It’s not easy being green, but never more so than when all the leaves are brown and the sky is gray. Autumn is icumen in, and over Palisades way, that means the clock is running down for the local iguana herd. Gone the swelter of summer’s cauldron, the profusion of grasses and leafy limbs on which to gambol and munch. The temperature and humidity drop, ultraviolet rays grow scarce, and pretty soon your average iguana is diving into the Big Sleep.
It didn’t have to be this way, but freedom has a way of exacting a price on those who prize it most. Last fall, when Sherrier Place NW resident Michel Soudee bought three young specimens of Iguana iguana (the everyday and scientific names derive from the Spanish version of an Arawak word, iwana, meaning “lizard”) at a pet store for about $35 apiece, he dutifully caged them in his bedroom at his parents’ house in the 5000 block of Sherrier. As winter passed into spring, the lizardlings flourished despite their confinement, reaching 18 inches in length, most of it tail. They seemed capable of becoming all an iguana can be, which is to say 6 feet long and 40 years old. In a good year, an iguana can put on 42 inches and add enough meat that in Central America he is known as the chicken of the trees.
But come spring, young Soudee, a biology major at Concordia University in Montreal, felt the warmth of the sun and sensed that his pets yearned for the clean true feel of the outdoors. He decided to build a habitat that would satisfy their need to be outside and his need to have a few reptiles around the homestead. His father counseled against lengthening the chain that bound the bright-green animals.
“I warned him,” says Rene Soudee, a professional translator. “I told him that those lizards are tricky and intelligent, that their desire for freedom was greater than their attraction to the amenities in the cage. They would find a way out.”
But fathers’ wisdom is ever wasted on sons, and onto a red shed at the back of the family property, Michel, better known as Mike, built a 4-foot cage of chicken wire and 1-by-2s. He outfitted it with running water, a couple of nice sturdy branches, a pile of rocks, and a round sign hung above reading “Attention Troupeaux” (French for “Watch out for the animals”) with a drawing of a cow.
Moved out of the house and into a neo-natural setting, the iguanas displayed as much happiness as cold-blooded vegetarian reptiles who occasionally gulp down a mouse or a cricket are capable of displaying. They basked. They ate. They grew.
But into this Eden, into this emerald enclave, into this Palisades pastoral there stole disquietude. Iguanas and their ilk, it seems, like the sunshine a little too much.
Kept captive and deprived of UV exposure, they make fine house pets, embracing the classic characteristics of hostagehood: passivity, sloth, inexactness of bearing. But stick a pet lizard out where Mr. Golden Sun can shine down on him, and his aggro quotient redlines.
“Lizards need ultraviolet light from the sun for bone growth,” says John Serrano of the Animal Hut, a pet store on Wisconsin Avenue NW. “That is a real problem with lizards in captivity. If you can’t expose them to the sun, you have to put them under a special light bulb.”
Besides helping to grow strong lizard bodies 12 ways, natural UV rays pump up the animals’ attitude. Studies have shown that pet lizards become more aggressive under the influence of sunlight. Serrano agrees, citing personal experience.
“I have a pet monitor lizard like that,” he says. “Get him out in the sun with the ultraviolet and that sense of freedom, he definitely becomes more aggressive. When I take him back inside, he calms down.”
Born to range the jungles of Central America, the Soudee saurians were bound to love the summer of 1993 and its equatorial extremes of weather. The warmer it got, the more exuberantly they waxed, surrounded by the abundant trees and shrubs of the yard and the surrounding properties. But Soudee senior remained skeptical. He told his son the he feared the top of the cage was not sufficient for the task of containing the iguanas. And he was right.
“I suspect they went through the roof. It is not a bad cage, but the top is weak,” he says, holding up a sorry strip of screening through which a medium-size iguana could easily slip. “They saw all the trees around here and said, “Hallelujah!’ ”
Appropriately, the break-out occurred the same week that Jurassic Park opened, prompting some neighbors to think the Spielberg promotional apparatus had gone a little too far. Barbara Elsas-Patrick, who runs the Little Red Schoolhouse at her home two doors away, began to see flashes of green at the periphery of her back-yard playground.
“The lizards like to jump in the trees and hide themselves in the tall grasses I plant at the back. But most of all they like to sun themselves on the fence,” says Elsas-Patrick, who has seen the beasts seven or eight times over the past three months and spotted one as late as Oct. 6.
By that time, Mike Soudee had long since returned to Montreal and his classes, leaving his dad to fret about the lizards’ fate.
“To catch them, I would have to take time off from work, and devise a trap for them,” Rene Soudee says, musing about the possibility of an iguana watch. “But they move very quickly, and I probably would catch squirrels and who knows what else before I got the lizards.”
With the weather turning cold, though, an iguana is an easier mark. “They get real sluggish when they’re not warm,” says Serrano. “They do not move around as much, and they will be trying to find somewhere warm, probably a heater on top of a building. They can sense heat, and they will stay near it.”
So perhaps Rene Soudee can save the day by baiting the abandoned cage not with carrots but the siren sensation of a heating pad. And if he does not, might the feral troop of lizards his son unleashed on the block somehow winter over, creating a new race of hardy reptiles to twinkle vernally across the Washington snowscape in the style of albino alligators cruising the sewers of Manhattan?
“No chance,” says Serrano. “Iguanas are tropical animals that need humidity and high heat. Once the temperature hits freezing, it’s all over. The cold slows down their metabolism until it kills them.”
But even when time is short, life is full. In fall’s final days, with Indian summer winding down, the toddlers shrieking around the back-yard-cum-playground at the Little Red Schoolhouse may glimpse unblinking iguanid eyes among the tall grasses, and see a glimmer of jungle before the frost. —Michael Dolan
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustration by Jo Rivers.