Melissa Kaplan's
Herp Care Collection
Last updated January 1, 2014

The Flying Wallenda

Melissa Kaplan


Photo of Wally, who, of all my iguanas, was always my favorite.

Age in photo: 4 Years (April 1995)

July 1996:
18 inches svl
11 pounds

 In the Beginning...
I had worked with iguanas belonging to the wildlife educator I had worked for and was even fostering one for her. He was mopey and didn't eat well at her place, but was more active and positively a little pig at my place. I had been thinking about getting a lizard of my own. At that time, I had two Burmese pythons (P. m. bivittatus) and a Sonoran kingsnake (L. g. splendida). The Burms were from the educator, the kingsnake I had bought. I had taken in the Burms originally just to tame and socialize them. They were part of a group of wild-caught, smuggled-into-the-US Burms that had been confiscated by the USFWS and dumped on her. They were wild and nasty and everyone else was scared of them and wouldn't work with them. I figured they couldn't be any worse than the wild animals I worked with in wildlife rehab, so when she asked if I'd work with them, I said "Sure." Little did I realize that this was her way of getting rid of two of the 5 Burms she had been saddled with! The kingsnake I got because I decided it would be nice to have a snake that didn't get huge and I really liked this particular snake.

By 1991, my life and health were in upheaval and I really didn't need another animal to care for. Despite my thinking about getting a lizard, and looking into various species (I would have been able to get whatever I wanted from a wholesaler had I wanted to, thanks to my connection to the wildlife educator), nothing was out there calling my name.

One hot, summer night in 1991, I went to the monthly herp society meeting. There was a fellow selling a couple of baby iguanas. Barely visible above his curled thumb were two tiny green heads, their wispy tails barely longer than the cuff of his shirt. I asked if I could see one of them. "Sure," he said. He extricated one of the iguanas and handed it to me. I laid it up against my thumb and curled my fingers over it. It lay there sleepily, occasionally opening one eye wide to glare at me. Once or twice it opened its mouth and checked to see if my thumb had become more edible since the last time it had nibbled on it.

When the program starts, vendors are supposed to put away their animals. The fellow was several rows away from me at that point. I asked if I could hold the iglet during the lecture; he said "Sure." Once the lights went out for the lecture, it went to sleep. It was a real treat for me to hold a baby iguana as up until then I had only held wild and crazy juveniles and adults. The iglet was the prettiest deep green with tiny turquoise dots and squiggly stripes around his neck and shoulders. But I vowed to be good a girl, and at the end of the meeting, I handed the iguana back to the fellow. I did ask him, however, to give me a call if he had not been able to sell it in the next couple of weeks, and I gave him my card. He said "Sure" and gave me his card. (At this time, iguanas were not nearly so common as they are now, retailing in pet stores for $75-125 dollars each. Kids weren't out there buying 2 or 3 at a time and parents weren't getting a bunch for their kids so they wouldn't fight over them.)

Well, my resolve lasted until 10:30 a.m. the next morning whereupon I called the fellow. By 8:30 p.m. that night, Dexter, my foster ig, was permanently considered to be free-roaming and the iglet was ensconced in his new home.

The first couple of months were pretty typical. Vet visits to have his feces checked and the Strongyloides (worms inhabiting the gastrointestinal tract) treated. I fed him just like I fed Dexter, following the available books on the market. Broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, redleaf lettuce, softened dog kibble or monkey biscuits, and fruit comprised the bulk of his diet. I found a wonderful flat rock to turn into a ramp so he could get up to the water bowl but never saw him drink. Rarely saw him eat, either, though since he was pooping every day I knew that he was eating something.

I stuck a self-adhesive hook onto the back wall of my tub/shower and poked a hole in a terry washcloth, hanging it on that hook. Wally took a shower with me every day. Eventually, I bungee-corded a kitty litter pan with an inch or so of alfalfa pellets to the top of the shower door track. He learned to climb from the hanging cloth up to the track. He (usually) went poop in there. He got bolder and started climbing out of the bin and along the track. The day he leaped off the track on to the floor outside of the tub/shower I knew that I had to start keeping the door to my bathroom closed or I'd never find that tiny green thing in time for me to finish getting ready and leave for work.

Wally got a fair amount of out time, enjoying hanging out in the greenhouse window near his enclosure. I rigged it up so that I could leave the door to his tank open, with washcloths providing a way for him to climb in and out by himself. I wrapped a board in sisal rope so that he could also get down to the floor and back up.

I did go through the crazytime initially, trying to find him in a large two bedroom apartment. One of his favorite places was my least favorite: behind a ten-foot wide bank of very loaded bookcases. His second favorite was fine with me: clinging to the side of the bedding on the far side of my bed, under the quilt. Gradually, he realized that it was okay to be out, and he hid less and less. Once I pressure-fitted hardware cloth across the opening of one of my balconies, he spent most of his time outside, toddling back to his tank most nights to sleep. Occasionally he wouldn't move as the temps cooled, and I'd find him, clinging to the rough stucco high up on a wall, nose jammed into the ceiling of the balcony.

