Touch My Toads 

Reptiles and amphibians have a friend in "Outback Ed" Kiernan

St. Louis may not have an outback full of venomous beasties, but it does have its own version of TV's Crocodile Hunter. Our noble reptile wrangler is prepared to rescue you from the boa constrictor that slithered out of its cage in your neighbor's apartment and into your closet, but what really floats his boat is educating children about reptiles and letting the youngsters stroke his salamander.

"Outback Ed" Kiernan selects a variety of reptiles and amphibians from a special room in the basement of his Eureka home and brings them to preschools, schools and birthday parties around the region. His mission: to entertain and educate. He might introduce the kids to his Australian White's tree frog, a boa constrictor, some leopard or fat-tailed geckos, a green iguana, a savanna monitor, a tiger salamander, a blue-tongued skink, his toads or his box turtles. He usually brings along his star attraction, a 9-foot albino Burmese python named Julius Squeezer.

The kids learn about the regions the exotics call home, what they eat and how they eat, and then the amazement really begins -- the kids get to pet every animal Outback Ed brings. He says the kids are always rapt when they touch creatures from his scaly brood and remember his visits long after he's gone. Meeting and touching the reptiles makes everybody happy.

Make that almost everybody. Ed is also the man of choice when it comes to removing unexpected reptilian visitors from the yard and home. Probably his grandest adventure came three years ago.

"In the summer of '98, I wound up with a lot of reptile calls, and a lot of places don't want to deal with that -- the Humane Society doesn't, police departments don't," he says. He heard that a caiman, of all things, was living in a certain septic lagoon, so he and some of his herpetophile buddies took their boat out into the, um, muddy pond. Eventually they managed to outfox and then capture the young 2-foot-long crocodilian. They later learned that it was an escaped pet.

Other escapees include the boa constrictor in the linen closet of an apartment near Morganford and Gravois, another boa in a backyard near Tower Grove Park and a black rat snake that evaded an attacker's shovel and tried to set up shop in a cluttered Eureka garage.

Ed doesn't keep venomous snakes, but, for a price, he will hunt them down. He recalls the time a man told him of the 12 baby-sized copperhead skins he'd spotted in his home's crawl space. Wanting to rid the area of the dangerous predators, he contracted Ed to the tune of $50 per baby, plus $100 for the mother. Ed was only able to find two of the young.

Why are some folks afraid of reptiles? "Childhood experiences, ignorance and the Bible" are the big three, Ed says. "I let the kids know if they're afraid of any of the animals I have, it's probably because they've been hanging around grownups."

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