Friday, August 04, 2006

Lizard-a-Bed, Redux

Occasionally a discussion arises, on iguana mailing lists or amongst a group of iguana keepers when they gather together, about how our iguanas feel about us, interact with us, whether they like us--or others--or not. Often times, when it comes to iguanas who have been dumped numerous times from one uncaring, ignorant person or family to another uncaring, ignorant person or family, over and over again, it is not surprising that they don't bond with the next human in line, not being able to tell, at least at first, that this new human really gives a damn and is determined to do it right.

A caring fellow named Dan recently took temporary charge of an iguana named Zilla (not to be confused with my Zilla). Dan's Zilla was very ill, very poorly cared for (by a pet store owner who kept refusing to take her to her vet, insisting she knew how to treat her), and as a result, a cranky, unpleasant iguana to deal with, quite a change from Dan's own iguana, Moe. But Dan noticed that when he took Zilla to visit her owner, Zilla clung to Dan, making the distinction between Dan (good, trying to help) and her putative owner (bad, hurtful).

I started to write a post for the list Dan posted his comments and observations on, but then I decided, what the heck, make it a blog entry. People who would never consider keeping iguanas for pets (and I wish there were more of them), as well as too many people who do, do not realize that iguanas, like many sentient animals, are blank slates. Treat them as mindless things, and they will give you back...nothing. If your treating them as things is combined with your not taking the time to learn how to tame them properly, you end up with an untamed thing who will scratch you and bite you and just generally be an unpleasant thing, giving you back exactly what you are giving it. And therein, of course, lies the problem: iguanas (and other reptiles) are not things.

Anyway, I started thinking about some of the iguanas who have come into my life through the last 16 years. I think how an iguana acts towards his or her humans depends on the individual iguana, its humans, and what happens over the course of the iguana's life.

Some of the iguanas I felt merely tolerated by were ones that had already been through several homes before they came to me. They settled into my home okay, made alliances with some of the other iguanas, avoided some of the other igs, and eventually went to new homes, where they did fine, if not exactly becoming cuddly.

The iguanas who adopted me, so to speak, were ones who had had only one home before me but had been ignored for most for the time there (both because their human took another human into their lives, and the new human didn't like the "icky" lizard, who was thus banished to a cage in a back room for several years). Two I kept until they died (Freddy and Elvys). Once is still living in the Clovis area, with the family who adopted him from me 9 years ago (Zilla is 16 years old now).

My only iguana now is Mikey, a Cyclura. I got him when he as 2.5 years old, from the breeder. Being a Cyclura, he was smaller than we expect green igs to be at that age - he was 6.5" snout-vent length (SVL), plus a tail about half again as long. He wasn't tame, and he hated being caged. He wasn't crazy about me, either. I didn’t spend as much time with him initially, as I was working on my book when he came.

There was also another human who spent quite a bit of time here for a couple of years. Mike enjoyed dominating him; Mike's enjoyment was probably enhanced byt he fact that Mike was having no luck dominating me. Eventually, Mike learned that if he didn't hide when I let him out of his cage, he wouldn't have to stay in the cage. It took about 6-7 months for this lesson to be learned, but learn it he did.

We had our daily routine - pooping in the bath, bath, food, basking in the ig room, exploring the house, bobbing at the humans who came over, freaking out when they wore plaid or Hawaiian print shirts, sunning outside, and going for rides in the car.

He was tamed within the year, and enjoyed being fawned over when we were out. But towards me, he was basically an jerk. It felt to me like he was being intentionally obtuse about his potty training, and his interactions with me, always squirming and scratching as if every day was the first time I ever picked him up. Since he was considerably larger than he was when he first came to me, my arms, neck, legs, even face, would get badly scratched and scraped, each and every day.

A few years after Mike arrived here, I evicted the up-till-then nearly constant human male from my life, and Mike warmed up a little, but he was still a bit chill towards me. He made like I was his personal slave, and so he was happy. Any time I reminded him that I was the alpha, he was not.

His attitude towards me over the past couple of years, however, has warmed up quite a bit. He will come over and hang out near me. I suspected that it was more a matter of where my hormones were in their monthly cycle, but it happens outside of those times, as well.

