Johns Hopkins Gazette: September 12, 1994

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
    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
    "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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