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Associated Press/North American Reptile Breeders Conference
Reptile shows, such as one in Arlington, Texas, are good places for novices to enter the hobby.

Americans own more pet reptiles than ever before. Brian Potter, co-owner of the North American Reptile Breeders Conference trade shows, thinks he knows why.

"It goes back to when you were a little kid — everybody likes dinosaurs," he says. "You get to own little dinosaurs."

Reptile ownership in the United States has grown 22 percent in the last two years, according to a survey by Ipsos for the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association. It helps that reptiles can fit more easily into busy lives of people who don't have time to walk a dog or entertain a cat.

Once Mom gets over having to feed mice to the snake, says Potter, "she comes back a week later and says this is the best pet I've ever had."

If you're looking for something scaly and interesting, one of the best ways to start is a reptile show, where you can find a wide variety of animals and supplies. These now take place on a regular basis all over the country: Potter's organization alone holds four.

Reputable shows allow only captive bred animals to be sold. That means not only that you don't have to worry about the possible environmental impact of taking reptiles from the wild but also that it's easier for a novice owner.

Species that are bred are most suitable for beginners, since they're the ones that do best in captivity. And the animals are healthier, without the parasites that they typically carry in the wild, and used to eating food that you can realistically provide.

"One of the main problems with people owning reptiles is feeding," says Holli Friedland, director of the Mid-Atlantic Reptile show in Timonium, Md. "A lot of wild snakes don't eat rodents — they eat toads or frogs or something that's not easy to get in the pet trade."

Since even captive reptiles can sometimes be fussy eaters, if you buy direct from a breeder, you'll know exactly what it's been eating and how often, says Friedland.

Breeding also means selecting for attractive characteristics. At a show, there won't be just the one or two snakes that your pet store might have, but many vendors competing to offer the most interesting animals, such as hundreds of colors of corn snakes, Potter says.

Then there are the supplies: reptile shows offer a wide variety, including high-end enclosures that are far more attractive than the traditional aquarium tank.

But perhaps the biggest advantage of a show is the chance to comparison shop not just the animals but the vendors. Reptiles can be bought online, and many tolerate shipping well. But as with all animals, unfortunately, some dealers are more responsible than others — and it's hard for a novice to judge.

A good show will work to weed out the unscrupulous.

Friedland's show has inspectors that go around and require vendors to remove unhealthy or otherwise suspect animals.

Be suspicious of especially low prices, she warns. Wild caught animals will be cheaper, because the vendor didn't have to do the hard, time-consuming work of incubating eggs and raising babies.

You don't need to be an expert to check the basics: cleanliness, bright eyes, no bones sticking out, no mites, and animals shouldn't be crowded together in one container.

Whatever the animal, a good breeder is generous with information and should be looking to make sure that you know what you're doing before you take your pet home. Ask questions, and expect questions to be asked of you.

"The breeders that don't want to talk to you, let you handle, explain it to you — move on," says Potter. "If they're not feeling you out, they're just trying to get that buck out of your pocket, move on."

On the Net:

Mid-Atlantic Reptile Show and rescue: www.reptileinfo.com/Home.aspx

North American Reptile Breeders Conference: www.narbc.com/

List of shows nationwide: kingsnake.com/events.html