By ANGIE ALVARADO
Most young boys grow up collecting baseball cards and Hot Wheels, but Ethan Niedecken prefers accumulating snakes, lizards and other reptiles.
You won’t find a dog sitting in his lap on a visit to the Niedecken house just east of Palestine on Circle R Lake. Instead, one might see a 2-foot savannah monitor or colorful Columbian tegu, resting on his shoulder.
“Dogs and cats are OK, but I prefer crawly things,” the 8-year-old smiled.
Ethan’s room is like that of many other boys his age except for the many aquariums and containers that house his considerable collection of reptiles.
His collection includes three leopard geckos, a Colombian tegu, two Chinese water dragons, two bearded dragons, a savannah monitor, a green iguana, several anole or green lizards, five ball pythons, a corn snake, a ribbon snake with seven babies, a red-footed tortoise, two box turtles, a snapping turtle and a hermit crab.
These reptiles are not just part of Ethan’s collection, they’re his pets and all have names.
Two-year-old Makayla is a 2-foot-long savannah monitor, a large pet lizard native to Africa. The savannah monitor is the most docile lizard in the monitor group and tolerates handling quite well.
Tiger, is a 9-month-old Columbian tegu. The Colombian tegu, found throughout central South America, is part of the monitor group of lizards that can reach 3 feet in length.
Blanca, Bones and Clyde are Ethan’s leopard geckos. Honey and Cactus are bearded dragons and Frick and Frack are Chinese water dragons. Iggy is a green iguana he won at a carnival.
Ethan also has five ball pythons, Daphne, Dyna, Monty, Rollo and Rogue. When full grown, the ball pythons will be between 5 and 6 feet in length.
In addition to the ball pythons, there’s Zeke, a corn snake, and Gonzo, a female ribbon snake and her seven babies.
Sally is a red-footed tortoise while the box turtles are Reginald and friend. There’s Snappy the snapping turtle and Herman the hermit crab.
The one animal Ethan doesn’t handle very much is Spinnerette, his 3-year-old tarantula.
“If Ethan had his way, our house would be lined wall-to-wall with aquariums,” his mother, Tracy Niedecken, said.
“Ethan takes care of the animals, especially in the summer,” she added. “During the school year, I help him out.”
It takes Tracy and Ethan about 20 to 30 minutes a day to prepare the food for all the reptiles and another 30 minutes or so to feed them. Food for these animals includes chopped lettuce or greens ranging from mustard, turnips and collards with shredded carrots; three kinds of roaches (red runner, dubia and lobster); and meal or super worms; the snakes of course, eat rats.
Sally, the red-footed tortoise is fond of cherry tomatoes.
Feeding the dozens of reptiles is not as expensive as one might think, especially since Tracy and Ethan grow most of the food including the rats, roaches and worms. Their main food expense for the reptiles is for lettuce, greens, carrots, squash, melons and tomatoes.
Makayla and Tiger are carnivorous. They eat baby rats, worms, roaches, boiled eggs and chopped or ground turkey. The bearded dragons, tortoise and box turtles eat greens. The snakes are fed rats every 7 to 10 days.
After feeding his reptile collection, Ethan gets busy doing homework before heading to bed between 8:30 and 9 p.m.
A second-grader, Ethan is in the gifted and talented program at Southside Elementary School where his favorite subject is math. He also is a Cub Scout in Palestine Pack 440.
Like most kids his age, Ethan also likes collecting smooth rocks, and keeps the collection in his closet.
But unlike most of his peers, Ethan spends most of his time after school playing and interacting with his reptiles.
“He does interact a lot with the bearded dragons,” Tracy said. “If you handle them a lot they can be almost like a dog.”
Young Ethan’s interest in lizards and everything reptile started when he turned 4 years old and got his first bearded dragon, Jumper Boy, for his birthday. That was followed by another bearded dragon, Noodles.
At that time, he and his parents, Tracy and Gene Niedecken, lived in Austin. After his father passed away in March of 2008, Tracy and Ethan moved to Palestine to be closer to her parents, Ray and Dorothy Hein.
The two bearded dragons did not handle the move to East Texas well.
“They stressed and died within a week when we moved to Palestine,” Tracy said.
The death of those reptiles only fueled Ethan’s interest and he soon began collecting lizards, snakes, turtles and more.
“I want to have a pretty big reptile exhibit,” Ethan said. “I want to be a reptile collector and let people come and see my exhibit.
“I want a tree monitor next,” he said excitedly. The tree monitor is another breed of lizards known for its stunning coloration.
Also on the young boy’s “must have” list is a nile monitor.
“I want one because it gets a lot bigger,” he said.
The nile monitor, also called water leguaan or river leguaan, can grow to about 9 feet in length, and is a large member of the monitor lizard family.
Ethan’s big reptile dreams go beyond East Texas.
“I want to move to Florida and catch alligators,” he said with as much enthusiasm as the late Crocodile Hunter Steve Erwin. “I also want to go to Australia and catch crocodiles. They’re almost the same (as alligators) but can live in fresh and salt water.”
Shaking her head, Tracy added, “One year he wanted to start an alligator farm in Alaska.”
Tracy is supportive of her son’s interest in and collection of reptiles.
“I won’t let him bring anything in here that I can’t deal with.”
Ethan’s love of animals comes honestly. When Tracy and Gene lived in Austin, they did animal rescue, which included saving snakes.
“Growing up, Gene’s parents had a pet store. He grew up with a pet monkey and a skunk,” Tracy said about her late husband. “He loved fish. He always had three or four aquariums with African cichlids, a bright-colored fish.”
If Ethan had to pick a favorite reptile in his current collection, it would be close, either Makayla and Tiger.
“Makayla is my favorite because she’s big and she likes to watch TV,” Ethan quickly stated as Makayla rested next to him on the coach while he watched “Animal Planet,” his favorite television show.
“In order for these guys to be tame when they get older, you need to handle them every day,” Tracy said about the savannah monitor and Columbian tegu. “You don’t want to wrestle with a 2-foot lizard every day.”
The fact that they share their home with 10 assorted lizards, seven snakes, a tarantula, turtles and more, doesn’t bother Tracy one bit.
“I prefer dogs,” she smiled. They have four, three large bullmastiffs and a small Chihuahua.
“Makayla likes to stay in my bathroom,” she smiled as she watched the savannah monitor lounging on her couch.
Tracy said her son is just an active, boisterous child who loves reptiles. At least once a year, they take some of his reptiles to school so that his classmates can get an upclose look at the snakes, lizards and turtles.
“We try to find time every weekend to clean cages and scrub water dishes,” Tracy explained, “That is unless there’s a Cub Scout or G/T project to do.
“Most of my friends think I’m nuts,” she continued. “Nobody wants to come to my house.”
The laid back, easy-going mom takes everything in stride.
“Once you spend time with them (the reptiles), you realize they’re not aggressive. They can bite but as long as you handle them with respect, you’ll be fine,” she assured.
Most of Ethan’s reptile collection came from the East Texas area including Rusk, Chandler and Brownsboro. Other reptiles came from Fort Worth, College Station, Austin and Belton.
For novice reptile collectors, Tracy offered some advice.
“The ball python and the corn snake are the two best starter snakes because they are non aggressive and are easier to keep in a tank,” she said.
“Zeke (the corn snake) is a notorious escape artist,” Ethan added as he sat back to watch the next episode of “Animal Planet.”