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As We See It

Bitey spiders and beloved pythons at the Las Vegas Reptile Expo

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Sunfire, an Ambilobe panther chameleon native to Madagascar, really lights up a room.
Photo: Steve Marcus

Glancing at J. Mugleston’s Exotics’ spider display, the woman next to me levitates, her fingers clutching at her neck like we’re in an old horror movie. She had to know what she was getting into when she bought her ticket to the Las Vegas Reptile Expo, but to be fair, these spiders look like hamsters when you squint.

Although Adam Fisher has kept spiders as pets for 25 years, he understands the common reaction to all the legs and eyes, especially on the scale of a tarantula like the Indian gooty sapphire, a prized blue beauty that will cost you $450.

“They’re made out to be monsters, but they’re really not,” he says, noting that the $10 orange baboon tarantula (also known as the “orange bitey thing”) might be the exception. I’m not sold until he introduces me to Rosey, a rose hair tarantula that’s a dead ringer for Snuffleupagus. She moves with unearthly grace, gently searching the contours of Fisher’s hand. She even scratches her furry abdomen with a hind leg, exactly like my dog.

Las Vegas Reptile Expo 2011

Moving from table to table, my gaze is met by eyes that look ancient and wise. Everywhere are lizards and frogs, turtles and snakes, with names like “Hot Moose,” “Enigma,” “Diablo” and “Sinatra.” There are real scorpions encased in sugar suckers and stuffed dragons clutched in the arms of kids too scared to hold the real thing. Giovanni, 6, proudly tells me he’ll name his new python Furball.

John Patino of Pedigreed Pythons remembers when he bought his son a leopard gecko for his birthday a dozen years ago. Now he owns more than 50 snakes, including the $1,000 Granite Mojave with its prized “alien head” markings. A few feet away, a woman wraps her new snake around her neck and says: “If you don’t want solicitors, make a necktie out of it.”

Marshall Van Thorre of NoCo Reptiles says he’s not the type to wear his snakes, but he knows them to be docile, compelling companions that can live upwards of 60 years. He says there are no “hot” or highly venomous varieties at this show, so kids like Giovanni won’t have to sleep with one eye open.

“It’s a really unique industry, but we do kind of get bad-mouthed,” Van Thorre says of the un-cuddly nature of his creatures and the stereotype of his clientele as tattooed goths or the Hell’s Angels. There are a few in attendance, but most of the people buying baby gargoyle geckos and poison dart frogs look like they just wandered in from the casino. I hope they did, because this is a great place to learn that different snakes have different personalities, and spiders can be our friends. Sometimes.

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Erin Ryan

Erin got her first newspaper job in 2002 thanks to a campfire story about Bigfoot. In her award-winning work for ...

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