Untitled photo
Untitled photo

Room

Years ago, my hometown newspaper (The Billings Gazette) had a weekend page devoted to kids & teens called “The Buzz.” The above article featuring me is from that page in 1976. Here’s the background to my fifteen minutes of fame:

When I was six, Mom and Dad gave me a ten-gallon aquarium. It had a stainless-steel frame and a slate bottom – silicone adhesive wasn’t available yet to make all-glass tanks. At first it was on the kitchen counter, then we moved it to a shelf by the dining room window. I started with the usual common tropical fish – green swordtails and neon tetras and Corydoras catfish.

Back then, “dime stores” (Kresge’s, Woolworth’s) had pet departments, and with my own aquarium I had even more reason to frequent them. One weekend I walked downtown and bought a blue gourami at Woolworth’s, then walked home again with the bag tucked under my shirt and coat, the warm water sloshing against my skin through the plastic bag as I kept my new southeast-Asian fish insulated on a snowy, very not-tropical, Montana winter day.

There were a couple of independent aquarium shops that weren’t walking distance from my house, so my parents had to drive me, something I’m sure I asked them to do regularly. One called “Tom’s Tropicals” was on the west end of town. It was basically a converted garage or large shed adjacent to the family’s house. They also had horses on their property – my sister Lisa got to ride them at least once while I was fish-shopping.

Another store was Hill’s Tropical Fish in the town of Laurel, about fifteen miles away from Billings. Like Tom’s, Hill’s was a store that was actually part of someone’s home – a hobby that had turned into a business. On my first visit to Hill’s I bought a pretty little pink-and-brown banded, eel-like fish called a kuhli loach. I had never heard either of those words before, and remember quietly chanting “kuhli loach, kuhli loach” over and over to myself on the car ride home, a mantra to help me remember the exotic-sounding name.

Hill’s also had a section of terrarium animals. What caught my eye were the Carolina anoles, which in those days were marketed as “chameleons.” They’re common little lizards in Florida and other warm areas of the southeastern U.S. They can change colors, from green to brown and back again, and have gecko-like toe pads that allow them to climb smooth surfaces.

Weird side note: People used to wear these lizards as fashion accessories. I’m not kidding – this was a thing for decades. From at least the 1890s through the 1960s, you could buy a “chameleon” with a little jewelry-chain leash and tether it to your shirt like a living brooch.

I have never understood the fashion industry.

Anyway, I really, really, wanted some anoles. I may have brought up this desire to my parents a few hundred times, so finally, they took me to Hill’s and we got a terrarium and I picked out a pair of the little lizards – you can tell the males because they have a pinkish-red dewlap under their chin which they flash to attract mates and warn off rivals.

The Hills must have noticed how excited I was, because before we left, Mrs. Hill asked me, “Would you like to see our son’s room? He likes reptiles, too. He’s not here, but I’m sure he wouldn’t mind.” We walked to the other side of the house and into their son’s bedroom.

It was awesome. Like, Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory awesome. The son had fish tanks and terrariums lining shelves along the walls, and most impressive of all, in one corner, a massive glassed-fronted enclosure with a big male iguana in it. It was four or five feet long and was perched on a tree branch. I remember not just the sight, but how the room felt – warm and humid from all the aquariums and terrariums.

As we left, I turned to my parents and said, “Someday I’m going to have a room like that.”

In the summer a year or two later, my parents took my sister and me to South Dakota to visit our grandparents. Mom and Dad left us there then drove back to Montana. After a week or so, our grandparents drove us back home. As soon as we walked into our house, my mom said to me, “We have a surprise for you.”

Until then, I had shared a small upstairs bedroom with my brother. He’s seven years younger than me, and although I don’t remember minding sharing a room, the age difference between us and the cramped quarters probably had something to do with what my parents had done.

Mom and Dad took me down to the basement and said, “This is your new room.” While I was away at my grandparents’ house, they had cleaned up our big main basement room, painted the walls bright tropical green, and moved my bed and dresser down.

A favorite detail: The doorknob had long ago punched a hole in the wall behind it from being opened too assertively too many times, but instead of patching the damage, my parents just wrote the word “hole” on the wall in black magic marker, and drew an arrow pointing to it.

Over time, I filled the space with aquariums (10 gallons, 29 gallons, 55 gallons) and several glass terrariums (including the one with the original pair of anoles) and screened cages and jars full of bugs and eventually even a few warm-blooded creatures, guinea pigs and a pair of parakeets. The basement could be drafty and cold in the winter, but I tacked up plastic around the windows, and that helped – as did the heat generated by the multiple rectangular pieces of tropical rivers and deserts and jungles that lined the walls.

But I wanted one more thing. A big lizard, like the iguana the Hills’ son had. I didn’t want an iguana specifically – they need not just a long cage but a tall one, because they climb. Plus, the males especially can be hard to tame. Plus… I wanted something no one else had.

