Down the Worm Hole in Madrid’s Hall of Creepy Crawlers

Four times a year, a hard-nosed reptile dealer treks across Europe to piece together a living—one slithering, scaly creature at a time.

Down the Worm Hole in Madrid’s Hall of Creepy Crawlers

Throughout the large hall people are lugging plastic bags filled with small plastic boxes from which peer their latest purchases: frowning chameleons and motionless lizards, squealing mice and furry spiders, multi-colored frogs and curled snakes. Mealworms writhe hotly against one another in cartons and crickets jump in their box prisons, the loud snap of their heads knocking against the plastic lids like the sound of rain on a hot tin roof.

Snakes for sale at Madrid's Expoterraria.
Snakes for sale at Madrid’s Expoterraria.

This is Expoterraria, Madrid’s international reptile, amphibian and fish fair, a quarterly sale that attracts pet shop owners and hobbyists from all over Europe, who crowd around rows of white tables hunting for a new pet — and the mice, worms and insects they must feed on.

I’ve arrived late and huffing and puffing, having raced from the metro station to Madrid’s Casa de Campo park after my morning alarm inexplicably failed to go off. I’m here to work, helping my friend’s father sell his hand-reared reptiles and insects. We spent four hours here the night before, setting up our four long tables, but there is still much to do. My boss for the day has driven nearly twenty-four hours from Eastern Europe, and we will have to hustle to make his long trip profitable. Competition is stiff and we’re up against more than ninety other stall owners.

One by one, we box tiny chameleons and bearded baby dragon lizards into white plastic containers with air holes punched down the sides, each lined with a small piece of dampened paper towel as stipulated by sellers’ regulations. The scowling chameleons paw at the clear lids, trying to grab the lettering of the prices scrawled atop in back marker.

chameleon in its container at Madrid's Expoterraria.
chameleon in its container at Madrid’s Expoterraria.

“Here, hold this a moment,” my friend’s father says. I gasp a little as he hands me a small snake, its pale green skin cool against my hand. With a business-like air, he snips away a strand of feces, then pops the reptile back into its box.

Tall, round and jovial with greying hair thinning on top, Georg, fifty-three, is practiced and efficient with his reptiles but sometimes distracted around his crew of four. Actually, Georg isn’t his real name and he’s asked that I don’t detail exactly where he’s from either, a cautiousness likely leftover from years having lived under Communist rule, when he struggled to make ends meet as a hospital worker and then ambulance driver, devoting spare time and spare cash to breeding reptiles and their food. After the fall of Communism, he took a long-awaited trip west to Germany and noticed live mice sold there for four times more than back home. Breed animals in the east, sell them in the west, and his hobby could become a career, he realized.

Rows of boxed animals for sale at Madrid's Expoterraria.
Rows of boxed animals for sale at Madrid’s Expoterraria.

At times, he tells me, it’s a dangerous industry. People know he’s carrying large amounts of cash, and twice his driver, returning home from the Madrid fair, has been robbed by thieves posing as police. Georg, too, has been robbed three times in car parks by people who called up, claiming they had baby pythons to sell. Once he was threatened with a metal pole and another time attacked by knife — a thin scar curving around his wrist proves it — but his attackers fled after he pulled out a .44. He laughs at the memory. “That’s why I’ve got a big fucking gun.”

Quite suddenly, the customers begin streaming in and there’s no time to think, just a blur of faces. I’m selling mealworms and superworms, scooping jugfuls of squirming bodies into plastic cartons, shuddering a little as they brush my bare fingers. My Spanish customers have perfected the art of pushing ahead of the line, asking for their order as I’m bagging up the last one, and too busy to notice who was actually next. I jump from customer to customer, a liter of worms here, two liters there. Someone shows me a bright orange frog with white stripes. “Does it eat these?” they ask, gesturing at the worms. “Sure,” I say, about eighty percent sure I am right.

