Researcher Parlays Passion for Reptiles into Fund-Raiser By Mike Field Tim Hoen fondly remembers acquiring his first snake. "I was 7 years old at the time," said the research technician in the Biophysics Department, now 40. For the young Baltimore county native in the early 1960s, it was love at first sight. "I would say that since that time I've owned thousands of reptiles," he said. Included on his list of current and former pets are corn snakes from Maryland, northern pine snakes from New Jersey, blue-tongued skinks from Australia, leopard geckos from Pakistan and a selection of various other colubrids (which, for the uninitiated, are the family of non-venomous snakes that includes rat snakes and king snakes). Hoen does not feel the slightest bit odd about his menagerie of slithering friends. "The reptile is the most misunderstood animal in the world," he declares emphatically. "Our repulsion with them is entirely a learned fear. Children are very receptive to snakes and other reptiles. It's mostly adults that have no use for them." Recently, Hoen has made his passion for reptiles very useful indeed. As the founder and chief promoter of the Mid-Atlantic Reptile Show, he introduced the cold-blooded wonders of snakes, turtles, lizards and their like to hundreds of Baltimore-area residents at the first annual show, held last September at the Marriott Hunt Valley Inn. More than 3,500 people attended the educational and sales event. This year, the show is moving to the Maryland State Fairgrounds, and Hoen expects an even bigger crowd. It is, he says, the only such show in the country run on a not-for-profit basis. All profits from admission charges and vending fees are turned over to the Ecosystem Survival Plan, a group that uses the money to turn endangered rain forest land into protected parkland in Central and South America. The state fair will be held this Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 17 and 18, at the fairgrounds in Timonium. Last year's show raised $18,000 for ESP, which purchased 131 acres of rain forest in Costa Rica's Talamanca/Caribbean biological corridor and additional acreage in nearby Guanacaste. "This is the only show to date using all proceeds to buy and preserve critical habitat for the preservation of the world's biological diversity," Hoen said. He has mixed feelings about the increasing popularity of reptiles. On one hand, he's happy to see so many people looking at snakes, lizards and turtles as animals worthy of care and respect. The darker side to this new fascination with cold-blooded animals has to do with the huge sums of money suddenly involved in a thriving world reptile trade. "The interest in some of these animals--particularly the rare or endangered species--has made them valuable and is putting a strain on their numbers in the wild," he said. Hoen worked with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources in trying to estimate populations of the state's native bog turtle, a species he says is quickly becoming one of the rarest in the world. "We recorded a 43 percent decline in populations from the previous survey 16 years ago," he said. "Some of this has to do with the loss of the animal's natural habitat, but some of it is also the result of its value to collectors. Bog turtles sell for from $750 to $1,000 per animal, which is a very bad thing for the turtles left in the wild." His solution--and the solution of many conservationists- -is to advocate protecting remaining habitats and to establish and promote a captive breeding program for the animals. "If the animal is available through captive breeding then the incentive to collect it in the wild is removed," he said. "We need these breeding programs so the animals remaining in the wild will be left alone," he said. Hoen allows only legitimate dealers selling captive-bred reptiles to display at the Mid-Atlantic Reptile Show. He does not encourage just anyone to purchase a reptile as a pet. "I push the three-step process that says first get the knowledge of what's involved, then get the proper setup and finally, get the captive-bred animal from a legitimate dealer," he said. "People shouldn't be collecting these animals from the wild." Hoen has some distinctly unfavorable things to say about the current status of the reptile trade. "The import business of reptiles is too big, and most of the animals brought in die," he said. "I'd like to see strict quotas of imported reptiles that would raise prices. It's ridiculous to be selling iguanas for $4 an animal. If they sold for around $50, then people would think twice before making the commitment to owning one." Despite his concern about casual collectors, Hoen believes reptiles make rewarding pets. "Reptiles give pleasure in much the same way as dogs and cats," he said. "They respond, particularly lizards and turtles. Turtles will come running to you for food, while lizards have quite a bit of personality. And unlike a dog or a cat, if you don't pick a snake up for several days it doesn't care. In many respects, they can be excellent animals for active people with busy schedules living in close quarters." It is not, Hoen says, his intent to make reptile lovers of everyone. But he does hope to educate people about the importance of all animals in the ecosystem, including the less popular ones. "Many lizards I could find as a kid--such as the bright blue-sided fence swift which used to be common in Baltimore County--are just not there anymore. Their numbers are declining, and I believe it is important that all of us try to do something about it." For more information about the Mid-Atlantic Reptile Show or the show's sponsor, the Maryland Herpetological Society, contact Hoen at 557-6879.
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