And I had an in: from junior high through high school I worked at a pet shop, the Coral Reef Pet Center, owned by Charles and Jackie Harman, wonderful people who were patient with my out-of-the-ordinary interests. Every week I perused the animal and fish wholesalers’ lists and tried to get the shop to order the most interesting (to me) creatures, without much thought about whether anyone but me would want to buy them. The point is, to acquire a big lizard, I just needed to figure out what I wanted, and watch the supply lists.

Reptile husbandry was not advanced back in the 70s, and there was no internet, and I had already read every word of the small amount of herpetology information in our local library. Fortunately, I actually owned more reptile books than our library did, so I researched at home, and decided a Columbian black tegu (Tupinambis teguixin) was the lizard for me.

Columbian tegus are beautiful, with glossy, black-and-white, mosaic-like scales. They and the several other tegu species are large South American lizards that are this hemisphere’s analog to Australia/Asia/Africa’s monitor lizards (the biggest of which are Komodo dragons). Like monitor lizards and snakes, tegus have forked tongues that they use to “taste” the world around them. Tegus are not related to iguanas and occupy a different ecological niche. Unlike iguanas, they don’t often climb, and also unlike iguanas, which are primarily vegetarians, tegus are omnivores – they eat rodents, eggs, insects, and fruit. In some places in South America they will raid chicken coops, like foxes or raccoons do here. Tegus aren’t native to North America, but we have several species of their much-smaller relatives, whiptails and racerunners, that are usually under a foot long including tail.

Once I’d settled on a tegu, Charles built a six-foot long glass terrarium for me, and I helped make a custom hardware-cloth top with a hinged lid. I bought an incandescent shop-light for heat inside the tank and a 4-foot fluorescent fixture to put on top for UV lighting (many reptiles need UV exposure to be healthy). The tank had a layer of sand and a car tire I cut in half for the lizard to use as a shelter. Everything was ready.

I remember the day Charles was on the phone with the wholesaler, who said they had some young tegus that were about eighteen inches long. Perfect. We ordered one for me.

My parents had mostly been okay with the critters I kept, but a tegu was going to be larger than the skinks and salamanders I’d had before, so some parental soothing was in order. Mom asked me just how big this lizard was going to be, so I drew an eighteen-inch long, to-scale tegu on a couple of pieces of paper taped together. That made her feel better.

About a week later the pet shop got the animal order via air freight. The tegu was packed in its own insulated cardboard box, just like when the shop got shipments of tropical fish. After the shop closed, I took the still-unopened box home. I don’t remember if Charles and Jackie gave me a ride, or if my parents came to get me. I do know I didn’t carry the box in the cold on foot. It was too big to tuck under my coat like a dime-store gourami.

Everybody gathered at the bottom of the basement steps as I prepared to open the box. I cut open the package tape and folded back the cardboard flaps, revealing a Styrofoam inner box. I slowly lifted the inner lid, and inside that was a pillowcase, the open end tied with a knot, resting on shredded newspaper.

I carefully lifted the knotted end of the pillowcase. I could feel the lizard’s weight, but didn’t lift it all the way up, so as not to frighten the animal. I untied the knot, then slightly parted the top of the pillowcase and peeked inside. I saw a back leg and part of the curl of the tail.

Tegus don’t easily shed their tails like some lizards do as a defense mechanism, so I cautiously reached in and grabbed near the tail’s base. I started to pull the lizard backward out of the pillowcase. And the more I pulled… the more tegu there was.

I think my mom said, “Oh my god.”

The lizard was not eighteen inches long; its tail alone might have been. The whole animal measured a good three feet. Everybody kind of shrank back.

I admit, I was… surprised. But one must be cool in these sorts of situations. I simply acted as if I had known all along that I’d mail-ordered a dinosaur. I picked up all yard-long and two-plus pounds of him with two hands and lowered him into his new enclosure. He jumped out of my grasp and I closed the cage lid. No big deal.

He was an amazing animal, and he thrived. He eventually got almost four feet long with a body thicker than my arm. I often let him out to roam my bedroom; I would first warn the household by yelling upstairs, “I’m taking the tegu out!” so they wouldn’t open the door.

And the article is correct that I had a cat harness for him, so in the summer I could take him out in the backyard for some sun and a swim in a kiddie pool. (Somewhere there’s a picture of this, but I couldn’t find it.) Also, obviously, the tegu was never allowed out when the parakeets were flying around the room or if I had the guinea pigs out. That… wouldn’t have gone well.

Tegus have the reputation of being intelligent and easy to tame, and mine was. The article makes him sound fierce, but in fact, he liked to be rubbed under the chin, he never bit or was aggressive, and was happy to just hang out near me if I was reading in my room. I did get a few scratches – on one occasion I opened his cage to give him his food, and he jumped up through the opening onto my chest and climbed to the top of my head. He wasn’t being aggressive, just eager to be fed – but his claws were sharp and left some marks.

