I am seated behind the wheel of my Mazda Miata, driving from downtown Sacramento, California to Modesto, California. Next to me, in the passenger’s seat, is my 13-year-old daughter. She’s asleep. Too much fun, I guess. We just spent the last three hours wandering through the Sacramento Convention Center, which is hella big in the sense of square footage.
The reason for all this wandering? The 2014 Sacramento Reptile Show, which turned out to be very, very popular. (This year’s event is coming up next month.) Who knew so many people were attracted to lizards and snakes? Not me; I figured we’d encounter small crowds because: a) it was a snake show. I mean is most of Northern California going to attend? No way, man. b) see point a.
Wrong. Everybody was there. Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but a lot of people were there. Conclusion: Far more people than you would ever imagine like snakes. Not only lots of adults were at the show, but lots of munchkins, including hordes of little tykes and tykettes in strollers. I realize that the continuation of humanity depends upon propagation, but do they seriously have to ride around in strollers and get in everyone else’s way?
The line to get in stretched for two blocks. Eavesdropping on conversations as we shuffled slowly forward, I gathered that the other attendees were also surprised by the turnout. We arrived at the kiosk, paid our entry fee and were handed our tickets. We took the tickets to the entrance inside the convention center, where of course, we had to wait in another line. This line was for people who had just purchased their tickets. The hold-up wasn’t due to the fact that the organizers hadn’t hired capable ticket-takers. It was because after the ticket-takers took your ticket, they stamped your hand so you could get back in if you left for some reason. Once inside, no one in their right mind even thought about leaving and returning. They knew that if they did, they’d have to stand in line once again so the ticket-takers could check their hand stamps. People are surprisingly smart about this type of thing.
Once past the ticket-takers, it was like entering another dimension. At first, all I could see was green foliage. Then I saw thousands of people walking in, through and around the green foliage. I saw old people, young people, babies, toddlers, moms, dads, grandmothers and grandfathers. I saw incredible tattoos displayed on every part of the body, except for the parts that it’s against the law to reveal in public. I saw some incredible outfits: everything from guys dressed in wife-beaters and jeans to some middle-aged guy in a Brioni suit to matching his-and-hers all-leather ensembles.
We approached the first vendor’s booth, where I saw Blood Pythons, Green Tree Pythons, Red Tail Boas, and Ball Pythons, which according to my daughter are the most popular snake. Ball Pythons come in every color or lack thereof that you can imagine. Those that lack color were Albinos, my least favorite. They reminded me of giant slugs or maggots. My daughter, naturally, loved them.
Each color and pattern of Ball Python commands a distinctive name. I saw Axanthics, Bananas, Pieds, Pewters, Caramels, Spiders, Stripes, Yellow Bellies, Lemons, Blacks, and Fires. Admittedly it’s a bit confusing. I found the best way to comprehend it was to think of Ball Pythons as the make, like Ford Motor Company. Ford makes lots of different models – Escort, Taurus, F-250, etc. – but they’re all Fords. Bally Pythons are a make or breed of snakes and they come in many different models and colors.
This particular booth belonged to Dave Colling of Rainbows-R-Us. And as the name hinted, he had many Rainbow Boas, which according to my daughter “glow in the dark.” The small or baby Boas looked like Gumby pencils with flickering tongues. The adolescents measured approximately two feet in length and were quite slender, which surprised me. I thought they would be fatter. Dave was friendly and knowledgeable. He even let my daughter hold one of the adolescent Boas. Before she could hold it, she had to use hand sanitizer. I must have looked dumbfounded when Dave pointed to the sanitizer, because he offered up an explanation. “We don’t want the snakes picking up germs.”
