TAMPA — Joe Richichi’s axolotls were selling well Sunday at Repticon Tampa.
Described by Richichi as “salamanders that are stuck in a state of metamorphosis,” axolotls are small amphibians that retain some larval features for life, such as feathery gills that appear to protrude from their heads.
Deenah Marshall of St. Petersburg thought they were cute enough to kiss. Her daughter, Fletcher Marshall, who held a bearded dragon on her shoulder, laughed at the idea.
The Marshalls were part of a steady stream of reptile lovers who filed through the Charles M. Davis Events Center at the Florida State Fairgrounds this weekend.
“Stumps,” the bearded dragon on Fletcher Marshall’s shoulder, was wearing a tiny hat purchased at the event.
“They’re very good pets,” Deenah Marshall said of bearded dragons. “You can take them with you anywhere.”
Plus, their “tame” demeanor makes them easy to care for, Fletcher added.
“She eats worms, collard greens and lots of powdered calcium,” she said of Stumps. “It seems like a lot of work, but they’re actually easy. They’re not crazy.”
A University of Florida student, Richichi runs the Ready To Go Reptiles rescue operation out of his Gainesville apartment.
“It’s mostly for people who want to get rid of their animals,” Richichi said. “Instead of turning them loose (in the wild), I take them.”
Richichi was one of dozens of vendors at the two-day event that ended Sunday afternoon.
When he wasn’t offering information about his collection, which included geckos, a Honduran milk snake, a Chinese water dragon (which looked like a lizard with a long tail) and a female blood python, Richichi offered practical advice to attendees.
“If you find a snake and you’re not 100 percent sure what it is, don’t touch it,” said Richichi, who is in a pre-veterinary program at Florida. “Water snakes and water moccasins can look exactly the same. If it’s in the wild, leave it alone.”
At the Bay Area Reptiles display, people browsed an array of red iguanas, blue iguanas and neon-red iguanas. Nearby were several “hairless skinny pigs,” which were also quite small, and a large Argus monitor lizard, which scratched at the bottom of a clear enclosure.
Not everything at Repticon was living.
Phil Kelton of Ocala, displayed gun holsters, knife sheaths and other items made from snake and deer hide. Several large rattlesnake skins hung from one wall and rattlesnake belt buckles were assembled on Kelton’s booth.
“It’s a family operation,” Kelton said. “We’ve been doing this for about 50 years in Ocala.”
Kelton’s mother, Marion Kelton, makes animal-themed jewelry, while Kelton tans snake, alligator and deer hide, a process he learned from his father, Phil Kelton, Sr.
Besides events like Repticon, Kelton said that his family travels to gun and knife shows throughout Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina and South Carolina.
“We don’t kill any animals for our business,” Kelton said. “Sometimes, pets die and we get (our animals) from collectors and breeders.”
Charlie Free of Dade City wore a smile as he walked around Repticon with his 6-year-old son, Fallon, who was entranced by a display model Repti Fogger, a humidifier for a terrarium.
At home, Free said he already had a soft-shell tortoise, a bearded dragon, about 200 mice, a couple of rat snakes and six ball pythons.
Free, who bought another python Sunday, said he has always been fascinated by reptiles.
“We’ve been here since around 10 a.m.,” he said early Sunday afternoon. “Today’s the last day, so it might not be as crowded. Sometimes, it’ll be shoulder-to-shoulder in here.”
Free said that Fallon seems to have inherited his interest in reptiles.
“I see yellow rat snakes all the time up in Dade City,” Free said. “I show (Fallon) what to stay away from and to always respect the animal.”