Exotic lizard, reptile worlds explored locally

Dogs and cats are still the most common and beloved household pets, but there is also a heavier current market for much more exotic animals like snakes and lizards.

Last Saturday’s Altoona Reptile Expo that was held at the Altoona Grand Hotel was a testament to that. Several hundred men, women and children visited the Expo over a six-hour period to look at the vast layout of snakes, lizards and other reptiles that 26 vendors from across the state of Pennsylvania, as well as from states as far away as Connecticut and Virginia, brought in for display and sale.

Among the fare were reptiles as diverse as non-poisonous boa constrictors, pythons, bearded dragons, and iguanas. There were even some species of venomous snakes.

The fact that all of them sell to the public — and some for as steep a price as $1500 for one Hypo Jungle Boa — is proof that many people are interested in adopting exotic pets.

“My whole business is selling snakes and fish,” said George Diaz, who owns and operates the Off The Hook Exotics Pet Shop in the Pittsburgh suburb of Ambridge, and was one of the vendors on hand at last Saturday’s show. “The ball pythons are the most popular snakes. They’re small, they’re docile, and they’re easy for children to have.

“There are exceptions to the rule, but most snakes that are kept as pets are docile,” Diaz said. “They don’t bite, and when they do, it doesn’t hurt. A bite from a dog or a hamster is much worse.”

Reptiles have become popular pets, for a variety of reasons.

“Some people want something a little more exotic than a dog or a cat,” Diaz said. “You can keep a snake in a nice terrarium and decorate it like a rain forest. It’s the same reason that people keep tropical fish. And a snake or lizard won’t make a mess in the house or scratch up furniture like some mammals do, either.”

Sherry Sral is the director of sales at the Altoona Grand Hotel, which was scheduled to host six bimonthly Reptile Expos this calendar year. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Expo scheduled for this past March was canceled, but there will be a final one this year scheduled for Saturday, Nov. 28.

“It’s amazing how many people there are with young children who are holding snakes and looking at different reptiles,” Sral said. “I just can’t believe how many people are buying them. I just think that some people think that (reptiles) are easier to take care of than a cat or a dog.”

James McClintock, who has an office in New Stanton, coordinates the vendors to come to the Altoona Reptile Expo, as well as to the 12 monthly Expos that are held throughout each year in Westmoreland County. McClintock agrees with Sral that the care required for a snake like a small python is much less than it would be for a domesticated animal like a dog or a cat.

“A couple may want to buy their son a pet, and if they buy a dog or a cat, (that requires) constant care,” McClintock said. “But if you buy a ball python, you have to clean its cage (only) once a week, check its water four times a week, and, depending on his feeding schedule, he gets fed once a week or once every two weeks.

“So it’s not an animal that requires a lot of care, and because it’s not an animal that requires a lot of care, parents really like it,” McClintock said of the ball python, which feasts primarily on insects when it is younger and on mice and rats when it becomes an adult snake.

Bearded dragons are also popular pets, according to Diaz. Larry Hoffman of Claysburg said that the bearded dragons make good pets for children. Hoffman was at last week’s Altoona Reptile Expo with his sons Ryan and Kaden.

The Hoffmans bought their pet light orange bearded dragon, Rex, from Diaz at an Altoona Reptile Expo earlier this year.

“He’s very friendly, well-tempered, and he likes to be held,” Larry Hoffman said of Rex.

Ryan Hoffman, 11, was holding Rex during last week’s Expo.

“He’s very nice,” Ryan said of Rex.

While harmless snakes and lizards may be considered understandable choices as pets, less understandable pet choices are the venomous snakes that were also on exhibit for sale last week.

Josh Dickerson, who along with his wife owns the A&J Reptiles store in Lancaster, had two venomous snakes for sale in glass cages — a pygmy rattlesnake with a price tag of $175 and a zebra spitter (cobra) on sale for $150. The poisonous snakes often sell very well, Dickerson said, and novelty is a big reason why.

“It’s more or less a showcase for people who buy them,” Dickerson said. “They want to show them off.”

Even though owning the snakes carries a significant physical risk.

“It’s like holding a loaded pistol,” Dickerson said. “But at some shows, I’ll sell out of them, and in some others, I’ll be taking them out with me.”

The vast majority of snakes and reptiles at the events are harmless, though, and the vendors serve to educate the public about that fact.

“We like coming to Altoona, we always get a pretty good turnout here,” said McClintock, who specified that since the Reptile Expo is considered a store and not an event, it wasn’t under the state’s COVID-19 restriction limit of 25 people gathering for a public indoor activity. “One of the most important things is educating the people about the reptiles, and the vendors educate the people. The reason that many people are afraid of (these reptiles) is that they’ve been taught to be afraid of them as they’ve grown up. People are scared of anything that is different, but the vendors teach the people that these reptiles are not a bad thing.”


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