While my daughter clucked and cooed over the Boa, Dave proceeded to educate me about Boas. A fully grown Red Tail Boa measures 8 to 12 feet in length. The males are smaller than the females, averaging 8 to 10 feet in length when mature. Because of their size, Boas require fairly large habitats – four to six feet in length. And the habitat needs to be warm: 80 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit, with both a cool spot and a warm spot. Kind of like Club Med: 95 degrees outside on the beach, but much cooler inside, where the air conditioning is. According to Dave, the warmth is best provided by an under-the-tank-heater rather than a basking light. Boas “need belly heat.” Belly heat helps them digest their food, which food is either mice or rats. The food can be alive or what is called “frozen/thawed,” which means dead and frozen. The snake owner thaws the frozen food and then feeds it to the snake.
Thank God my daughter’s snake eats frozen/thawed! There is absolutely zero chance of me allowing her to put living food in the habitat. Amicability would be sternly tested. I know, I know. I am a wuss. But how would you like to be dropped into the middle of a football stadium – with no way out, none, zip, nada – where you come face to face with a hungry T. Rex? Gives you goosebumps, right? That’s why I’m not into live food for snakes. It’s heartless and cruel. And yes, I realize that in the wild predators eat their prey for survival. My daughter has explained this factoid to me. She says I am a victim of sentimentality. My response is and always will be: “I am unconvinced. Somewhere I smell sophistry at work.”
Generally speaking, Red Tail Boas have civilized temperaments as long as they are handled on a regular basis. In other words, they have to be socialized. My daughter’s snake is totally chill. Even so, it took a long time before I could reach into the habitat and take it out. There’s something about putting your hand in an enclosed space occupied by a snake.
While Dave explained all the ins and outs of Ball Python ownership to me, some woman unceremoniously pushed herself between Dave and me. She wanted to know the price of a certain snake on display. The snake she referred to was an Albino of impressive length and girth – obviously, even to an amateur like me, an adult Red Tail Boa.
“Nine hundred dollars,” said Dave. “She’s a proven female.”
Later, I discovered that the phrase “proven female” meant the snake was capable of reproduction (laying eggs).
The woman smiled and nodded, seemingly undeterred by the price.
I felt lost among the barbarians. What kind of person would consider paying $900 for a snake? Proven or unproven? For that matter, what kind of person owned a snake? My daughter did. But what did owning a snake indicate about the person’s personality?
I recalled reading an article about pet owner psychology. In the article, some egghead at the Tufts Center for Animals and Public Policy wrote, “There is no question that pets reflect something about what people like. Through their pets people are making a statement about themselves.” The guy’s name was Andrew Rowan.
But what statement were snake owners making?
The article went on to explain that in many cases people were attracted to certain types of pets for aesthetic reasons. In other words, some people find snakes beautiful. Others prefer dogs or lizards or cats or birds. According to the article, in other cases people chose a particular pet because it matched their energy level or their lifestyle. And in still other cases, people selected their pet for social status. Throughout history, purebred dogs have been status symbols. This probably explains why Hollywood stars and mega-rich Saudi Arabian princes are attracted to dogs.
On my part, I used to have an Afghan Hound, disparagingly called a “Barbie Dog,” because that’s the kind of dog Barbie has. And I have to admit I find them beautiful animals, especially if kept well-groomed. Snakes, too, are beautiful in an inscrutable kind of way. Snakes and Afghans share certain similarities: both are aloof and both are impossible to train.
I came across a research study entitled “Personality Characteristics of Horse, Turtle, Snake and Bird Owners.” The authors examined two hundred pet owners and, using some type of esoteric psychological criteria, came to the following conclusions:
People who own turtles or tortoises are “hard working, reliable and upwardly mobile.” Snake owners are categorized as “rule breakers who want to be different and don’t like routine jobs.” Generally, horse owners are “assertive and introspective, but low in warmth and nurturance.” More specifically, male horse owners are supposedly “aggressive and dominant,” while female horse owners are “easygoing.” Bird owners are “socially outgoing and expressive.” And for some unknown reason, female bird owners rank high in the dominance factor.
Cat owners exhibit “autonomous characteristics.” You don’t have to be Freud to come to that conclusion. Dog owners, especially male dog owners, rank high in aggression and dominance. I assume that men who own pit bulls are off the charts in aggression and dominance.
