Reptiles have home away from home

Like many other 17-year-old girls, Claremonter Melissa Meyer is obsessed with Lady Gaga. She spends countless hours brushing up on her facts and adding items to her “Gaga collection.” Her family goes so far as to say she is an expert in the topic. Unlike other 17-year-olds, however, her Lady Gaga is a 13-foot albino Burmese Python.

In a phase teen girls are usually more focused on boys than books, Melissa has devoted herself to the care of Lady Gaga and many other slithery and scaly friends. Forty-one others to be exact. Though not yet old enough to vote, Melissa is Claremont’s resident reptilian expert, a title she wears with pride.

“I just love the animals, honestly, and the chance to be with them every day,” Melissa shared.  “You open a cage and it’s something new.”

The teen is a walking almanac of reptiles and amphibians. When not at school, Melissa devotes her time to poring over books on the subject, watching shows on Discovery Channel and maintaining her pets. It’s what she loves to do above all else.

“She’d research all their habitats, what they eat and what they need to survive. She’d keep logs of all the information, and detailed notes,” said her father Ed. “She truly is a walking encyclopedia!”

Melissa can often be found walking the trails of the Wilderness Park, sharing her critter knowledge with others. She has even been known to teach a lesson if the right creature comes by, a passing tarantula in one case. Melissa hopes to dispel common misconceptions and fear by spreading facts about California’s native reptiles and insects.

“People just assume they are all out there to get you, but they’re not,” Melissa said. “They are just like cats and dogs, they know who their owners are. Stanley [her Argentine Tegu, an omnivorous lizard] even responds to his name.”

Melissa’s passion for reptiles began like the seemingly tomboyish interests of many other little girls with older brothers: she didn’t have a choice. Her brothers would bring home creatures on a regular basis much to her squeamish delight; a pet snake or lizard was a staple in the Meyer household. Though she enjoyed the creepy-crawlies, she was initially more hesitant.

“She was too scared to reach in the cage herself, so she would have me hand them to her,” her mother Tarina recalled.

You would never know that now. Her room is tidily lined with cages and aquariums acquired throughout the years with varying types of reptiles and amphibians, much cleaner than typically expected from a teen’s bedroom. Melissa quickly learned to adapt and conquer her fear, becoming just as eager, if not more, than her older siblings. She began her own pet collection at age 6 with the rescue of a Rosy Boa, aptly named Rose. Melissa and her brothers found Rose maimed on the side of a Mt. Baldy Trail. She brought her home and nursed her back to health. She continues to thrive today under Melissa’s constant care.

One of Melissa’s favorite things about her pets is their colorful and varying personalities. There’s Kaizer the Bearded Dragon, a recognized social butterfly, and stubborn Stanley, who has been known to walk off with Mr. Meyer’s shoes.

Her hobby turned into more of a lifestyle as Melissa grew ever hungrier to learn more about her pets. Too young for employment, Melissa took a volunteer position at a pet shop in Chino Hills.

“I just needed to be with the animals,” she explained. “I figured I would learn a lot more by being there with them all the time.”

It was a bottom of the barrel job, but Melissa didn’t care. She was an eager learner, soaking up any and every bit of knowledge storeowners and customers would share.

She was filled with fearless ambition, the first to volunteer helping with even the most temperamental of creatures, which has earned her countless bites and scars along the way. Thirteen stitches along her finger are a reminder of a run-in she had with an angry Argus monitor, a lizard typically found in Australia and New Guinea. But the battle wounds have only pushed her to continue the journey.

“It’s just part of it, you know you will be bit at some point,” Melissa said, “but if you really love the animals, it doesn’t matter.”

Six months into her volunteership, Melissa began her own little pet shop. Her first animal gifted to her was Lady Gaga, then a 12-inch baby python in need of a home. Over the years the collection grew with additions like a pair of bearded dragons, named Master Chief and Pancake, and a silly and skittish frilled dragon, who still awaits a name. Her nieces and nephews lend their help to the naming process.

Her room is so masterfully cleaned it would take a double, maybe even triple-take, to realize her assortment of pets. It’s a source of pride for both her parents.

“I haven’t had to invest a dime or tell her to clean at all. She has amassed this little zoo of hers all on her own,” Mr. Meyer said. “I am just blown away by her enthusiasm and real love for them. She cares about them like nobody’s business.”

She takes the time every day to make sure each has the correct amount of light, moisture and food, as well as a clean cage. Though the costs to feed her reptiles can run up to $60 a week, she has taken to breeding many of her own worms and insects to help cut on costs. She considers herself lucky to be able to care for her pets in a time when many others are unable to do so.

“It’s an expensive hobby and especially right now with the economy, many people aren’t able to do it,” she said.

As long as fortune follows her, Melissa plans to continue fostering her reptilian friends, and one day hopes to turn it into a profession.

“I’d love to open my own private breeding facility,” she said. “I just love the opportunity to be with them everyday and continue to learn more about them.”

—Beth Hartnett


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