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Iguana 101

September 29, 2006

I often debate with myself the merits of children keeping pets (mostly I lose the debate). My daughters’ grandmother, who is supremely wise (after having raised five kids of her own, my wife Karen among them), has a simple rule about pets. It goes something like this: No Pets.

Since grandma is the landlord of our domestic domain, my own three daughters have learned to respect her rules. They don’t keep pets. The animals that inhabit their room, swim in fish tanks, burrow in terrariums, crawl across the floor, are not pets. They are family. In our household, the animals have as much standing as the humans, maybe more; certainly they have more standing than the only male.

Maybe “No Pets” is a good rule. Or “No New Family Members.” I have a feeling, however, that my girls would argue for my dismissal before they would give up their slimy, warty, scaly, and furry “family.”

Caring for animals will teach us responsibility, I can hear them say. So why am I assigned the litter box and the lizard cage? Why do I get to clean up the vomit and gut piles on the living room carpet? Why is it that if something smells the girls always look in my direction?

Our animals can teach us empathy, they continue. Now they’re reaching. What I’ve learned from keeping animals is just the opposite. Animals point out just how irresponsible we can be, and just how greatly we can come to despise them.

***

I offer this story as a warning. If ever you take your children to a pet store—a foolish misjudgment to begin with—keep them away from the cute baby green lizards with the golden eyes imploring you to take them home with you. Yes, these lizards, green iguanas, cold-blooded reptiles, have that much personality, even more than the puppies, the kittens, and the screaming canaries. What these baby green monsters won’t tell you until it’s too late is how demanding in their care they are, and how demanding in their size they will become.

We carried “Pern” home in a small, hole-punched cardboard box pet stores use for packaging their mice and birds. The girls decided on the name because they had recently become enamored with a series of books by Ann McCaffrey that depicted a planet inhabited by dragons, and people who had become marooned there from a lost Earth ship. The author called the world “Pern,” which as I remember was an acronym for something. So, my daughters named our tiny green iguana for a mythical dragon-world populated by a few people who had learned to build a society around the beasts. The girls should have christened our household with the name instead.

I bought the iguana and its cute little leash. Karen, always more brilliant than me, returned to the pet store and bought the book on iguanas. Then she read it. When she finished, she said, “Just another small thing you’ve given me that grows up!” Karen never minced words. “And this one is worse than a baby. At least babies wear diapers.”

Green iguanas, we learned very quickly, have special needs. Because they come from rain forest climates in Central and South America, the lizards pale to our rock-tough desert lizards. Iguanas require a cooler, more humid environment than our hot, desiccating desert offers. They want to be indoors. They like to be misted.

And this is just the beginning. Because they now live indoors and out of the heat, you must provide a heat rock for them. This enables your new iguana to properly digest all the fresh bananas and mangoes, spinach leaves and squash blossoms you feed her on a daily basis, when you’re not misting her majesty as she basks under her sun lamp. Did I mention the full-spectrum light? Also, because your iguana is living indoors and away from harsh sunlight, you must supply a source of ultraviolet light in the form of a special (and expensive) lamp. UV keeps iguanas healthy and tanned. Your iguana needs to look good for all the socialization she requires. Yes, socialization—like getting out of her cage so she can meet people and scamper unexpectedly up their bodies. Iguanas enjoy high places because they normally live in trees rather than on the ground like any self-respecting desert lizard. When a tree isn’t handy, a person’s head will do.

You don’t want to know what happens if your iguana isn’t properly socialized. She can get a bit testy. Like a desperate housewife (or househusband, as the case may be) she gets an attitude. “You never take me anywhere,” her eyes accuse, every time you walk past her cage. Eventually, those penetrating eyes and the mounting guilt break you down and you let her out. But by now she’s antisocial, and she takes out her frustrations on you, the closest family member within reach of her toothy mouth, her needle-sharp claws, and her ultimate payback weapon, a long, bony-stiff tail that raises welts where she whips it across your legs. And dragons only breathe fire!

***

Pern adjusted well to our home. The girls created a place for her in a ten-gallon aquarium tank with a basking rock and tree branches and a large bowl of water she could bathe in. They took her for walks on her leash or rode around on their bikes with her gripping tightly to a shoulder. I still have photographs from this time when she was small: Pern with her oversized leash on the porch fence. Pern perched on my smiling daughter Kasondra’s head. Pern with RainCloud and Mittens.

She didn’t tolerate the kittens when she was small. She’d puff up and her dewlap would flare and her skin grew darker when they came around, so the girls kept them separated. But Pern soon learned how to escape her cage. One day my wife and daughters came home and found her under the couch, unmoving and nearly black from playing with the kittens. Apparently, Pern didn’t want to play but the kittens insisted. She had a few chew marks on her but nothing serious.

Over the next year, the kittens grew into cats and Pern grew into a cat hater. Encounters between them changed from kittens-chasing-lizard to lizard-attacking-cats. Her tail was lethal. I swear she could nail a fly on the wall with that thing. The cats avoided her, but if by mistake they came within lashing distance, she’d remove a patch of fur from their butts as they raced to recover the error. There was no messing with her now. Pern would no longer fit inside a cardboard pet carrier. She no longer fit her leash. In fact, she had outgrown the ten-gallon tank, its thirty-gallon replacement, and had begun to look uncomfortable in the fifty. I know she had designs on the living room, the largest room in our house, and I also know she insisted on some changes first.