The authors of the study claim that they are not stereotyping people based on their pets, summing up by saying, “These aren’t stereotypes. They’re reality.”
Let’s talk about the psychological profile of snake owners for a minute. According to the study, snake owners are “rule breakers who want to be different and don’t like routine jobs.” The fact that snake owners want to be different is a no-brainer. Anyone who has a snake as a pet is by definition atypical. My daughter is different: very gifted in the arts, wears lots of black but states vehemently that she is not “a Goth chick or emo.” And it’s much too early to say with certainty, but I suspect she will not like or ever hold a routine job. She will probably do something artsy. I don’t perceive her as a rule breaker; but I could be wrong. Maybe she is, in a passive-aggressive kind of way. Only time will tell, I guess.
So if this is reality, and generally and correctly sums up the psychology of snake owners, then the Sacramento Convention Center is chock full of rule breakers who want to be different and don’t hold normal jobs. To me that sounds surprisingly normal. As far as I can tell that’s pretty much true of almost everybody everywhere. Everyone likes to think they’re unique and special. It’s the human condition, which makes it a universal stereotype.
Maybe snake owners are just more committed to being unique.
Anyway, back to the Reptile Show, which, if you take the time to stop and examine your surroundings, demonstrates very little restraint as far as selfishness is concerned. Reptile shows, like car auctions, are self-indulgent extravaganzas of too much time and too much money. Visitors pay to gain entrance and then stroll around viewing exotic reptiles priced from $100 to $4,000. Top-of-the-line habitats for one’s reptilian pet go for $500. And the accessories that accompany the habitat – thermostats, under-the-tank heater, heat lamps, control unit – cost hundreds of dollars more.
Visitors are aggressive, almost predatory shoppers who cruise the various vendors in search of something unique. Snake owners like nothing better than exclusivity, some pattern or coloration that’s so distinctive it’s rare, and thus valuable. I actually overheard people talking about breeding “hets with morphs” or some such thing. And it is now my understanding that some snakes even come with papers, like purebred dogs. If people were as choosy about the characteristics of their own mates as snake breeders are about their pets, the world would be populated by Greek gods and goddesses, each the epitome of beauty.
Speaking of breeders, most are knowledgeable, personable and helpful, but a little strange to the uninitiated. They’re a centripetal group in one sense, sharing a fascination with the Biblical serpent; in another sense, they’re a marginalized fringe group because of their all-encompassing attraction to snakes rather than dogs or cats or fish. What I find most interesting about breeders, other than the fact many make a living by breeding snakes, is that, like other professions, they actually have reputations. These reputations are achieved in some cases by sheer longevity. Mostly, though, reputations are the result of having bred what I call a “designer snake,” which may be likened to designer clothing. A designer snake is one that makes a fashion statement. And naturally, everyone wants it and is willing to hock their house to attain it. That’s not an exaggeration. Certain designer Ball Pythons go for $7,000 and up.
At one booth, the breeder had what I thought was a Ball Python. It was bright orange and yellow, like coiled, living flames. Beautiful! I inquired about it. “What kind of snake is that?” I pointed to it.
“Green tree python.”
He could tell by the look on my face that I was disappointed.
“That’s the way they look as babies,” he said. “As they mature, they change color until they’re a bright green.”
“Oh,” I said. “I was hoping it was a Ball Python. Are tree pythons easy to care for?” “Well, not really. They tend to be cantankerous and hostile. Unless you know what you’re doing, I’d go with either a Ball Python or a King Snake.”
So much for that.
My personal preference, after wandering through the convention hall, was what was called a Pied Ball Python. They were part white and part brown/black, like a harlequin. My daughter liked them. However, I left empty-handed. I couldn’t justify the $450 to $800 tariff for a Pied.
The notion of owning a snake as a pet, when pegged to the bottom line, loses its glamor. Still, I’m glad I went. Reptile shows are pretty close to being some of the Greatest Shows on Earth.