NORTH PARK — Let's talk about the 500-pound alligator in the room.
"Does it bite?"
That and "Is it poisonous?" are the two most frequently asked questions at ReptileFest, according to John Archer, president of the Chicago Herpetological Society.
Set for Saturday and Sunday in its new home at Northeastern Illinois University, ReptileFest aims to put to rest myths and fears about reptiles and amphibians as pets.
There will be hundreds of snakes and gators, lizards and turtles — all pets and none for sale. Unlike a zoo, the point is to bring the creatures out from behind glass walls, close enough for people to touch and hold.
"The neatest thing is that people who are afraid of these animals ... most are still fascinated by them," Archer said. "It's good for you, good for the animals when they overcome those fears — that's cool."
Where it used to be that people who liked reptiles were considered "weird" or a "nerd," the animals are now "having a growth spurt as pets," he said.
"My snakes aren't going to greet me at the door and they won't come when I call ... but I know lot of people who watch TV with their turtle or tortoise," Archer said. "Bearded dragons — they'll sit on your shoulder all day long. Many of us form a personal bond with our pets."
The increasing popularity of reptiles has been both a blessing and curse, he said, as more of the animals are abandoned or in need of rescue.
Education is a major component of the fest, with the aim of promoting proper care of these animals — how to handle them, how to recognize when they're frightened, etc. — as well as an understanding of the environmental threats they face, according to Archer.
OK, but let's get back to the original question — will they bite?
"Anything with a mouth bites," said Archer. "Will it bite you — that's what you want to ask."
The answer to that is "highly unlikely," especially at the fest, where pets are being expertly handled by their owners.
Yanking your hand away from a nip by a snake, the bogeyman of the reptile world, is actually more likely to hurt the animal, he said.
"You can yank their teeth out," Archer said.
But watch out for the turtles, which have strong beaks and jaws.
"If you get between turtles and their food, they bite," Archer said. "I'd rather get bit by 50 snakes than one turtle."
ReptileFest will be held 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday at NEIU's Physical Education Complex, 3600 W. Foster Ave.
Admission is $10 for adults, $7 for children 3-11 years old, and free for kids under three. Discount coupons are available online (click here).
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