Giants Among Lizards

Not everyone is in the market for small, cute and cuddly. Some folks are looking for pets of some size and heft-the reptile industry meets the demand.






For many years, the green iguana was the staple of the reptile business. Indeed, the first pet reptile I ever bought with my own allowance was a baby iguana, sold to me by a shop called the Electric Zoo and lost to the wilds of my South Miami neighborhood within an hour of purchase. I received, along with my purchase, exactly no information on proper caging, diet, lighting or heating. And, obviously, I also received every bit as much information on proper handling.

Later, upon entering the pet profession, I resolved to treat my customers much better than I and that baby ig had been treated. This was 1989, and iguanas were still popular enough that my store ordered them in lots of 100 and sold them out quickly with little effort. Of course, we did inform customers that these adorable 10-inch hatchlings would grow to lengths of four to seven feet, require very large enclosures, and sometimes develop irascible and unpredictable personalities.

As a case in point, our free-ranging bull iguana Iggy decided at some point that I was the competing male in the store and would chase me, bobbing, puffing up and nipping at my heels. At one point, he even leapt from the balcony onto my back in an all-out attempt to drive me from his territory. Iguanas can also deliver surprisingly damaging bites; one friend of mine has two immobile fingers due to the tendons a big “tame” ig severed many years ago.

Iguanas were popular largely because most people were under the erroneous impression that, being primarily vegetarian, iguanas possess bucolic and charming temperaments. I think the apex of their popularity was the brief appearance of one in the first Terminator movie, but since those days, the general public have come to their senses and, at this point, we do well to sell a dozen baby iguanas in a month’s time.

That is not to say that giant lizards in general do not still capture the imagination and desire of herp lovers. The most popular denizen of my store is a seven-foot black-throated monitor named Elmo the Eviscerator. Monitors are a large and varied genus of lizards that includes the legendary Komodo monitor and diminutive dwarfs like the popular spiny-tailed and Timor monitors. Many of them make lovely pets, and they are often much better candidates for people new to the hobby than green iguanas.

The two most commonplace monitors in the trade are the savannah and Nile monitors—both African species. Savannahs are a stocky, durable animal that gets up to four feet in length and tames with very little effort. They are not particularly pretty animals, with a blunt head and a tendency to obesity, but they have a Baby Huey sort of charm. On the other hand, Nile monitors get almost six feet in length and, while much more beautifully patterned than the savannah, they rarely tame down and will in fact run across the cage in order to bite. I have seen a few tame ones in my time, but these were exclusively under the care of people who could devote consistent daily handling to them. Many have reported to me that if their lizard went more than a few days without behavior reinforcement, they effectively had to start from scratch. To my mind, their popularity is strictly a function of their good looks and low price.

One monitor that has something of a similar beauty and size to the Nile but has a far more workable temperament is the Argus monitor, a native to Australia and New Zealand that can be challenging but is not usually prone to biting. They possess remarkable strength, but can be tamed, and have a regal and imposing bearing even when tame. They have also proved to be relatively easy to breed in captivity and remain one of my store’s most successful long-term breeding projects.

For someone who likes the personality and look of the savannah but wants something a bit larger, I recommend the black-throated or white-throated monitors. These can get up to seven feet in length, but in all other respects, they are very much like their smaller cousins. Incidentally, the name “white throated” is a corruption of the original “wide throated”—they both have dark throats.

Komodos may be the largest, most massive of the monitors, but they are far from the longest. That honor goes to the crocodile monitor, an arboreal animal that can attain lengths of over 15 feet. Because of their tree-born life, they maintain a long and lean physique, but the head is still massive with a shape that recalls a camel’s head. I have found them to be reasonably amenable to handling, presuming one starts with a baby or juvenile, but beware: they are so-named because of their dentition, with extra-long, sabre-like teeth. A bite from even a hatchling will almost certainly necessitate a trip to the hospital to get sewn up; one of my employees had to get stitches across her hand after only having been clawed by one.

Perhaps the most popular of the true giants are the water monitors, capable of growing to nine feet—beyond the ability of most adults to carry alone. That said, they are often easy to tame, and I have even seen freshly imported hatchlings that seem bereft of both fear and a willingness to bite. One key I have found to being successful with them is to mind their name; they truly do seem to need plentiful water and humidity, and those left without enough water to immerse themselves tend to have short lives.

Monitors are one of the few reptiles that are active hunters, as opposed to ambushers, and I believe that this hunting strategy has spurred them to evolve intelligence far beyond that of most of their brethren in the reptile world. I have watched them carefully for decades, and found that whereas most reptiles react, monitors act. They strategize, they ambush, they observe and they almost conspire. For this reason, they remain among my favorite animals, and I find many of my customers agree.

But they are not the only giant lizards on the planet, and a few others deserve mention, notably the tegus. Tegus are a New World group that roughly inhabits similar ecological niches to Old World monitors. The most commonly seen in the trade is the golden tegu, and it mirrors the Nile monitor in price and viciousness. In my store, I try to avoid them. The other tegus, especially the giant black and the red, are big, laconic and beautiful creatures, and they make treasured pets. Unlike the vast majority of monitors, tegus are omnivores and do best when their diet of rodents, birds and insects is supplemented with the occasional fruit salad.

As long as we are discussing giant lizards and straying outside the topic of monitors, I must admit there are a few other iguana species that can also, with a little effort, be lovely pets. The magnificent rhinoceros iguana and rock iguana are stout, impressive animals and, while not exactly cuddly, can be fascinating and winning pets.

Just as one should not, in my opinion, sell baby pythons without having at least one example of an adult on premises to allow customers a sense of what might be in store for them down the line, I believe it behooves the pet store owner to have a giant lizard of some sort on hand by which one can demonstrate what to expect. If this turns off some folks, so be it. It will just as likely encourage many others that, in fact, this is just the animal for them. As I said, Elmo is the star attraction in my store, and well worth the space he inhabits.

If I have piqued your interest, I highly recommend my friend Dr. Robert Sprackland’s excellent book Giant Lizards. 

Owen Maercks has enjoyed being immersed in the world of professional herpetoculture for nearly 30 years. His store, the East Bay Vivarium in Berkeley, Calif., is one of the oldest and largest herptile specialty stores in the U.S.

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