Like many iguanas, he has figured out that many good things are to be had from the magical Big White Box. He hangs out in the kitchen staring pointedly at me, then at the fridge, then at me, at the fridge, back and forth, back and forth, until I get the message that he wants a treat (the current favorite being roasted chicken, preferably warm rather than straight from the fridge). (And before anyone freaks out on me, his Cyclura folks are omnivorous so a small amount of animal protein is an appropriate part of his diet.)

In the last six months, he now spends the night near me. Well, he curls up under the back part of my U-unit desk, with his head between the wall and the file drawer that sits under there. He comes over here about 7-7:30PM, and curls up there, where he sleeps until morning.

Our morning routine goes something like this: He climbs down from his iguana room sleeping area or out from under the desk, goes into the bathroom, and makes noise with his claws on the linoleum floor. That gets me up and into the bathroom to run his bath (and also take my morning meds). I go back to bed for as many hours as my body needs, and then get up, take my shower, and then drain his tub and run more water for him if he is still in there.

Over the past several weeks, however, there's been a change.

He has discovered my bed.

Now, he actually discovered it before, when he was tracking Sluggo, my bluetongue skink, one time. Sluggo, despite having ridiculously tiny legs and even tinier toes, manages somehow to climb up onto my higher-than-normal bed. (Re his legs, it’s like, when his wide heavy body made it to the end of the assembly line where the legs, feet and toes are plugged in, the only units they had left were ones belonging to significantly smaller lizards. Instead of waiting for appropriately sized leg/feet/toe units to be restocked, they just stuck on what they had, and so he has these skinny short legs and teeny feet and toes.)

When Mike came, Sluggo was bigger than him. Despite Sluggy never having done anything to intimidate or scare Mike, Mike was terrified of him. It wasn’t until sometime after Mike was significantly bigger than Sluggo that he realized that, and has had a mad on for him ever since. Part of his usual daily routine is to cruise the house looking for Sluggo and checking to see if by chance I left the front door open so he can go cruise the neighborhood and scare the neighbors’ dogs.

But, I digress. So, one day, Mike was scent tracking Sluggo in my bedroom, and discovered that that trail when up the side of my bed and under the covers…and so Mike followed. A few times over the past year, Mike would track Slug up there when I was up there trying to nap.

But now, Mike isn’t tracking Sluggo: he’s using my bed to sleep in! He has been climbing into the bed and either burrowing under or between pillows, or under the flannel-covered down comforter, and going to sleep. Sometimes he does this in the afternoons. Other times, like tonight, he goes in the early evening.

Usually, I pick him up and put him in his own bed before I go to sleep. He then reminds me a little kid: He keeps his eyes closed, his legs down along his side in the typical “iguana sound asleep position” and tries very hard not to move or open his eyes as I carry him from the bedroom through the den, kitchen and into his room. He has to open them a bit and move his limbs when I put him down, but he goes right back to sleep.

Twice I have let him stay in my bed over night. Both times were when his body was far enough away from where mine would be that I wouldn’t risk being sliced and diced by his tail and sharply keeled scales when I moved around at night.

Last night was the second time. He was sound asleep on the, uhm, guest side of the bed, under the pile of comforters (two live on my bed, one folded in half on top of the year-round one). The only thing you could see of him was his face, from his eyes down to his snout.

I heard him occasionally shift position, his scales making soft shhhhhing sounds against the flannel sheet and duvet cover.

At some point, the shhhhh sound went on much longer than usual. I turned my head as I twisted my torso enough to reach out to touch him – and my cheek bumped into his snout. I pet him for a bit, and he gave my forehead a couple of tongue flicks. I reached out to turn the clock’s light on and saw that it was 8:20 AM. Even in bed, Mike gives me a wake-up call, though a bit later than usual because of the blackout drapes in my bedroom.

So, up I got, up he got picked, and off to run his bath we went. I took my meds, went back to bed, and all was right in our world.

Let me just go check to see how he has situated himself in my bed tonight…

That’s my boy!

Of course, this means that if he makes a long-term habit of this, I’m going to have to get a heating pad for that side of the bed… sigh

Ah, well, while he’s been sleeping in my bed, I’ve been working on a new pair of socks and a new scarf.