After 4-5 months, Wally, as the iglet became known, developed lumps on his spine and tail. I upped the calcium supplement and the lumps resolved themselves. A few months later, it happened again. I upped the calcium, and it went away. About the time this happened for the fourth or fifth time, I acquired an almost dead iguana from the local pet store that specialized in reptiles and fish. The assistant manager in charge of the reptile section was terrified of reptiles as was the store manager, so they never even walked down the aisle. They also refused to get vet care for their sick animals. It took two months of being increasingly pointed about this iguana for them to do anything about it. Anyway, I decided that, given Wally's recurring bouts of metabolic bone disease, and the state of this new, crusty black iguana, I needed to do some research as clearly the information available in the pet trade wasn't working very well.

I started acquiring veterinary texts dealing with reptiles and sought out veterinary and biology/zoology journals. I began revising the diet, eliminating foods and replacing them, ultimately coming up with the diet as it appears in my iguana care and socialization document. I continued to use dog kibble, in ever decreasing amounts, until 1994 or so, when I eliminated it entirely and started using the alfalfa after (finally!) becoming convinced that they did not require and indeed should not have animal protein. (Wally paid the price later...Please see Kidney Failure: A Personal Perspective.)

During this time, I had been volunteering for the herp society's education outreach folks, working various educational events throughout the Los Angeles area. I took my snakes (which eventually included corns, balls, and a gopher) and iguana to these events. I found myself, however, spending more and more time talking about iguana care than I did about snakes or reptiles in general. In order to help as many people as possible, I developed a one-page caresheet that I gave out to iguana folks, inviting them to read it and let me know if they had questions. That way I could talk to more folks about other things. An old-timer in the society told me I was foolish, that no one would read that much verbiage, that all people were interested in were bam-bam-bam-quick, brief, one-liners. My thinking was, and continues to be, that a person interested in learning how to do something right is more likely going to do it right if they understand why it is important to do it that way. People did come back and call with questions, so I knew they were reading and making changes.

In time, that one page caresheet grew into four, then six, then twelve, then 44. [It eventually grew into 130 pages at which point it simply wasn't feasible for me to give it away, and people could read and print it out from the net cheaper than I could copy and mail it. Now, the iguana care part of my site comprises several hundred articles. My book, Iguanas for Dummies, covers only part of that material, in an easily portable and accessible format.]

In the years since, I have taken in dozens of iguanas and worked with countless more iguanas and owners, both in person and in cyberspace. I continue to get 15-20 calls or letters a week from people trying to get rid of them; if I get 15-20 calls a year from people looking for igs whom I would consider to be suitable ig owners, it'd be considered a good year. I've had more igs die or who had to be euthanized than I care to think of due to the effects of care and diet prior to their coming to me. I have seen iguanas survive years of unbelievably bad or neglectful conditions, only to succumb a week, a month, a year later due to the cumulative damage to their systems. I've had as many as 22 igs living under my roof, and have seen a wide variety of illnesses and conditions, development and interactions. While Wally is the only one I still have that I raised from iglethood, I've taken in everything from hatchlings to 9 year olds. At the time of this writing, I have five iguanas in addition to Wally:

  • Elvys (male, 9 years old, 16" svl, 5 lb)

  • Zeik (male,~10 years old, 10" svl, 1 lb)

  • Rugwort (male, 3 years old, 9" svl, 1 lb)

  • Guanie (male, 5 years old, 11" slv, 3 lb)

  • Greenie (female, 4 years old, 11 svl, 3 lb)

Wally's name came from an early habit of his that reminded me of one of the great circus families. Whenever we would be walking in a hardware or book store, or near an interesting looking bush or tree, or a bookcase or lamp at home, Wally would try to leap off my shoulder to that object. Now, at 11 lbs, I look fondly back on those, he either sits on my shoulder and arm like a dead weight, or tries to clamber to the top of my head to get somewhere, or down my body, heedless of the fact that he may be pulling the glasses off my face, earrings from my ears, or the shirt (or skin!) off my body in the process...

Warning: Soapbox Ahead!
Iguanas are fascinating animals and can make wonderful pets. But they are not easy animals, as can be attested to by the fact that more people try to get rid of them and so many more die than live with their original owner to a ripe old age. Part of respecting any animal is respecting the fact that it may not be appropriate to keep in captivity or that it might not be an appropriate one for you. There are species I will not keep due to their demands and my inability or unwillingness to provide what they need. There is no shame in facing that fact just as there is no excuse for not doing it right when you decide to have the animal.

If you have an iguana, good luck. If you are thinking about getting one, please think twice, and then a third time. Then, try to find folks who have rescued igs and are trying to find homes for them. I am growing increasingly unhappy with the number of iguanas imported and sold in this country, and disillusioned with the possibility of the pet trade to do anything constructive to remedy the situation. One way to fight back is by adopting or buying previously owned iguanas. Other than Wally, all of mine have been 'pre-owned.' They are no more or less work than a baby or other store-bought one and you have the added benefit of knowing that you are helping saving a animal who might otherwise not have made it.

Melissa Kaplan, 1996 

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