WASILLA – “Personal pets must be in carriers,” reads the sign greeting attendees at the All Alaska Reptile and Exotics Expo.
Spread across the AstroTurf Green at the Curtis Menard Sports Complex in Wasilla, hundreds of humans gathered Saturday alongside snakes, skinks, ferrets, tortoises, tortoises, tarantulas, quails, crickets, cockroaches, chameleons, ducklings, bearded dragons, leopard geckos, an alligator and a belly-banded lizard from Mozambique named Smaug.
“At other shows in the United States, people are there to make money,” said Jonathan Huntington, who runs a volunteer-run, reptile-focused animal rescue operation named, unnamed. detour, Jonathan’s Reptiles. “It’s all about being part of the reptile community here.”
Started in 2019, the annual exhibition was in its third iteration after losing a year to the pandemic. It was started as an opportunity to grow and strengthen the community around exotic animals in Alaska.
On Saturday, all manner of reptile-related businesses were set up at kiosks with folding tables selling their wares, from decorative terrarium supplies to live Madagascar hissing cockroaches, sold as both pets and prey.
A significant portion of the companies present did not deal with reptiles per se. Many were breeders of food species that can be hard to find in your average grocery store, such as bulk crickets, whole rabbits, and “giant rats.” With no physical locations, small business owners depend on reaching customers directly for a regular appointment.
“Usually there’s a place where it’s a pick-up point,” Huntington said. “So if you’re in Wasilla Carrs at 7 a.m. on a Wednesday, you can bet your bottom dollar there’s rodent business going on.”
According to organizers, exotic pet ownership in Alaska is on the rise, though few can definitively explain why. Some said the pandemic has sparked more interest in new indoor pets. Others believe that public events like the exhibit have helped make reptiles more accessible to Alaskans, sparking ever-increasing excitement.
“It lets people in Alaska know, hey, reptiles are a thing here. ‘Because without it people wouldn’t know anything about snakes or frogs or lizards,’ said Daniel Woody, who started collecting snakes six years ago.
Saturday’s show and similar events, Woody pointed out, are often the first opportunity people have to hold big, beautiful ball pythons or boa constrictors. He spent much of the afternoon with an 11-foot boa draped over a plastic folding table, explaining its biology and the means of marauding groups of children, each reluctantly approaching before stalking. stretch to temporarily stroke the smooth scales, much like stroking a sleeping cat.
Woody has dabbled in other exotic species, but prefers snakes.
“Tarantulas, I haven’t done anything but feed them. But snakes, they’re great pets,” said Woody, who once owned up to 12 snakes. “I wouldn’t say necessarily (snakes) ‘cuddly’, but they show more affection.”
Mammals were also present at the exhibition. Some, unfortunately, were destined to dark fates as food. Others are gaining popularity as new pets in their own right.
“Some people won’t get them because they stink,” Stormy Denny said of her ferrets.
Denny runs Bojack’s Barn, an exotic animal care business. She held in her hands a sweet, sleepy ferret named Cow.
“They don’t need to be in cages all the time. They can move around the house freely,” Denny said. “They are so much fun.”
One of the exhibition’s tasks, as part of its educational mission, is to warn people against possessing certain species. Especially alligators, crocodiles and caimans.
“It’s not the best pet in the world,” said Lori Kauffman, holding a healthy alligator the length of a cocker spaniel. “They are extremely long-lived, they get huge, and they are aggressive. It is their nature.
Short Kauffman Alaskan Crocodile Rescuea non-profit organization set up to care for abandoned and abused crocodilian species. Favoring rotten foods, she feeds them mainly game and donated fish, preferring “dead meat” to live quarry to keep the animals’ prey instincts suppressed. The alligator in her arms, Danner, was found abandoned in the sink of an apartment in Muldoon. His muzzle was closed on Saturday to keep curious toddlers from putting their hands inside, and it sported a blue harness.
“He takes me for walks,” Kauffman said. “It’s like walking a cat.”
Alaska Crocodilian Rescue has not seen a huge increase in the number of abandoned alligators or caimans, and is currently caring for four and nine of each, respectively. A new addition could be on the way.
“We are told there is a crocodile, but we don’t know where it is yet. Fish and Game doesn’t have all the details,” Kauffman said.
The increase in the number of exotic pet owners in Alaska has led to problems, the biggest being the abandonment or confiscation of their pets, which require specialized care and food. There are too few shelters set up to absorb all the abandoned lizards, snakes and turtles that people have bought.
“We’ve done a rescue every three days on average for the past two years,” Huntington said of Jonathan’s Reptiles. “Lately we’re at full capacity, so we have to refuse surrenders.”
Huntington, like most other members of the reptile community, works full-time and oversees her formidable non-profit organization on the side. They are seeking funding to expand the size of their shelter operations and strengthen their emergency response system with a backup generator and heated trailer.
“There is just such a need. And we know that because we’re full, our schedules are full, our services are full, and we’re running out of space,” Huntington said.
The community learned a hard lesson in preparation last winter when January storms knocked out power for days in the borough of Matanuska-Susitna, causing many reptile owners to lose heat.
“A lot of animals died,” Huntington said.
Expo volunteers were working on the edges to bolster the community’s emergency response system, gathering the names and phone numbers of those who could help shelter the animals in the next disaster. Jonathan’s Reptiles was also handing out cold weather kits and best practice materials for keeping cold-blooded animals warm during a winter storm.
The community is growing, Huntington said, answering calls from as far away as the Aleutians and Nome about best practices for caring for animals native to neither. They hope that more enthusiasm will come with more responsible volunteering.
In Wasilla, they hope that more attention can help them expand the services they now struggle to keep up with: adoption, rescues, exotic animal photo shoots, as well as beak and nail trims for turtles.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of the Mozambique fire-bellied lizard.
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