Georg stops by, worried about my ability to correctly add up the prices. My mathematical skills are average in English, let alone when calculating in Spanish, a language I am only just beginning to grasp. “What’s six times six?” Georg asks. “Twelve,” I joke. He smiles but looks faintly worried. I’m joking about his livelihood.

There’s no longer time to be afraid of the worms, and I no longer shudder if they touch my skin. I’m not scared or repulsed by them. I’m not even really thinking of them as a live insect anymore, as something destined to death. They are a commodity that is selling like hotcakes.

After lunch, a football match saps our business. Georg is already heavily discounting his insects and it’s looking like he’ll struggle to break even. Yet he remains the gregarious salesman, all big smiles, broken English and hearty laughs. He has an authoritative, knowledgeable air and a knack of making people feel comfortable, even through the language barrier. His twenty-four-year-old daughter, fluent in both English and Spanish, hovers nearby to translate the trickier questions.

Georg offers me a bite of his ham sandwich, and I refuse, explaining that I’m a vegetarian.

A crate of writhing mealworms at Madrid's Expoterraria.
A crate of writhing mealworms at Madrid’s Expoterraria.

“So how do you feel about selling these animals here today?” he asks. I’m tell him I’m not actually sure.

The tiny plastic boxes make me sad, even if the animals are only imprisoned there for a few hours. It is clear many sellers and buyers cherish their reptiles and it seems hypocritical to judge this trade fair when I, too, once owned a brilliantly patterned two-meter carpet python and had no problem buying frozen rats killed to feed my gentle giant. Now I have two cats that live a wholly domesticated life only because I desire their company. How is the domestication of one animal acceptable and another not?

Yet somehow this scene is more difficult to reconcile. I notice many animals and reptiles on sale here are Australian natives, like myself. They are all bred in captivity here in Europe; the Australian Government banned the commercial export of all live wild animal species in the 1960s. But I feel uncomfortable peering at my homeland’s bearded dragons, tree frogs, eastern coast carpet pythons, even a tiny furry sugar glider that fits in the palm of my hand, all destined to a life of captivity on the opposite side of the planet.

“How do you feel about this?” I ask Georg. I gesture towards the mealworms. “These are your babies. How do you feel about selling them off to die?”

“I’m a businessman,” he says, with that big infectious smile. “I’d sell my wife and two daughters if someone offered a good price.”

We laugh but then he grows serious. At times Georg struggles, knowing some animals are already condemned to death. “I don’t mind the insects, but these animals,” he says, motioning towards the lizards, “I love them. And this is hard for me because I know some of them are going to die within about two or three months. People buy them and they don’t know how to take care of them. It’s all there on the Internet and we tell them but they don’t look or listen or understand. They don’t give them the right vitamins or ultraviolet light and they die.”

Superworms are sold at Madrid's Expoterraria.
Superworms are sold at Madrid’s Expoterraria.

He tells me about a girl who came to the last trade fair, wanting to buy a very small chameleon to match the size of another she had purchased the previous year. Georg thought it odd that a one-year-old chameleon could still be so small and asked to see photos. The reptile’s ribs stuck out horribly, its growth clearly stunted by malnutrition.

Georg shakes his head before going on. It is, he reasons, much like the burly men who buy dangerous dogs then fail to train them properly. Those dogs end up taking the fall for their owner’s ignorance. There’s little the seller can do, beyond offer initial advice and hope that the buyer will follow it. It is, after all, a business like any other.

There is a hole in one of the boxes of crickets and some have managed to escape. They’re jumping around our tables and climbing up the wall behind us. I watch as one crawls across the ground, antennas twitching, only to be crushed by the sole of a passerby’s shoe, its fleeting freedom now lost.

The customers have slowed to a trickle now and we’ve all grown tired after more than twelve hours on our feet. We begin slowly packing up, Georg only just perceptibly dejected at the day’s dismal sales. Heavy aquariums, empty mealworm trays and cartons of crickets are loaded back into his big white van for the long journey home. The fair happens four times a year, and in a few months’ time Georg and his wife will do it all again, driving through the night once more to try their luck abroad.