Today marks the kickoff of the thirty-fourth annual Southeastern Wildlife Exposition in Charleston.
SEWE founder Jimmy Huggins speaks to a small crowd outside Belmond Charleston Place. He is holding Amanda, a crested caracara with a sharp yellow beak and a flat top of black feathers from the Busch Wildlife Sanctuary in Jupiter, Florida.
In the following days, wildlife enthusiasts, conservationists, hunters, birders, artists, and dog lovers will flock to the Holy City. The Exposition will take place across five main venues and will include an art exhibition, music, fishing demonstrations, dog competitions, bird shows, cocktail parties, and performances by Jack Hanna—to name some highlights. SEWE is an extravaganza of all things wildlife and conservation, a celebration of Southern culture and lifestyle.
The grand ballroom at Belmond Charleston Place bustles on Thursday afternoon. Artists mill about the private preview, meeting and greeting VIP ticket holders and benefactors. Joe Garcia, a wildlife painter from Southern California, is here for his eighteenth year. “You start to develop relationships, not only with the other artists, but also with your clients,” says Garcia, “and so I see families that I know and see their children grown up!”
The first Exposition took place in February 1983, and attending is a long-standing tradition for many families. Thursday night the ballroom fills with enthusiasts for the opening gala. Artists are dressed to impress, in gowns and tuxes, manning their booths and fielding questions from interested passersby. The Center for Birds of Prey brings several show-stopping birds to the event, and ladies and gents resplendent in formalwear pose next to falcons and white barn owls.
Taylor Glenn, a rare fine art photographer invited to exhibit, is new to SEWE. His work is certainly striking—a falcon in flight, a grizzly caught unaware. His photographs almost look like paintings. He mingles with attendees, shaking hands and chatting about his process. “I applaud the SEWE folks for taking a gamble, because they’re putting me in here with traditional art, which is a very different thing.”
Indeed, SEWE has fought to stay relevant. In the ’80s art shows of its kind were much more common, and wildlife art was mainstream. Since then other expositions have run their course. SEWE weathered recessions and cultural shifts by adapting. Today an average of forty thousand attendees come to see more than five hundred artists, exhibitors, and wildlife experts from around the world. It now includes countless diverse events—truly something for everyone. “When SEWE started it was very traditional. We continue to grow and expand the show so it’s not just wildlife art. It also focuses on sporting life,” says Mary Roberts, SEWE’s marketing director. “We’ve changed our perspective on art, brought different artists in, and taken a more modern approach to wildlife art.” Throughout the years, however, the core mission of the Exposition has remained the same: to celebrate wildlife and nature through fine art, conservation education, and sporting demonstrations. The Exposition gained 501-C3 status in 2003 and now spearheads several local educational programs as well.
Marion Square hums with activity. White tents ring the park. The Center for Birds of Prey, The Orianne Society, countless vendors, and conservation nonprofits have set up shop for the long weekend. Attendees mill about, petting crocodiles, listening to a bluegrass band, and drinking Bloody Marys. A large group of spectators gaze upward, rapt by the hawks and owls soaring through the clear sky.
For specialized nonprofits, the Conservation Tent is an opportunity to educate, increase membership, and fundraise. “We consider ourselves a platform for these nonprofits. It’s so inexpensive to have a booth with collateral and video to show the public what they do,” says Roberts. “They’ll see an average of 30,000 to 40,000 people—the reach is incredible.” As much as SEWE is about spectacle and fun, it is also about exposure to all things natural and wild, to the conservation of endangered animals and habitats.
The new Charleston Gaillard Center is packed. Jack Hanna walks on stage and the crowd goes wild. He dons his usual khaki safari outfit and sports a deep bronze tan. He certainly has stage presence, and the audience starts laughing within seconds. Hanna points out his wife in the crowd, and she reluctantly stands to abundant applause. He explains his trajectory from Tennessee boy to world-renowned wildlife expert, citing family tragedies and career milestones. Then he begins to show off a dozen animals, from a rambunctious bearcat cub to a sleek cheetah. In between animal appearances, Hanna plays short videos about conservation projects and animal sanctuaries. “He just loves what he does,” says Roberts. “You can’t get him off the stage, because he truly wants to talk to every single person. I admire him very much.”
Meanwhile the lower ballroom is filled with exhibitors selling wares. Shoppers peruse everything from ties to taxidermy. Outside, Boeing hosts an aerospace show and galactic booms reverberate from inside a large white tent.
Brittlebank Park stretches along the Ashley River, teeming with SEWE-goers of all ages, and live bluegrass music drifts through the air. A throng gathers around a fly fishing demonstration at the north end of the park, and kids feed excited goats in the petting zoo tent. Brittlebank is a social venue, and attendees gather in tight groups, drinking beer and chatting. At the south end, a crowd gathers around a large aboveground pool for the DockDog finals. Handlers head behind the dock to ready their dogs, and the air is spiked with anticipation. The dogs have been competing in numerous heats throughout the weekend, and now the best will vie for the title.
In its fifteenth year, DockDogs draws 3.5 million spectators to its 230 events throughout the United States, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom. The competitions are split into three disciplines: Big Air, Vertical Extreme, and Speed Retrieve. “It’s a growing phenomenon,” says Renee Racey, president of the local Palmetto DockDogs club. “They get excited! They see the pool, and they want to swim!” The competition begins and dogs fly through the air, one after another. The toy is hoisted higher and higher until a champion emerges: Doni, and handler Deborah, already two-time world champions for the Big Air discipline. The crowd goes wild during the final jumps.
SEWE truly is a spectacular kaleidoscope of activities and experiences all in the name of conservation and the celebration of wildlife. But more than anything, the Exposition brings together a community of sportsmen, artists, and conservationists. It offers an opportunity to talk shop, compare notes, and learn about conservation endeavors. It’s a family affair and a bright spot in the winter calendar.