Columbia native promotes reptile education, conservation

Saturday, June 22, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:16 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, June 25, 2013
Ethan Meyers owns reptiles as pets and has put on educational shows with them for Douglass and Rock Bridge high schools, along with Jefferson Junior High School. His collection includes venomous snakes and an American alligator named Wya.

COLUMBIA — Ethan Meyers, 26, has suffered more than 50 snake bites — three by venomous snakes. He has been stung 10 times by scorpions and bitten once by a tarantula.

He seems like the "forgive-and-forget" type.

Snake bite help

If you've ever beenbitten by a snake, here's what Meyers — who has tons of experience — says you should do:

  • Identify the snake by taking a picture of it or cutting its head off
  • Have someone designated to call 911 seeking medical attention. 
  • Stay calm, lay down and elevate the wound above the heart to slow the blood flow throughout the body. Meyers said a string or belt should be used to tie a loose tourniquet around the wound while waiting for medical attention.

"Don't suck out the venom," Meyers said. "That's an old wives' tale. Small cuts in your mouth will re-envenomate you."  

On weekends, Meyers and his 4-foot alligator, Wya, can often be found hanging out inside and outside downtown establishments such as Coffee Zone, Lakota Coffee Company or Sparky's Homemade Ice Cream. It's a one-man, one-reptile crusade to educate people.

"Reptiles are misunderstood creatures," Meyers said. "We are raised to be afraid of them although we know very little about them."

Some people react with shrieks of fear; others ask Meyers if they can please hold the gator. He usually says yes.

"You can see reptiles being handled in videos, but it just doesn't compare," Meyers said. "There's nothing like seeing these creatures in real life."

Meyers uses his pets to help educate the public with his reptile and amphibian program, Natural Wonders, which he has put on for 12 years. During the show, he handles exotic animals, providing background information about each creature and answering audience questions. Some of the venomous snakes Meyers handles include a monocled cobra, a gaboon viper and a western diamondback rattlesnake.

He has performed for local high schools, including Douglass and Rock Bridge, boy scout troops, birthday parties and fundraisers. He tries to accept any invitation to appear with his reptile brigade, regardless of how much people can pay.

"I want to get kids excited about something that isn't their computer or cellphone," Meyers said.

Like many of Meyers' pets, Wya was a rescue animal. Meyers had been searching for a 10-foot alligator to bring more shock value to his show when his friend and fellow reptile enthusiast, Tina Gruer, called him with a tip. She said a local family had taken in an alligator and wanted to get rid of it because they could no longer care for it.

Although 4-year-old Wya is Meyers' seventh and biggest pet alligator, she's not yet full grown and will probably end up being 10 feet long. Meyers said her favorite pastime is sunbathing and her favorite food is venison.

Meyers said many people buy pet alligators without realizing how big they will get. The result is abandoned reptiles — a big problem — because owners often end up throwing them in rivers or lakes, he said.

Alligators grow one foot per year until they turn 6 years old, when they begin to grow only an inch a year, Meyers said. Alligators can weigh more than a ton and are constantly losing teeth and growing new ones.

'Like Siegfried and Roy'

Born and raised in Columbia, Meyers was homeschooled with his three siblings and always had an interest in exotic animals, magic and performance.

"My siblings and I had to find ways to entertain ourselves," Meyers said, with a laugh. "We were forced to think outside the box."

His first pet snake was a prairie king snake he found in a field behind his house when he was 7 years old. 

When he was 8, Meyers and his older brother, Joel, put on their first show together for friends and family. They did simple magic tricks and stage illusions that utilized Meyers' collection of exotic animals, which had grown to include a python, boa, scorpion, tarantula and a parrot. They even made them disappear. Eventually, the duo began performing at festivals in Columbia.

"We were like Siegfried and Roy," Joel Meyers said. "Ethan has always been really good with reptiles. I have never met anyone with the knowledge and understanding for them that he has." 

After the deaths of his mother and sister when he was 12, Meyers and his siblings traveled seven to eight months each year with their father, who sold jewelry. They performed on the road and tried to make connections everywhere they went. Meyers said his father has always been a major inspiration for him and his siblings.

"My dad always told us we could do anything, and so we did," Meyers said.

It's been a sometimes painful learning process. After being bitten by a timber rattlesnake when he was 16 years old, the tissue damage cost Meyers all feeling in the tip of his right index finger. 

"Anytime I get bit, it's my fault," Meyers said. "What would you do if you had no arms or legs? There's an inherent risk that goes along with what I do. I accept it. These are wild animals I'm dealing with, and they will never get tame. I give them way more respect than they give me."

Crazy, they call him

Despite his fear of snakes, 29-year-old Duran Pipes recently saw Meyers perform at a private show. He said Meyers tricked him during the performance by handing him an envelope containing what he said were rattlesnake eggs. As Pipes opened the envelope, the contents started shaking and rattling.

Pipes said he jumped up and ran, as he had no idea the "eggs" were nothing more than a practical joke — the envelope actually contained a wound-up washer-and-rubber-band gadget that moved around once it was opened.

"It was intense," Pipes said. "It got my adrenaline going. I wanted to see more."

When he isn't performing or socializing Wya downtown, Ethan likes being with his family and friends — especially his younger sister, Melina, 15. Ethan Meyers said he wants to be a role model for his sister, as she shares his love for exotic animals. For her birthday, he bought her a Goffin's cockatoo, which she named Loke.

"You can't look at Ethan when he is showing his snakes without being able to tell that he has an unbreakable bond with his animals and a lot of devotion going on at the same time," Melina Griner Meyers said. "He is my favorite person in the world, no doubt."

Although Meyers is used to being called crazy and criticized for his passion, he said he loves what he does and craves the adrenaline rush. He relates his performing experience to the feeling a person parachuting out of an airplane. 

"It's nice to not be afraid of what most people say is their worst fear," Meyers said.

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