When we decided to cover the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition last week, we’ll admit to having a few preconceived notions about how the week would look. Visions of big trucks, large buck heads, and a town crawling with camo-wearing rednecks left us researching shotgun models and catching up on Duck Dynasty to prepare. But we were pleasantly surprised.
The festivities started early in the week with Wednesday’s opening reception for SEWE at the Mills House Hotel. Our date wore a camouflage vest for the occasion, and we threw on an Army fatigues-inspired jacket, assuming we’d fit right in. Upon entering the party we immediately realized our mistake — this was no backwoods moonshine throw-down; it was a glittering cocktail party of the highest quality. We didn’t see anyone in hunting gear and only spotted one cheetah dress. Giant chandeliers hung overhead. and the room was packed with wildlife-themed art from local artists. Many of the artists were in attendance and created a lively mix among the crowd. Charleston painter Christina Hewson told us she was excited that so many visitors would view her work during the exposition.
The wildlife motif carried on with the food, where giant ice sculptures towered over trays of various game sausages, crab cakes, caviar, boar, duck, and alligator — no animal was spared in the planning of the menu. We loaded up our plates and wandered around the room to learn about the various vendors exhibiting their goods. We fell into one conversation about hunting, but most of the guests seemed more interested in discussing Charleston or art.
The next evening was the SEWE preview gala and auction at the Charleston Place Ballroom. After slipping on our black-tie attire, we entered the bustling hotel to find ladies in ballgowns, men in tuxedos, and a single camouflage cummerbund. Employees from the Busch Wildlife Sanctuary greeted guests with birds of prey on their arms, and many attendees stopped to have their picture snapped with the large owl. Entering the ballroom, we were overwhelmed by the amount of artwork amassed in the space. Who knew there were so many paintings of dogs or 14-foot bronze Komodo dragon sculptures that cost more than we make in a year? The entire room was a maze of makeshift gallery walls interspersed with buffet tables and bars. We lost our date a few times behind the painting and sculpture displays. Before the live auction began, Charleston violinist Daniel D. entertained the crowd, and we wondered how many in the audience could pick out the Frank Ocean tunes.
Instead of participating in the bidding, we tucked into the evening’s food offerings. It was mostly fried snacks, so we stuck with wine out of fear of wiping grease on our gown. In the middle of bird art contemplation, we turned around to see Miss South Carolina in a sequin gown. An older lady leaned over to ask us if it was Taylor Swift.
Any residual hangovers from the week were cured at the Bluegrass Breakfast on Saturday. Before heading to the SEWE activities for the day, VIPs were invited to toast the festival with a mimosa or Bloody Mary. The brunch was hosted at the Francis Marion Hotel overlooking Marion Square so guests could peer out the windows to view the exhibition tents. Lindsay Holler played for attendees; it was too early for dancing, but many of the guests applauded between songs. Sausage biscuits and other continental breakfast fare provided fuel for the day, along with the Charleston Mix Bloody Mary bar.
After a few rounds, it was time to check out the exhibits. The SEWE tents in Marion Square were packed. The Tasting Tent offered live cooking demonstrations, making it one of the most popular. With free samples of Big T Coastal Provisions’ crab dip, Slather Brand sauce, and many other tasty treats, it was clear why. Crowds gathered for the Center for Birds of Prey demonstration, but the longest line of the day was at the Edisto Island Serpentarium — we’re scared of lizards, so we stayed away. We found a little more of that camo and ammo we were looking for at the beginning of the week under the tents, but overall our perceptions of SEWE were changed for the positive. We admire their conservation efforts, appreciation of the arts, and their ability to throw a good party.