The socks are Lane Cervinia Forever Jacquard in color 20. I was this same yarn on a website (, perhaps?) with the color named “Black Forest”. It wasn’t until I was working on the toe box of this one that I realized they meant Black Forest as in "Black Forest Cake", not the spread of trees in Germany.

This scarf is my usual *K1, yo, K2tog* pattern worked up in JaggerSpun’s laceweight Zephyr (50% tussah silk/50% merino wool) in Real Red, on #5 straights.

Well, enough with the writing, on to the knitting!


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This thing of the fragility of trust I have seen in many animals, igs
happen to be one, people another. I think one comment you made,
Melissa, bears repeating, fearful & non-trusting igs are often those
with fearful histories with humans. To be sure some igs are just more
aggressive without apparent reason, but I have seen several aggressive
igs calm to delightful "pets". This seems to take patience in
handling. I am a believer in showing dominion at certain times, in certain ways, however, there seems
to be a need for igs to have some dignity. We have all discussed
their warning signs before aggression. Could it be these signs are cries for respect as much as threats?

I tend to see much instinctive behavior in terms of "fight or flight" response. From that perspective it would appear that much animal, or human, aggressive behavior is a fear response, short of a predatory instinct for food, and sexual instinct. Since igs are primarily vegetarian, would it not be safe to say that most aggressive behavior is fear based, especially when not in season?

I have had several people tell me that certain rescued dogs, who took
a liking to me, were afraid of or hated men. It is probably a safe
bet that some over-testosteroned male human programmed that response
in them. Perhaps this is a statement about my manhood, or maybe a
statement about my style.

Allowing acclimation time allows for territorial respect, both with
animals & humans. Progressive encroachments upon space need to be
followed by time just being there and honoring the courage of the
animal to allow you in their space. They sense this honor, perhaps
smell it. Eye contact is not necessarily a good thing. Watching
another animal's eyes is a sign of readiness & alertness for a likely
hostile interaction. To gain trust one must give trust.

Talking is often counter-productive, but if done a soft melodic tone
seems to me to work best when I do, perhaps because it calms me??? My
Big Moe is quite a baby when I put him to bed. He can be fighting me
but strokes on the head & my sing-songy voice closes his eyes.

My friend with the pet store got in a large male who was brilliant
orange (beautiful) and a pronounced rostril horn. He attacked
anything that came near the cage, human or otherwise, when he arrived.
I started just openning the cage and "being with him". In time I got
him out. When I did I held him in my infant nursing position hold,
grounding him with his abdomen against my chest so that the flail
reaction of his feet would not continue to keep him aroused. I make
sure he knew that I was completely in control, then started the
head/neck stroking with sing-song voice. Everytime I went into the
store I got him out & did the same. He became so tame that a family
bought him.

I have seen this occur several times and never see it not work. I am
sure that I have not seen the abused igs that many on this list have
seen, so I am reserved about it working in every situation.

The fragility of trust is about restoring something that was perhaps
stolen by someone indistinguishable from us. We must give them
something to distinguish us with, and the time in interaction to
acclimate and learn new appropriate responses.

I have worked with women who were abused by men. When I do, I observe
similar protocol. They, however, must come to me, and I must wait for
them to. That is the acclimation process that allows for the healing
& power transfer to take place. It starts by my respecting their
"territory", perhaps the first time anyone has allowed them to have
territory. The concept of territory is much more pronounced in primal
green igs, as is the instinctual need for social order defined by
domination. However, redefining what domination means for captive igs
is the experiential task we face in psychologically rehabbing them,
something inappropriate among more complex humans.

To gain the trust of a wild animal is an extraordinary thing. To
regain the trust of an abused wild animal borders on the miraculous.
That you folks accomplish this on a regular basis is amazing.


2:19 PM  
Blogger Melissa said...

Dan, when dealing with a species that has a dynamic social hierarchy, where gaining ascendancy over ones peers and higher ranking members of your group may often entail violence, we humans have to be alpha and to get across that we are alpha as quickly as possible, for our own safety as well as for the animal's.

