With an unbroken length of winter coats, snow-caked boots and Midwestern flesh, the queue to enter Fairfield’s monthly Cin City Reptile Show is appropriately serpentine, and packs the convention center with bodies eager to escape the cold.
Adrenalized grade-schoolers rattle off animal factoids. Packs of teenagers show off their novelty lizard-themed T-shirts, clutching their ticket money. Whether they’ve come to buy, sell, trade or just sneak a peek, they’re here for the zoo’s worth of scaly critters that inhabit the ballroom. From bearded dragons to tree frogs, the full breadth of Reptilia is represented.
In the middle of it all, Lawrenceburg, Ind. native Scott Karn juggles a pair of clear Rubbermaid containers, which transport a total of three coiled snakes. His girlfriend Holly Fare keeps an eye on the entwined creatures.
The couple made the hour-long drive to Fairfield in pursuit of a trade: ball pythons (male and female) and an albino ball — which looks like buttered popcorn — for a single snake sold by a vendor at the show. Karn tells me that albinos are sought after by some breeders, as their pink eyes and yellow splotches are the key to creating “morphs,” or snakes that look a little different than normal members of the same species.
“I kind of rescued these three,” Karn says. “A friend of mine had them but his house is too cold, and we were worried about them dying.”
A dog or cat may be a cozy friend to curl up with on the couch at the end of a long day, but for the reptile lover, a snake or lizard seems to serve as a scholarly peer. It’s an entry into the expo subculture, a spark to fuel one’s curiosity and a colorful sight to behold.
Karn is looking for a new snake he can introduce to the five currently slithering around in a tank in his living room. Some enthusiasts see new species as collector’s items, keeping hundreds of specimens in tubs on custom shelves and using breeding techniques to create designer morphs. Karn and Fare view their snakes as beloved household pets.
“I get a lot of grief over it, but they’re just like any other pet,” Karn says. “The more you socialize with them, the better they are. Holly’s daughter’s not afraid — she’ll reach right in the aquarium and pull a seven foot snake out of there. As long as you keep them socialized every day they make great pets.”
At the end of the line, the pair fasten their event wristbands. Fare points to a table of pythons dozing off in the sort of clamshell containers gas station tuna sandwiches come in.
“They’re cute, right? They’re like glazed donuts, the way they’re coiled up,” he says.
The trail of reptilian donuts leads to a booth tabled by show organizer Chris MacMillan. In addition to organizing the event, he sells prints of his ultra-realistic animal sketches.
A veteran showgoer, he started attending expos in the late ’80s as a high school biology enthusiast. That interest led him to become a breeder and later start shows across the East Coast. He helped found the Cin City show in 2011 and has watched its surrounding subculture grow to an average of about 1,000 attendees a month. Though MacMillan spends much of his time nurturing his expo, he has whittled his reptile collection down to focus on his two favorite pets: his kids, Ethan and Olivia.
Derrick Burnett, who co-owns Cin City, says that the show is a good chance to see the breadth of personality the reptile community has to offer. There are those who use the show as a sort of zoo to observe exotic species they’d otherwise only see in books, there are owners whose affection for cold-blooded species is no less intense than a dog-lover’s fondness for their pooch, and there are collectors who constantly trade and purchase new species to study.
“For them, it’s like Pokemon,” Burnett says. “They want to own them all at some point.”
Charlie Butler, an arachnid aficionado from Louisville, falls somewhere in between the categories of owner and collector. He’s fascinated by his family of invertebrates, some of which are for sale at his table. On his left side, an array of tarantulas ranging from the aptly named Mexican red rump to the elegant Poecilotheria regalis scuttle in their plastic bowls. A small cluster of scorpions flank his right.
To Butler, coming home to his spiders is as comforting as watching a goldfish swim laps in a tank.
“They’re lower maintenance,” he says. “You don’t always need to pet it and take it outside.”
His passion for his pets defies the danger that some of the species pose to him.
“The bite from this one’s very, very painful,” he says, pointing to a bowl. “With some of these guys here, though, you’d probably have to spend a few days in the hospital. I’ve never been bitten. And that’s a good thing because I’m allergic to bees. Anything on that table bites me, I go into anaphylactic shock.”
Animal fandom can lead to other dangers, too. Breeder Dennis Blankenship, owner of Magical Geckos, says that his mother was initially horrified to find out about his large reptile collection, which has topped out at over a thousand specimens.
“Since then, she’s come around to them, though,” he says. “She’ll sit in the living room with a mug of coffee or tea and just sit and watch them. They’re fun to watch.”
Though he loves his geckos, Blankenship says it’s hard to tell whether his reptiles can express affection back.
“I’ve had some that when you put your hand in a cage, they’ll walk over to you,” he says. “But what’s their motive for doing that? I can’t really say.”
The vendors here are generally soft-spoken and humble, yet light up at the chance to recite Latin classifications or describe a python’s genetic makeup. Whether or not reptiles can love back doesn’t really seem to matter to Cin City’s attendees. For them, these species act as an extension of themselves, like scaly spirit animals.
The Cin City Reptile Show takes place once a month in Fairfield. For dates and directions, visit cincityreptileshow.com.