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A common love for reptiles

A tongue sticking out isn't necessarily a bad thing at this gathering. During Iguana Awareness Day, reptiles ruled the roost.

[Times photos: Dirk Shadd]
Sara Lesperance, 9, and her family traveled Sunday from Inglis to show off her bearded dragon Chris during Iguana Awareness Day in St. Petersburg.

By AMY WIMMER

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 16, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- Dan Shank cradled little Igor in his arms, supporting him by the rump as the bundle of scales clung to Shank's shoulders. Occasionally Igor poked out a long tongue, surveying the guests at the back yard picnic.

Gohan, a 4-foot-long giant green iguana, keeps a watchful eye while perched on the shoulder of Sue Julien.
"He's just sensing what's going on around him," said Shank, trying to explain the manners of his Savannah monitor. Shank found Igor four years ago at a pet store, where the reptile was near death from inadequate light and poor nutrition.

He paid the store $100 to take Igor home with him, and Shank began nursing him to health.

Stories like Igor's attracted about two dozen reptile owners and their pets Sunday afternoon to Shank's St. Petersburg home for National Iguana Awareness Day.

The monitor had plenty of company. Many of the dozens of animals -- from iguanas to bearded dragons -- had been rescued from owners who bought them as cheap, funny pets but lost interest as the animals grew larger and more demanding.

They now have something more in common than bad childhoods. They have attentive owners, who scratch them behind their external eardrums, pet their scales ("soft as velvet," bragged one owner) and otherwise coddle them.

Sunday afternoon, the reptiles sunned themselves poolside and scampered uninhibited through the landscaping. A bearded dragon seemed perfectly content at the end of a leash.

"They can be very affectionate," iguana owner Thomas Rue said of his pets. "They're really misunderstood."

Rue often offers to take in iguanas he sees offered for free on the Internet. "If there's a free iguana, you can about bet it's in bad shape," he said.

He recently offered to take an iguana off the hands of an owner in Washington state who shipped the skinny iguana with bone disease in a cardboard box.

Iguanas can live to be nearly 30 years old in captivity, but the average life span is between 15 and 20.

Owners are often instructed to feed their reptiles cat food and dog food, even though the animals are purely vegetarians and prefer collard greens. They also keep the animals in cages that are too small.

Many of the iguana lovers attending the picnic say their pets freely roam their homes, much like a cat or a dog.

Jeff Kapp, the state coordinator for National Iguana Awareness Day in Florida, said his group tries to place about 40 iguanas a year in good homes statewide.

"They're high-maintenance, and most people get into them when they're small and cute and cheap," Kapp said.

Kapp himself now owns Zoe, who previously was in the hands of Miami-Dade County Animal Control. Sunday afternoon, Zoe and Gohan, another iguana, postured by the pool, nodding their heads and performing male dances to determine which one was boss.

"We had every intention of helping Gohan back to health and then giving him away," said Shank, Gohan's owner. "But we fell in love with him."

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