Living with Lizards: Cohabitation with Exotic Pets

Because I tend to socialize more easily with animals than people, I have surrounded myself with common and exotic pets my entire adult life. Cats and dogs and fish and birds; I have lived along side all these popular animals and others as well (including a rather nasty monkey and a cockatiel with a rather large musical repertoire). When I got married though, my husband decided he didn’t like the fuss and the noise and informed me that if I brought any more new friends home, they had better be silent.

Okay, we compromised. The very next week, three tiny and fragile looking Anole lizards (what many people mistake for chameleons since their skin changes color according to their surroundings). I did all the research I could on Kukla, Fran, and Ollie and learned that these exotic pets came from the Caribbean Islands and southeastern States in America as well as warmer areas in South America.

I discovered that they would only drink water when sprayed on the glass of their aquarium which I had nicely furnished with dirt, grass and small tree branches. I put a fitted screen on top of the tank and a portable lamp with a 100 watt bulb for heat during the day. Heated rocks are also available since digestion is sometime a problem with reptiles but if you look closely at a lizard’s forehead you will see its “third (parietal) eye”. When the sun hits this and the creature “heats up” sufficiently, it’s dinner time.

Their favorite food was mealworms, which was fine with me. Crickets tend to get loose and reproduce in every corner of your house. Mealworms can be kept in a coffee can filled with oatmeal (add a piece of potato for moisture) in your fridge and if you are truly inspired (or poor) you can grow more worms by keeping the can at room temperature. Your little “friends” will become pupae and then nasty looking darkling beetles in 2-3 weeks. They lay eggs 9-21 days later which will hatch in 5-18 days.

These Anoles made great little pets and became quite tame as they grew from 4 inches to almost eight. They would let me know when they were thirsty by sticking their tongues at me. At first, this seemed only coincidence; how could a small reptile communicate to a huge human? It was the time and attention that I paid them that solicited their trust in me.

By the time these reptiles had cohabitated with me for over a year, they became adults and grew ruby-colored dew flaps on their necks. It was then that I discovered that Fran was Frank. I had bought 3 males that were about to go to war, so I had to make them separate compartments in the tank. The three lived in almost-harmony then for several more years. I still remember them fondly when I see wild ones when I travel, but my rule here is that I never capture and/or keep any undomesticated creatures.

Geckos are such cute creatures with their “sticky” paws, it is no wonder that it has become a beloved TV commercial mascot. I bought several one day on a whim (back then reptiles were very inexpensive). We lived in a small place in the country in California and I knew that they were kept as pets in Viet Nam to eat the nasty roaches.

So we set them free in each room and they definitely cut down our insect population. We would often discover them on walls, the ceiling and lampshades. They were quite amiable but you cannot let them anywhere near open windows or air ducts.

One Halloween I wandered into a pet shop with a large quantity of reptile cages. Towards the back were two South American Agama lizards who looked like the answer to Darwin’s critics. They had rounded bodies and short tails like turtles and faces like E.T. and they were trying to eat the Astroturf that was on the bottom of their cage.

Vince and Boris came home with me. They were vegetarians and although I could not sex them they were always basking under the heat lamp together. I had purchased them in California, the home of exotic pets, but I moved to northern New York. The cold affected Vince and he died, but Boris stuck around for 12 years. In fact, I took a trip back to CA 2 years ago and donated him to a reptile house. That is another rule. If you cannot care for them find them a good home. I have never resold any pet. It just doesn’t seem ethical when they are a family member.

While it is true that many species of lizards can regenerate a tail, the same does not necessarily apply to other body parts. Boris was missing one “finger” that never quite grew back.

Next came Igor, a 10 inch baby Mexican Green Iguana. By that time I learned that to choose a proper reptilian pet, you must make sure they have clear eyes. If they are eating in front of you and/or look plump (you cannot overfeed them) they have been attended to properly. Ask the pet shop clerk if it has shed recently. Some lizards do it all at once and some gradually. Never help them shed!

All baby iguanas look unisex but as adults can be easily sexed by a dew flap in males and even if kept alone the female will lay unfertilized eggs. Unfortunately, people actually consider these exotic pets a delicacy in Mexico. Luckily there are animal rights groups trying to keep them from becoming endangered.

Igor loved fruits and veggies (no tomatoes or citrus) and occasionally indulged in canned dog food. This lizard was so healthy that she grew past 4 feet and lived in a homemade aquarium which was capable of holding over 100 gallons of liquid. Igor had lots of driftwood to hang out on and even though we kept her in a fairly warm and sunny window, she preferred the curtains.

With her long claws and spiny tail she became the queen of our animals and they left her alone. Although Igor had several clutches of eggs (which we always removed and buried) and became quite friendly to humans, at age 10 she too succumbed to the cold north.

Have fun with your exotic pet but before you select one, do some research. The internet is a great place to start. Pet shops will always help you decide what kind of environment, food, etc. is best. Many lizards, such as Gila Monsters, can be quite aggressive and may even bite. Often 2 different species cannot be roommates and as some reptiles mate for life, you may have to purchase a pair.

After you have chosen your new friend have its habitat prepared in advance in a quiet spot so that it will feel secure. When he/she eats the first time, you have a new companion.

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