I never gave him a name. Thinking back, I never named any of the fish or reptiles or amphibians I kept. I’m not sure why. Maybe despite how much I liked them, I still harbored a bit of the prejudice against cold-blooded creatures that makes some people see them as lesser animals than mammals or birds. But I think in a way it also felt disrespectful to them. The tegu lived with me, but he wasn’t really a pet. He didn’t need me to give him a cute name to make him seem more lovable or part of the family. He possessed plenty of awesome without that. The tegu was good just being a tegu.

Side rant: My tegu was caught in the wild. Back then, virtually all pet-store reptiles and amphibians were, and they typically didn’t fare well in captivity, especially with so little known about their often quite-exacting care needs. Nowadays, we have more and better information on proper housing, lighting, and feeding, all easy to find on the internet. But the internet has also made keeping reptiles and amphibians vastly more popular than it was when I was a kid. Over-collection for the worldwide exotic pet trade has been detrimental to wild populations.

On top of that, many animals suffer and die from the stress of capture and subsequent shipping. With very few exceptions, it’s wrong both ecologically and ethically. But even setting aside ethics and conservation, wild collection is unnecessary. Dozens of species are now reared in captivity, to the point that many animals even come in myriad custom-bred color varieties. Overall, captive-bred animals are much healthier, less stressed, and longer-lived.

Look, we don’t wear anoles chained to our lapels any more. We know better. So, if you or your child wants a cold-blooded pet, do your research on appropriate care (and on how big it gets – no, pythons don’t “grow to the size of the cage”), then get a captive-bred leopard gecko or dumpy tree frog or bearded dragon or corn snake.

Okay, rant over.

I lied. One more thing. If you can no longer keep an exotic pet, contact a rescue group to find it a new good home. Don’t just let it go. If it’s not adapted to your climate it will die. If it is adapted to your climate, it will probably still die, or it might add to an already invasive population. You’ve probably heard of the many introduced species in Florida – Burmese pythons, Asian walking catfish, Northern snowbirds. Well, Florida also has feral tegus – a related species to the one I had, but even bigger. Needless to say, the state’s native animals (and tabby cats and Yorkshire terriers) did not evolve to defend themselves against land-dwelling, four-foot, fifteen-pound, fast-running lizards with sharp claws, an incredible sense of smell, and jaws with a bite force that measures about the same as a pit bull’s.

Okay, now rant actually over.

I had the tegu for several years, but once I went off to college, my parents said I needed to find him a new home. They were fine with looking after my fish tanks and smaller creatures while I was away at school – by then my brother was old enough to help with those chores – but the tegu was more than they wanted to wrangle.

Luckily, I knew of a junior high biology teacher named Mr. Wohler who might take him. I hadn’t gone to Mr. Wohler’s school, but I knew he had lots of reptiles in his classroom and I had once given him a racer snake I’d caught, so I’d met him before. I talked to him about the tegu, and he was actually very excited to have him. It was hard saying goodbye, but I knew I’d found my lizard a good place to live.

I checked up on him now and then. I remember Mr. Wohler being surprised at how strong he was – he escaped a few times because he was able to shove the top off his cage even with a brick in place to hold it down. Apparently during one escape the tegu dashed out of the classroom and ran straight into the girls’ bathroom. Mr. Wohler said the bathroom emptied of students with great speed amid much shrieking and flinging of lit cigarettes.

Sometimes when I tell my childhood animal stories, I imply that I was the driving force behind them all, that I had such zeal, such irrepressible enthusiasm for all things creepy and crawly, that I simply couldn’t be denied. That I was, well, a force of nature. But it’s not true.

What I had that mattered wasn’t zeal; it was parents who almost never said no. They could have: No, you’re not getting another aquarium; No, you’re not keeping that disgusting snake; No, I’m not driving you fifteen miles to Laurel to go to a stupid fish store; No, you can’t have smelly guinea pigs; No, you’re not getting whatever the hell a tegu is.

But they never said any of that. And whatever they actually thought, they never made me feel as if I were weird or odd for wanting any of it, either.

So, after eight-year old me saw that other kid’s iguana then said, “Someday I’m going to have a room like that,” my parents may well have thought, “Oh, no…” but they didn’t say no.

They helped me have a room like that.

And I still have a room like that. I mean, it’s not like when I was a kid, I don’t have a giant terrarium with a four-foot tegu in it. I just have a few small things. A pair of chuckwalla lizards. Oh, and an Australian knob-tailed gecko. And five desert tortoises, but they live outside. And a goldfish pond. And a 125-gallon freshwater aquarium. And a parrot. And an outdoor aviary. But that’s it. Wait, okay, the ceramic water garden has a few fish in it, but just to eat mosquito larvae, they’re not really pets. And a dog, but he’s more Sara’s. And that jar on my desk is empty, I let the spider go last week. And the other jar with the antlion larva in it is just temporary.

I can’t help that I’m like this. Mom and Dad, this is on you.


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