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My Pilgrimage to the Reptile Expo, a Bleak Haven for Lizard People

As the owner of a chameleon, Drake, who screams every time I pick him up, I felt drawn to the Reptile Expo in New York. My time there was as harrowing as it was entertaining.

by Gabby Bess
Apr 25 2017, 7:10pm

All photos by Rion Harmon

Throughout the year, the Northeast Reptile Expo travels from conference center to conference center—bouncing between Long Island, NY, White Plains, NY, and Manchester, NH—inviting hundreds vendors to set up shop and display their wares. It's the largest day-long display of myriad snakes, lizards, toads, frozen rodents, and miscellaneous reptile accessories in the region.

I did not grasp the scope of this claim when I arrived at the expo in White Plains a few hours after its 9 AM start time with my boyfriend and my roommate. I own a chameleon—which I evangelize to all of my friends, acquaintances, and strangers—but in my heart I recognize that lizards are very niche and not that good as pets in the traditional sense. They're not friendly like dogs, or even rabbits, which are not that friendly but do still allow you to hold them. (Chameleons scream when you try to move them from wherever they currently are.) Some lizards are nicer—bearded dragons, for example, will let you pick them up, and they just sort of lie flat like rocks once you do—but I just couldn't picture that prospective reptile owners would be numerous enough to warrant anything other than a modest day-long display of assorted snakes, lizards, toads, frozen rodents, and miscellaneous reptile accessories.

Read more: The Teen 'Lizbians' Who Risk Everything to Rate Lizards

Boy, was I wrong. A thick line of people snaked down the steps of the steps of the palatial Westchester County Center to pay $10 to see the dizzying amount of snakes, lizards, toads, frozen rodents, and miscellaneous reptile accessories that indeed awaited them inside. I later learned that even more people come out to the expo in July, "after breeding season." As I walked past the line to see if I could avoid paying the fee by confidently announcing that I was press, someone who worked for the center made an announcement to the crowd. "Is anyone is here for the Sports Hall of Fame?" he yelled, apparently trying to beckon any misdirected sports fans out of the line. No one moved.

They were all here for the reptiles. I was, too, though I felt a strange sense of unease being among my alleged people. Suburban teens roamed the expo in packs, many of them with a hairstyle or some form of dress that signaled they were alt/emo. Parents delighted in their young children holding snakes that were bigger than their heads. Guys with muscles delighted in holding snakes that were smaller than muscles. "I feel like I'm in Florida," my boyfriend said with a somewhat panicked look on his face.

But if there's one thing that unites reptile lovers, it's the feeling of being overjoyed when in close proximity to scaly creatures that don't want anything to do with you. It's a feeling I know well; I experience it every time I pick up my chameleon, Drake, and he puffs up his body and turns black as a defense mechanism.

One of the first booths I went up to had a massive bearded dragon that was about the size of a chihuahua. I picked it up under its belly, and it spanned the length of my arm. "He likes attention," the purveyor of the freakish lizard said as the bearded dragon in no way indicated that it liked or even knew what was happening. She went on to explain that the lizard I was holding was a specific breed of bearded dragon: a German Giant.

"You know how dogs have breeds? Like German Shepard?" she said. "It's like that, though I don't have any papers to prove it." She said she was going to make it mate with her regular sized bearded dragons to test out her theory.

I wished her luck and moved onto the next booth, ready to pick up more lizards and then put them down once I was satisfied. I couldn't tell you what it is, exactly, that makes people love reptiles. For the most part, you interact with reptiles by just looking at them—but you could certainly look at them for hours and be entertained. The fact that you can never know what they're thinking or feeling because they react to everything as if it were a large predatory bird is both troubling and fascinating to wonder about. It also allows you to project any emotion you want onto them, which is fun. Reptiles' complete disregard for human life additionally makes them great pets for lazy people.

"I just love snakes," a girl named Katie tried to explain when I asked her why she purchased a ball python, which she was cradling her in her arms. She said she has hognose snake at home and was excited to add a new one to her collection. "They're generally really easy to care for... and they're just cool."

It's true. Even if you don't want to own a reptile, it's hard to deny that they're cool. But, eventually, the sheer amount of reptiles at the expo meant that the novelty of everything wore off quickly. Combined, all the booths held thousands of lizards, snakes, and frogs. It became a little bleak. I started to think about the lizards that wouldn't sell, being transported around from expo to expo in tiny tupperware containers. I thought about an emo teen neglecting their new pet, not realizing that even lizards require work.

The last booth I visited had a corgi-sized iguana in cage; it was missing its tail, and it wasn't for sale. When I asked the vendor, an older woman, what she was doing at the event, she sighed and said, "I don't know." After some prodding, she told me that she decided years ago to turn her home into reptile sanctuary and take in lizards that were injured or needed homes. She has about a dozen lizards that people had abandoned—and she's divorced, she added as a non-sequitur.

If I was tired after spending an hour at the largest reptile expo in the Northeast, she seemed absolutely defeated after coming to the expo for years. "I used to come here to try to connect people with my rescues, but people aren't really interested in that anymore," she said. She was too depressed to answer any more questions. A man in a paisley bandana and paisley shirt knelt down next to her iguana and took a selfie, and with that I knew it was time to leave.

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