A live flamingo wandered through the ballroom, sqawking at guests dressed in sparkling gowns and tuxedos. An owl was part of the receiving line. And naturalist Jack Hanna was wearing his trademark safari attire as he kicked off the evening.

The Southeastern Wildlife Exposition Preview Gala Thursday night is like no other. For this weekend, it is all about wildlife art, and activities around animals. Well, that and having some fun.

The 30th annual expo kicked off with glitz as the benefactors trolled the exhibition space at Charleston Place looking for a piece of art that spoke to them, whether it was a sculpture of a songbird, a painting of a big buck to hang on the wall, or maybe a much less expensive print to remember the trip to Charleston.

The 1,800 to 2,000 patrons and artists came from all walks of life, so many that the event was sold out.

Some like Ron and Wylene Bailey of Spartanburg have been coming to the expo for years. Ron Bailey was a wood carver who used to exhibit at the event. Now he and his wife save all year long so they can spend money on art.

Wylene already had bought a Carolina wren piece from the featured sculpture artist, Don Rambadt, by 7:30 p.m. He works with negative space, and constructs birds from metal.

"I saw that sculpture last year," said Wylene, "and I should have bought it then. I just loved it. This year the price had gone way up."

From the artist's perspective, David Petlowany has been coming back for eight years, and is friends with Hanna. They have worked together at the Columbus Zoo in Ohio with Hanna's benefits for Rwanda.

Petlowany donated a stone bear for the live auction, something he frequently does. It was a steal at $1,000.

And Hanna himself has been returning for six years, doing wildlife shows at Gaillard Auditorium.

"I do expositions every year, but this is like the Rose Bowl of them all," he said.

More than 40,000 people are expected to crowd the exhibition halls and events this weekend.