But that doesn't mean we have to pull out the whips and chains and sharp implements. :)

Following through and picking them up when you start your attempt to pick them up, and not giving up and going away because they work so hard to make us give up and go away, that's one part of it.

Quietly doing things where they can observe you is also part of it. So is using a soft voice and even baby talk, as we humans tend to use when we are talking to a human infant and neonates--and often adults--of other species.

So is talking to them and using their names, even when you aren't actively engaged with them.

So is letting them have their own way occasionally - just not when you are having to make an alpha point.

One of the ways I both tame my lizards and get to actively explore the house rather than just finding a hiding place and burrowing in, is to put them down on the floor or iguana furniture once they've settled down in my hands. Early on, their first reaction is usually to run and hide. Once I locate where they are, I let them know I know (I reach in, touch them, talking to them and using their name), and walk away. I periodically talk to them so they know I still know. Once they're cold and not resistant any more, I extract them and put them either back in their enclosure or in the free roamers basking area.

The day comes when they don't run, but just sit there and wait for me to make a move. And so I do. I say something along the lines of "go have fun, [insert name here]", and I turn around and walk away.

Eventually, they stop running, and stop fussing when I pick them up when they are somewhere in the house, or in the free roamers areas.

In between these encounters, over the course of several months, there will have encounters where I have had to actively assert myself. But because they have begun to realize that they do have some control over some of the things in their life, the stress level ramps down, they eat better, poop better, feel better as the stress-induced pains and discomforts wane.

And at some point, almost invisibly, the line is crossed. On one side was a stressed out untamed iguana trying to control the humans around him. On the other is an iguana who is comfortable in his daily routine, one who has been participating in some give and take, acknowledging that the human is alpha, but that the human also respects the iguana.

Mike can get into and out of the bathtub all by himself. He has been able to for years. In the afternoons, when he decides he wants to have another bath instead of a nap in down and flannel, he will climb into the bathtub and scratch around in there, knowing the sound will bring me in to run his bath.

But, in the mornings, we have our routine. He quietly gets out of his own bed, poops in the kitchen, and goes into the bathroom, where he clatters his claws just inside the bathroom on the lino. That wakes me up, and gets me into the bathroom to start drawing his bath. Now, he and I both know that he can get into the tub himself. But, instead of waiting for him to come get in, or me just leaving the room once I've turned off the water, we do this: From the moment I awake enough to figure out how to get out of bed, I start talking to him. I chatter or sing while the water's running, and walk over to him, pick him up, kiss him on the top of his head, admire his manly jowls and utter whatever compliments come to mind, and then I put him onto the rim of the tub so he can lower himself down into the water. I turn off the water, tell him to enjoy his bath, and off I go back to bed.

I talk to him when I pass his bathroom. I go into his room and pet him through the day, and always make some admiring remark. When I bring my camera in there, he immediately starts his classic pose (just look at the photos of him with the scarves draped on him). He loves getting positive attention. He can tell when someone is admiring him or is scared of him. He can tell when I'm happy with him, or when I'm pissed at him (like, when I have to remind him that Sluggo is NOT a chew toy).

So, we both know that *I* am the alpha ig around here, just like I'm the alpha dog when my dobie goddog or neighbor's sweet pit bull mix comes over to visit. With my goddog, since I take care of him when he can't go traveling with his folks, I have to assert who's boss with him periodically, making him sit, stay, wait to dive into his food bowl. With Mike, he knows that if I go to pick him up, he has to let me, even if he doesn't know why I am doing so at that particular time. He also knows that, while he may not like it much, his claws are going to get trimmed which means I'm going to be handling and manipulating his toes.

But he's okay with this, because The Mommy fawns over him, gives him treats, pays proper homage to his greatness by lifting him into the bath tub, and takes him for car rides. Or not, sometimes, if he indicates he doesn't want to go. (Sometimes I do make him go when he doesn't want to, because the time may come when he has to go to the vet, or I have to evacuate everyone because of an emergency.)

So. All of these things are what I consider to be part of the taming and socialization process: how the human(s) become the alpha ig while still respecting the iguana's essential iguananess.

7:44 PM  

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