At the Rodeway Inn Event Center on Grant Road, there's 14,000 square feet of open convention space. This weekend, that space will be filled with reptiles and amphibians as far as the eye can see.
Hundreds of snakes, lizards, frogs, tortoises, turtles and bugs will be slithering, jumping and scampering about. No, Stephen King isn't back in town filming some reptilian horror movie. The space will be the home of the fifth annual Tucson Reptile and Amphibian Show and Sale.
Founded by promoters Larry Sedrick and Mark Wolfson in 2002, the show began in a 1,500-square-foot hall. Advertising was by flier only, and according to Wolfson, 2,000 people showed up. "It was packed like a 1970s disco all weekend," recalls Wolfson.
The following year, the show moved to a 4,000 square-foot facility, and 3,000 showed up.
Last year, Wolfson says, 5,000 people attended. Who would have thought reptiles are so popular?
According to Wolfson, there are more rattlesnake types in Arizona than in any other state. And Tucson has more types of reptiles in and around our city than any other in the country. So our humble burg sounds like an appropriate place to hold a reptile bash.
The show is promoted by Wolfson alone (Sedrick passed away in 2004). About one-third of the exhibitors will be displays, with the other two-thirds breeders. Displays will be from the T-Rex Museum, the Tucson and Phoenix Herpetological Societies, the Arizona Herpetological Association and Arizona Game and Fish.
The T-Rex Museum will host a fossil dig for kids. And for those interested in looking and not buying, displays will include alligators, cobras, 20 types of rattlesnakes and the ever-popular (maybe not in your backyard) Gila monster. Cages, supplies, T-shirts and even jewelry will be for sale.
But the crux of the event will be the chance to purchase and take home your own reptile or amphibian from more than 60 vendors.
"All the reptiles for sale will be captive-bred, non-native and nonvenomous," reports Wolfson. "By promoting captive-bred animals only, we help protect wild fauna. Plus, captive-bred animals are healthier and make better pets."
Wolfson should know. He's been breeding snakes for the past 15 years, and now breeds 30 different species. He also breeds a small number of leopard tortoises.
Wolfson's love of reptiles started when he was a child living in the foothills of Los Angeles. He used to catch snakes and lizards. His interest in the animals grew into a side business, Serpen-Sauria Enterprises. In addition, Wolfson is a medical doctor specializing in internal medicine.
"My mother wouldn't let me keep a snake, so this is my way of getting back at her," he jokes.
Wolfson's humor is evident on his Web site (www.tucsonreptileshow.com); he says he wrote the captions to photos from last year's show "very late at night." One caption jokingly suggests that they barbeque some sort of rodent at the show. Last year, it was a chinchilla, and Wolfson claims that as the result of the barbecue, his wife got a warm coat. The activity reportedly makes the attendees feel more reptilian.
Humor aside, Wolfson is knowledgeable about his craft and has written for Arizona Highways, Reptiles Magazine and (the now-defunct) Reptile and Amphibian Hobbyist.
Wolfson says that contrary to popular belief, most snakes are harmless and make interesting pets. But he deems rattlesnakes "very dangerous. They don't want to mess with you, and you don't want to mess with them. Fifty percent of rattlesnake bites are (because people) attempted to handle them."
Another excellent pet is the tortoise, says Wolfson. "They have the most personality of any reptile, and they each have different personalities. ... I have four leopard tortoises. One of the two males is pretty territorial. If I walk into their pen, he usually marches over to me and bites my big toe. He's sure of himself for a little guy. In the morning, I go out to the tortoise pen with a couple of pounds of greens and call out, 'Hey guys, come on out.' They're out of their hutch before I'm through tossing out the salad."
Besides snakes and tortoises, attendees will be able to see a wide assortment of reptiles. "Bearded dragons are the most popular lizard from Australia and are easy to breed. They are the kind of animals that will sit on your shoulder and not be upset. ... There will also be blue-tongued skinks, a lizard known to eat dog food."
On the amphibian side, there will be "mainly frogs, but also salamanders. Salamanders are not common in Arizona. They are a cooler, moist animal. ... There will be poison dart frogs from two or three vendors. They advertise the fact that they are not good to eat by being colorful."
With so many possible new pets to choose from (even bugs), Wolfson says "everything needed to take care of reptiles and amphibians will be available at the show, including knowledge. Knowledge is the most important thing. I wouldn't want to get a snake without a book. The more you know, the more interesting they become."
The fifth annual Tucson Reptile and Amphibian Show and Sale takes place from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 30, and from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 1, at the Rodeway Inn, 1365 W. Grant Road. Admission is $6 for adults, $3 for children ages 6 to 12 and free for children younger than 6. For complete show information, including a lecture schedule, visit www.tucsonreptileshow.com.