Reptile lovers convene in Wasilla as exotic animals gain popularity in Alaska

Aug. 15—Wasilla reptile and exotic animal expo pets snake

WASILLA — "Personal pets must be in carriers," reads the sign greeting attendees at the All Alaska Reptile and Exotics Expo.

Spread across the green AstroTurf of the the Curtis Menard Sports Complex in Wasilla, hundreds of humans gathered Saturday alongside snakes, skinks, ferrets, tortoises, turtles, tarantulas, quail, crickets, cockroaches, chameleons, ducklings, bearded dragons, leopard geckos, an alligator and a Mozambique flame-bellied girdle lizard named Smaug.

"At other expos in the states, people are there to make money," said Jonathan Huntington, who leads a volunteer-run animal rescue operation that's focused on reptiles and named, straightforwardly, Jonathan's Reptiles. "Here, this is just about being part of the reptile community."

Started in 2019, the annual expo was in its third iteration after losing a year to the pandemic. It launched as an opportunity to grow and strengthen the community around exotic animals in Alaska.

On Saturday, all kinds of reptile-related businesses were set up at folding-table booths selling their wares, from decorative terrarium supplies to live Madagascar hissing cockroaches, sold as both pets and prey.

Wasilla reptile and exotic animal expo pets snake

Wasilla reptile and exotic animal expo pets snake

Wasilla reptile and exotic animal expo pets snake

A significant share of the businesses on hand weren't dealing in reptiles per se. Many were breeders of feeder species that can be hard to come by in your average grocery store, like bulk crickets, whole rabbits and "jumbo rats." Lacking brick-and-mortar locations, small-business owners depend on reaching clients directly for a regular rendezvous.

"Usually, there's a location where it's a pickup spot," Huntington said. "So if you're at Wasilla Carrs at 7 o'clock on a Wednesday, you can bet your bottom dollar there's some rodent deals going down."

Exotic animal ownership in Alaska is growing, according to organizers, though few can definitively explain why. Some said the pandemic inspired more interest in novel indoor pets. Others think public events like the expo have helped make reptiles seem more accessible to Alaskans, propelling ever-more enthusiasm.

"It lets people in Alaska know, hey, reptiles is a thing here. 'Cause without this, people wouldn't know anything about either snakes, frogs, lizards," said Daniel Woody, who first began collecting snakes six years ago.

Horizontal white space Wasilla reptile and exotic animal expo pets snake

Wasilla reptile and exotic animal expo pets snake

Saturday's expo and similar events, Woody pointed out, are often the first opportunity people have to hold big, beautiful ball pythons or boa constrictors. He spent a good portion of the afternoon with an 11-foot boa draped over a plastic folding table, explaining its biology and ways to marauding gaggles of children, each approaching reluctantly before stretching to tentatively stroke the smooth scales, much as one would pet a sleeping cat.

Woody has dabbled in other exotic species, but favors snakes.

"Tarantulas, I didn't do anything with 'em other than feed 'em. But snakes, they're great pets," said Woody, who once owned as many as 12 snakes. "I wouldn't necessarily say (snakes) 'cuddle,' but they show more affection."

Mammals were on hand at the expo, too. Some, unfortunately, were bound for grim destinies as food. Others are gaining popularity as novel pets in their own right.

"Some people won't get them 'cause they're stinky," Stormy Denny said of her ferrets.

Wasilla reptile and exotic animal expo pets snake

Denny runs Bojack's Barn, a business catering to exotic animal care. She was holding a soft, slumbering ferret named Cow in her hands.

"They don't have to be in cages all the time. They can free-roam around the house," Denny said. "They're just so fun."

One of the expo's jobs, as part of its educational mission, is to warn people away from owning certain species. Especially alligators, crocodiles and caimans.

"This is not the best pet in the world," Lori Kauffman said while holding an alligator the length of a healthy cocker spaniel. "They live for an extremely long time, they get huge and they're aggressive. That's their nature."

Kauffman runs Alaska Crocodilian Rescue, a nonprofit set up to care for abandoned and mistreated crocodilian species. Favoring rotten foods, she feeds them mostly donated game and fish, preferring "dead meat" to live quarry to keep the animals' prey instincts suppressed. The alligator in her arms, Danner, was found deserted inside the sink of a Muldoon apartment. His snout was bound shut Saturday to keep inquisitive toddlers from sticking their hands inside, and he sported a trim blue harness.

"He takes me for walks," Kauffman said. "It's like walking a cat."

Wasilla reptile and exotic animal expo pets snake

Alaska Crocodilian Rescue hasn't seen a huge increase in abandoned alligators or caimans, and currently takes care of four and nine of each, respectively. A new addition could be on the way.

"We are told there's a crocodile, but we don't know where it's at yet. Fish and Game don't have all the details," Kauffman said.

The rise in exotic animal ownership in Alaska has brought problems, the biggest being people abandoning or forfeiting their pets, which require specialty care and food. There are too few shelters set up to absorb all of the cast-off lizards, snakes and turtles people have purchased.

"We have been taking in one rescue every three days on average for the last two years," Huntington said of Jonathan's Reptiles. "Lately we are at max capacity, so we are having to turn away surrenders."

Huntington, like most everyone else in the reptile community, works a full-time job, and she oversees her formidable nonprofit on the side. They are pursuing funds to expand the size of their shelter operations and fortify their emergency response system with a backup generator and heated trailer.

"There's just such a need for it. And we know that because we're booked, our schedule's full, our services are booked out and we're just running out of space," Huntington said.

The community learned a harsh lesson in preparedness last winter when January storms knocked out power for days across the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, causing many reptile owners to lose heat.

"A lot of animals died," Huntington said.

Volunteers at the expo were working around the edges to shore up the community's emergency response system, gathering the names and phone numbers of those who could help shelter animals in the next disaster. Jonathan's Reptiles was also giving out cold-weather kits and handouts for best practices on keeping cold-blooded pets warm in a winter storm.

Wasilla reptile and exotic animal expo pets snake

The community is growing, Huntington said, fielding calls from as far as the Aleutians and Nome on best practices for taking care of animals native to neither. They hope more enthusiasm will be accompanied by more responsible volunteerism.

In Wasilla, they hope more attention can help them expand the services they're now struggling to keep up with: adoption, rescues, exotic animal photo shoots, as well as beak and nail trims for tortoises.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of the Mozambique flame-bellied girdle lizard.