Karen found the birdcage, a six-foot high, four-foot wide and deep, wrought-iron monstrosity that she felt Pern must have to be comfortable living with us. I believe a giant parrot or condor had been the cage’s former occupant. Three hundred dollars later, with some added shelves, hot rocks, and lights, and Pern became furniture in our living room. The only furniture. Since the room wasn’t large enough for a couch and Pern, the couch had to go. We had no place to sit in our living room, but we did have something interesting just above eye level to look at while you were standing there. Something that always looked back and down on you, usually with smug disdain.

Now, Pern became the center of attention. From her high perch, she examined the comings and goings of Karen and the girls, the relatives and the neighbors when they visited. She watched television with us. She played games with us. And, when we pulled out our dining table and set chairs around it, she ate meals with us.

Jessica, who usually arrived last to the table, would complain, “Why do I always get the sneeze seat!” Her sisters normally left her the chair closest to the cage. Iguanas have a particular way of removing excess salt from their bodies; special structures in their nasal cavities collect the salt, which the animal then combines with liquid and forcefully ejects. The behavior doubles as an annoyance mechanism, intended to alarm those who come to close or, in Jessica’s case, thoroughly disgust them.

It worked like this: Jessica would sit at the table in her assigned chair. Pern would maneuver on her shelf to line up Jessica in her sights. Just as my daughter began forking food into her mouth or drinking from a glass, Pern would execute a short nasal burst, freezing Jessica in mid gulp.

“Pern!” Jessica would shout. “That’s so gross!” To which Pern would respond with a satisfied grin. Everyone knew that Jessica disliked Pern—she was big and green and smelled. Apparently, the feelings were mutual.

Pern especially loved breakfast with eggs on the menu. She preferred hers scrambled but she never turned away cheese omelets or wooden shoes, a favorite, puffy, egg-batter concoction passed down to us from Karen’s Dutch side of the family. Pern would become so excited with the smell of eggs that she couldn’t wait for leftovers but would climb down from her perch and demand the door of her cage be opened. She was too large to eat directly off the table, but she didn’t mind taking a meal from the cat dish, often helping herself to the dry cat food. We came to believe that Pern thought she was a cat as she also learned to use the cat door when she felt the need for an afternoon siesta in the sun.

“Pern’s going out the cat door again,” one of the girls would say. We’d watch as she swiveled her hips up the driveway. Then my wife would call after her: “Pern, where do you think you’re going? Bad girl.” And without fail, she’d stop, flatten her belly against the cement, and turn to look at us as if to say, “Who, me? Don’t mind me. I’m just getting in a little basking time.”

Of course if we didn’t notice her, she kept on. I was never sure where that lizard brain thought it was going. One time I found her high in a tree in the next yard, probably daydreaming about tropical forest canopies spreading above tea-stained backwater pools. She left tell-tale drag marks on the ground, which I could easily follow. Another time she had climbed atop a neighbor’s wall that held a large dog on the opposite side. The dog went nuts, and Pern, unable to move, turned from olive green to biohazard orange. She stayed that way for hours after I tracked her down and carried her home.

After Pern reached four and a half feet in length, I finally built her an outdoor, climate-controlled enclosure that filled the western end of our porch. I knew she would be upset about being relegated to a place beyond the main flow of traffic, so I paid particular attention to amenities I believed she’d appreciate. To begin with, the enclosure tripled her living space and included a rock waterfall that spilled into a dark pool. Heavy tree branches rose from the pool and spread to a high sheltered alcove with a hot rock and full-spectrum lamp. I planted ferns and a fig tree in one corner and hung the redwood lattice with flowering bromeliads. Overhead, I secured misters, which kept the entire environment hissing with moisture. The only thing missing was a recording of howler monkeys.

I introduced Pern to her new home by placing her on the floor of the porch just outside of the enclosure’s open door. She stared at the burbling fountain and dripping foliage for a moment, then turned and crawled away toward the driveway where I had stored her former cage. Once beneath it, she raised herself up and climbed inside the bare metal structure. I experienced a kind of rejection not felt since my high school dating failures.

***

Pern is gone now, finally succumbing to a weakened immune system after she became egg-bound several years ago. (You’ll never understand how alien it is to be male until you’ve lived in a 600-sqaure-foot house with an egg-bound, four-foot female iguana and four premenstrual women.) The episode had caused her to lose most of her toes on her front claws, which hampered her climbing ability only to the degree that she looked less than graceful at it.

The girls probably won’t miss her slimy sneezes, her biting, clawing, and tail-lashings, intentional or not, or the aroma of her pasty excretions. But I’m sure they will never forget her personality, especially the smug pleasure she took at maneuvering her way into the center of our family.

Regardless of what I said before, I never really came to despise her, although she was adept at pointing out my character flaws. She was quick to correct any lapse I might have in attention paid to her. Her needs were met or else, and I could assume nothing about those needs. Perhaps if Pern had been a male iguana, things might have been different, more balanced. As it is, I will always carry the scars of our relationship.

by Ken Lamberton

This is an excerpt from a work-in-progress entitled My Daughters and Other Animals: A Father’s Notes on Being Raised by Girls.

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  1. marcia bonta
    September 29, 2006 at 2:19 pm

    Males are much worse. Just ask Steve. Very enjoyable, Ken. marcia

  2. September 29, 2006 at 6:39 pm

    This was fabulous! I often wonder about the people I see wandering around Davis with 4-foot iguanas attached to their shoulders, but I’ll guess they got “socialized.”

    Thanks, and more writing, please!

  3. September 30, 2006 at 1:04 am

    You portrayed Pern so vividly I didn’t know whether to grieve for her at the end–or to run out and find myself an iguana
    just like her.

  4. linda austin
    May 17, 2009 at 12:50 am

    lovely, we are currently being raised by 9 soon to be 10 lizards 2 of them iguanas what a wonderful look into your household thanks

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