbers on the trees?'

"He was a real salty character. Looked like Popeye's distant cousin because he couldn't open one of his eyes. But he looks at me with that one good eye and I see a tear in it and he says, 'The logging company was going to cut them all down. You guys got here first.' "

The Hoens have no children. The show, the forest, the animals -- friends say these are like their kids.

"I'll guarantee there is not a day -- there is not a Christmas morning -- when they're not doing something for the show," says Tom Dembeck, a landscaper who volunteers for the cause.

The Hoens do not deny it.

Taking no bows

"In some ways, it is painful," Tim Hoen says. "I mean, you couldn't do this and have children, too. I'll be honest: It's not all about taking a bow."

Diane Hoen has known him since they were teen-agers in Parkville. They have been married for 20 years. She listens to what her husband has to say about the subject and her eyes turn down.

"When Tim was a kid, he always went out into the woods looking for lizards and snakes and turtles," she says. But when he got older, at some point, he started coming home saying all these places he knew as a kid were being wiped out. It bothered him. He would be so down about it.

Branching out

"So when this idea of a reptile show came into play and he said, 'I want to do this. I want to give something back,' it was just so important. And now we're branching out with a rescue program for reptiles and International Amphibian Day, and. "

As he says, it's never been just a snake show.

It is a love story.

Probably even two.

As strange as that may sound.

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