Brad Hughes wanted more snakes for the collection of venomous serpents he keeps in a bedroom at his home in Spruce Pine, N.C., a mountain community near Asheville.
So he spent Saturday morning in the car, racing to the Repticon wildlife show in suburban Columbia. Once inside Jamil Shrine Temple, he plopped down $170 for three toxic snakes: a Gaboon viper, a copperhead and a rattler.
“I was willing to drive four hours to get here,’’ said Hughes as he cradled three plastic boxes that contained the snakes. “It’s a thrill buying these. This is the closest big show that sells venomous snakes.’’
Hughes was among an estimated 5,000 people who flooded the Jamil Shrine Temple convention hall Saturday for what’s billed as the biggest reptile show in South Carolina. More than 50 vendors offered snakes, lizards, turtles and some nonreptiles, including chickens and baby rats, for sale.
But unlike many reptile shows across the country, the one in Columbia also allows the sale of venomous snakes. It’s one of the few venues where people can walk away with a cobra, rattlesnake or other species with few restrictions.
Repticon, one of the nation’s biggest organizers of reptile shows, has discontinued sales of venomous reptiles at all of its exhibits in recent years, except Columbia, said Sam Bearden, a logistics manager at Saturday’s show. States across the country have enacted laws that have made it difficult, if not impossible, to sell venomous snakes, he said, noting that insurance costs also are high.
“This is the one and only venomous show that we’ve got left,’ Bearden said, noting that “We’ve got people who come from all over, just to buy venomous here.’’
South Carolina has virtually no restrictions on the ownership of a venomous serpent, leaving it for vendors and organizers at shows like Repticon’s event to police themselves. Some local governments, including the city of Columbia, ban such sales, but Lexington County, where the Repticon show was held Saturday, does not.
Some politicians and state officials, worried about the danger of venomous snakes to the public, say South Carolina needs tougher laws on the sale of toxic serpents. The state also needs to strengthen other laws that allow the black market wildlife trade to flourish in South Carolina, they say. The State newspaper chronicled South Carolina’s weak wildlife trading laws in a series last month about the illegal and loosely regulated trade.
The state is a hub for venomous snake buyers who enjoy the thrill of owning a deadly serpent, vendors said Saturday. Buyers also like to purchase and sell venomous snakes, which are often more colorful when compared to some varieties of nonvenomous snakes.
At Saturday’s exhibition, about 15 vendors set up a row of tables in the corner of the Jamil exhibition hall. On top of the tables were clear containers with venomous snakes writhing inside. Prices for the snakes ranged from $20 to $1,000, depending on the size and the species.
Prospective buyers streamed by the tables, sometimes two-deep, to browse over the selection.
Among the snakes being offered for sale were exotic species, such as Gaboon vipers, puff adders and spitting cobras, as well as American rattlesnakes and copperheads. Some of the exotic species are particularly dangerous because, if someone is bitten, it’s harder to find antivenom than it is for American snakes, one vendor told The State newspaper.
Jessie Freeman, a snake salesman with Fur, Feathers and Fish in Greensboro, N.C., acknowledged that some of the serpents he was offering are more dangerous than others. He pointed to a Cape cobra, a foreign snake, as an example of a particularly dangerous reptile that demands extra caution.
“That one will chase you — it’s not for the beginner,’’Freeman said. “If this snake bites you and you go the hospital and you don’t know what bit you, it’s probably going to kill you. Whereas with those copperheads, if you get bit by one of those, chances are good you are not even going to need antivenom. They are just going to treat you for pain.’’
Freeman said he takes great care to sell only to people knowledgeable about handling and caring for the dangerous reptiles
While Freeman said South Carolina’s laws are “more lax” for snake vendors than in other states, he said most reptile owners and salespeople are ethical and honest. He’s against a crackdown on venomous snake sales in South Carolina.
“If it’s not causing a problem, you should probably look to something else to police,’’ Freeman said.
Others at Saturday’s show, including Hughes, said they could support tighter oversight of venomous snake sales to make sure unsavory types don’t wind up with them. Some states require people owning venomous snakes to get a permit and go through an education program.
Even though he’s glad Repticon allows venomous snake sales in Columbia, Hughes said it makes sense to have snake owners register so that there would be some record.
“I think it should be regulated, restricted to people who have experience,’’ he said. “You can buy some kinds of snakes that there is absolutely no antivenom for. I don’t understand that.’’
Bill Pierce, who runs Herpetoculture LLC of Florida, said requiring licenses and education to own snakes is a good idea, as long as the rules are reasonable. He once unwittingly struck a deal to sell venomous snakes to a person who seemed knowledgeable, only to learn later that the prospective buyer was a snake-handling preacher from Appalachia. When he found that out, Pierce said he refused to go through with the sale.
Because of the lack of regulation in South Carolina, snake-handling ministers have relied on the Palmetto State to supply toxic snakes for their churches.
“I think that’s extremely harmful to the trade, not to mention to themselves, and anybody who is in their company,’’ Pierce said.