'There are so many people that seem to fear snakes. They think they're all venomous or dangerous," says Shawn Silva, president of the San Diego Herpetological Society. "A large part of that is that most snakes are so secretive. They're not visible, so people can't be familiar with them, which makes [the snakes] mysterious. I like to consider it a misperception of the animals." The Herpetological Society -- along with herpetoculturists, reptile breeders, and vendors of reptile-based products -- will be at the International Reptile Breeders Show and Sale at the Del Mar Fairgrounds on Saturday, October 6, and Sunday, October 7. Silva's fondness for snakes goes back as long as he can remember. "I always liked critters. I grew up in the San Fernando Valley, where you could very easily find lizards and snakes in the hills. There was that attachment to nature, in a sense. It was kind of neat that you could step outside and find a wild creature. "
Silva considers himself an amateur herpetologist. "Not everyone has a degree in biology or zoology," he says, "but there is a branch of herpetological interest known as 'field herping,' or field study. A lot of us enjoy going out in the field to see reptiles and amphibians in the wild."
Jeff Lemm, a herpetologist friend of Silva's who is affiliated with the San Diego Zoo, founded the North American Field Herping Association. This group of volunteer snake enthusiasts collects data on snakes in the wild, with the goal of providing the information to state and national game agencies that might help manage reptile and amphibian populations. "In general, [reptiles] are one of the least documented animals, as far as agencies are concerned," says Silva. "Anything that has a large commercial or sporting effect tied into it gets a lot of money put into studies -- they need game or field management so they can track the populations of animals and how well they're doing so that when it comes to hunting and fishing, there's a balance to the recreational aspect and the welfare of animals. Most people wouldn't care whether a snake exists or not."
Silva has been bitten by nonvenomous garter and king snakes. "If you find one out in the wild, and you just want to pick it up to take a look at it, once in a while it might try to bite as a defense mechanism. Snakes and reptiles in general are not aggressive, in the sense that they don't attack people -- they don't do things for no reason." The bite, he adds, is "far less worse than getting bitten by a cat or a dog." The only venomous snakes in San Diego are rattlesnakes. "I have never been bitten by one, and I do not ever plan on it."
Silva is saddened when he drives through Anza-Borrego to go herping and finds so many snakes dead on the road. "A lot of people just don't see stuff on the road because they're not looking for it, but sometimes you can tell when a snake was intentionally run over because it's off to the side of the road, as if it was trying to get away. Quite often a snake on the road is kind of like fair game." Snakes are most often found run over in early spring and late fall, when they are emerging from or entering brumation, a light form of hibernation.
"Over the past ten years reptiles have become popular for keeping as pets, and the reptile business in pet trade has boomed," says Silva. Baby ball pythons can be found for $30, but more prized snakes, like a super jungle coral albino, go for around $20,000.
The rise in snake popularity has spawned related businesses, such as the selling of frozen rodents. A friend of Silva's gave up a snake because she couldn't bring herself to feed it a live mouse. "Most snakes will eat frozen thawed mice, but they have to be completely thawed out and warmed up. [The companies that freeze them] do all the dirty work, and then you have these nice little mouse-cicles sitting in your freezer. The only drawback depends upon your spousal or significant-other factor -- a lot of times they're, like, 'There's no way frozen mice are going to be in the freezer.'"
Silva raises his own mice and rats. Before feeding a rodent to one of his snakes he will try to incapacitate it in some way, sometimes by placing the animal in a container with carbon dioxide. "When you gas them, it puts them to sleep because they lose oxygen," explains Silva. He does this not to spare the mouse, but to protect the snake. "There are stories of people's snakes that have pretty much gotten torn up by the mouse because the mouse will get defensive -- he knows what's going on." -- Barbarella
International Reptile Breeders Show and Sale
Saturday, October 6
10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Sunday, October 7
10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Activity Center, Del Mar Fairgrounds
Cost: $8 adults, $3 children
Info: 619-445-9964 or www.irba.com