Unusual pets can be found at St. Charles All Animal Expo – Chicago Tribune

Thank you for supporting our journalism. This article is available exclusively for our subscribers, who help fund our work at the Chicago Tribune.
It all started when Scott Smith was around 12 years old.
“I discovered toads in the window wells of my family home and I’ve always had something since,” he said. “At the most, I probably had 200 animals at one point. I got a USDA permit and I had a ring-tailed lemur, a lesser bush baby coatimundi, chinchillas, hedgehogs, flying squirrels … skunks. Skunks actually make really good pets. They’re just illegal in Illinois without a USDA (permit).”
Nowadays, the Woodstock resident is down to just two dogs, two cats and a bird as pets, but he still encounters hundreds of animals every couple of weeks at Scott Smith’s All Animal Expo, held twice a month at the Kane County Fairgrounds in St. Charles.
“It’s a different experience,” Smith said. “It’s educational. It’s a petting zoo, it’s a sale. It’s just different. It’s kind of a beast of its own.”
The expo brings together animal lovers and vendors for a day of education and camaraderie about their love of pets — the traditional and the not so traditional.
“We’re probably 70% reptiles, but there’s dogs, cats. There’s usually birds. Right now I’m not allowing birds at the show because of the bird flu going through Illinois,” Smith said. “I talked to three different vets and they all agree humans can carry it, but nobody can tell me what it will do to humans. And if you bring it home and you have birds, it’s an 85% mortality rate.
“My last show was the last show for birds until the end of May,” he said. “I’m a big believer in responsible pet ownership.’
A retired wrestler, Smith became partners with Lee Watson of Lee Watson’s Reptile Swap about 15 years ago, with the Swap becoming Scott Smith’s All Animal Expo. Now, Smith runs the expo with help from his girlfriend, Michele Wilson.
The expo averages 60-70 vendors at the expo offering pets, supplies and other animal-related items.
“I probably have 10 vendors now who came with kids and have graduated into breeding and now they’re vendors,” Smith said. “That makes me feel good.”
While there are the typical pets like dogs and cats available, the expo is also a place to find those you don’t often see in a pet store.
“There are different laws for a brick and mortar pet store than what I do. So if you’re a brick and mortar store and you’re selling a ferret, that ferret must live in a 2-foot by 2-foot by 4 foot cage,” Smith said. “When you’re at my show, you can put it in a display for a day and have two or three in the display, and it doesn’t have to be that large.
“So you can still find animals like that that the pet stores deem not sellable and it’s not worth the space they have to take up to the money they’re going to make off of it. So (at pet stores) you don’t see ferrets. Very rarely do you see chinchillas any more. Hedgehogs are the same things. Sugar gliders are the same thing.”
One of the more sought-after pets right now are axolotls, a type of salamander, attributed in part to its resemblance to a Pokémon character, Smith said.
“They just skyrocketed,” he said. “Their popularity is amazing.
“The cool thing about the axolotl, the lungs are on the outside of the animal,” Smith said. “They’re water amphibious. They have arms, legs and a tail. If they lose a limb, it grows back. Very cool animals.”
Along with reptiles, there are also insects like tarantulas and perhaps surprisingly, isopods that people purchase as pets.
“I called them roly-polys when I was a kid,” Smith said. “There are people right now that breed those and sell them. That one still amazes me a little bit.
“You set up a fish tank in your living room and you put down a couple of pieces of wood and they live under the wood,” he said. “I never thought you could sell bugs. Not like that.”
With animals his passion, Smith said he wants to make sure pet owners are fully educated on the animals they are considering taking home.
“I’m very big on education,” he said. “I don’t think the average person should own a snake that’s 20 foot or an alligator.
“At my booth it’s just about educating. It has nothing to do with the vendors. It’s just for people to come over and ask questions to make sure the animal they’re buying is a good fit,” said Smith, who is also president of St. Charles-based Kane Area Rehabilitation and Education for Wildlife.
Experts and longtime enthusiasts will donate their time to talk to people and display husbandry for pets like a ball python, bearded dragon or corn snakes
“That’s all beginner, entry level reptiles,” Smith said.
The expo is family friendly, he said, with the goal of educating the young on responsible pet care and ownership.
“When Mom and Dad let the kid pick their animal, and I get it a lot ‘Mom and Dad won’t let me get this.’ So you (I say) know what you do? You go the library, you get a book and you teach Mom and Dad how you’re going to take care of that animal. Then ask them for it.
“And Mom and Dad look at me and go ‘That’s a good answer.’ It takes the pressure off them buying something for the kid, it gives the kid a goal and if he’s really passionate about the animal, he’ll figure it out, or she’ll figure it out.”
Popular right now with kids are bearded dragons, axolotls and hedgehogs, he said.
“To a point I do discourage it (hedgehogs) in little kids, because they do take a little bit of work. And they are spiny. And their defense system is to puff, so you get poked,” Smith said. “There’s no blood but it’s a little disconcerting the first couple of times this animals puffs and you get spiked a little bit. So a little kid is going to drop an animal and that could kill it.”
On some occasions the expo will host unexpected or unusual animals for people to see and learn about. For Easter, a local lamb breeder will bring baby lambs for visitors to see.
“None of the lambs will be old enough to sell at that point,” Smith said. “But if she has a customer that wants to buy one, she’ll put their name on a list and after nine weeks they would be available.”
To own one, the person must live in an area that allows livestock.
“This is part of the education thing,” he said. “It all depends on where you live.”
Smith said while he is big on educating all animal owners, he wants especially wants to make sure the next generation of pet owners are taught the proper care of the different species.
“Without kids getting involved, all this is going away,” Smith said.
Scott Smith’s All Animal Expo
When: 10 a.m.- 3 p.m. April 9 and April 17
Where: Kane County Fairgrounds, 525 S. Randall Road, St. Charles
Tickets: $8 age 11+; $3 ages 6-10; under age 6 are free
Information: 630-533-0181; allanimalexpo.com
Kathy Cichon is a freelance reporter for the Beacon-News.
Copyright © 2022, Chicago Tribune