June 19, 2008 – Not everyone can say that their hobby has given them a near-death experience. But then again, not everyone has a hobby that weighs close to 450 pounds and has 200 teeth that can apply 90 pounds of pressure per square inch, either.
Ernie Lanier, a.k.a. "The Snake Hunter," is a retired professional wrestler who began breeding snakes after using them as a gimic during his career.
The Lebanon transplant will have some of his giant snakes on exhibit at Saturday's snake safety workshop at the Jimmy Floyd Family Center.
"Saturday there'll be some snakes to see. They'll be in cages and in tubs. Me and my handlers will have them out," Lanier said.
Nichol Teague, director of Jimmy Floyd's programming and marketing, said Lanier approached the center about doing the exhibit.
"Now he's retired, he raises snakes and likes to educate people on snakes and safety. He's been on Letterman, Oprah, Maury Povich and was asked to go to Letterman again soon."
Teague said she thought the event would draw a fair amount of people, most motivated by curiousity.
"I've had some people come in and say there'll be a lot of people. I've talked to a few who saw the sign [out front] and said they'd be here. I'm not a snake person," she said with a laugh.
And that's the reason the North Caroline native said he holds these exhibits.
"People have a lot of misconceptions about snakes. Most people think they're slimy and cold. But they make great pets. You just ned to know the right ones to have."
Lanier's 20 giant snakes are mostly anacondas, pythons and boa constrictors, and he said that many people are sold inappropriate snakes by pet stores in the sense that they get to be too large.
"A lot of early teens decide they want a snake and go to the pet store. Sometimes they're sold snakes they shouldn't, because they grow into truly large snakes. A ball python is a good starter snake because it doesn't get bigger than four feet."
Lanier said that responsible pet ownership includes knowing there's always some danger associated with the reptiles.
"There's always an element of danger. Snakes feed on furry animals, so I make sure people wash their hands if they've handled dogs or cats," he said.
It was Lanier's Burmese Python, Colosus, that was within moments of taking his life.
The 23 and a half foot snake, weighing in at close to 450 pounds, also jockeyed briefly for the position of world's largest snake.
Lanier said he had a reptile building beside his home while he was still living in the Hermitage area.
"I had several big snakes and I was cleaning Colosus's cage. I had her on the floor. I opened her mouth with a rubber tool the vet gave me and was holding her behind the head," he said.
But unlike previous cleanings, the snake became agitated and Lanier began to fear if he let go, she would bite him.
"She made a complete wrap around my body and wrapped her tail around my neck and started constricting. I knew if she got me on the floor, she'd kill me."
Lanier said he threw himself into a nearby wall, which he ended up breaking through. The force was sufficient for the snake to loosen enough for him to get away. "I went outside and sat down and caught my breath," Lanier said.
"When I went back in, she was fine."
Though the python wasn't venomous and he hasn't had a problem since, Lanier recognizes it was a close call.
"They have four rows of teeth on the upper jaw and one row on the bottom. They have 100-200 teeth like fish hooks. Despite their slow and methodical movements, they can strike faster than an eye can see," he said.
"Their jaws [can exert] 90 pounds of pressure per square inch. That's like a 30,000 pound truck sitting on your chest," he said. "They're all muscle."
Colossus won't be able to attend Saturday's presentation as she's with Lanier's friend on exhibit in Chicago. Her unusual size has made her a rariety, he said.
"Burmese Pythons are not supposed to be that large. She was a genetic misfit. We thought she may have been the world's largest snake, but [a snake] in Chicago was longer," he said.
"Colosus was heavier, but she's certainly one of the largest in the world."
Lanier said he had Colosus on exhibit at the Wilson County Fair for several years, and the fair board told him she drew "thousands of extra people," he said.
Lanier's reptile repertoire, in addition to his 21-year wrestling career, has brought him a relative level of fame.
Fellow reptile-lover Jack Hannah sought him out to help with television appearances on shows like "Oprah," "PrimeTime Country" and "David Letterman," which he'll be returning to soon.
"I'm just waiting for Jack to call me. I've known him for several years."
He has appeared in close to 15 music videos with Randy Travis, Hank Williams Junior, Marty Stuart and the Statler Brothers.
"I can't sing a lick, I just always play a character," he said with a laugh.
Lanier also uses his local celebrity to give back to the community. "I do an annual exhibit at the Vanderbilt Children's Hospital Burn unit, and do jungle and rainforest things for vacation bible schools," he said.
"There's something about reptiles that fascinates kids ... I've had people who've never touched a snake in their life or been so close to one. They leave more knowledgable about reptiles and snakes."
After a total knee replacement almost two years ago, Lanier said he depends more and more on his assistants, Josh Ezell and Daniel Shahan.
"They both breed quite an array of different species. My recent exhibits and presentations couldn't have been done without their help. They're both very accomplished reptile handlers."
Lanier invites the community to come to the free event from 10 a.m. to noon and learn something they didn't know before about reptiles.
"A lot of people don't even know the venomous snakes of Tennessee."
Staff Writer Hilary Trenda may be reached at 444-3952 ext. 45 or by e-mail at email@example.com.