Cold lizards, heated rhetoric: Near-death experiences of reason and reptiles


By Jeff Keeling

Before iguanas began dropping from trees during Florida’s recent cold snap, there was Eustace.

The Keeling household had lost power during a late 1990s cold snap, visited family in Bristol and returned to find our iguana, Eustace, stiff and open-eyed in his glass enclosure.

I gave a mental shrug about the 18-inch menace who to this day represents our sole experience as reptilian pet owners, then began considering the matter of proper burial versus inglorious disposal. “How do I tell the kids” wasn’t an issue. Young Zach’s visions of an exotic, colorful pet perching on his shoulder or waddling sedately around the living room had never come to pass.

Much fault probably lay with us, but regardless, Eustace’s behavior outside the confines of his 12-cubic-foot glass box never reached a sufficient level of decorum. He would skitter desperately across the hardwood floors until attempting a vertical escape – his rapier-like claws finding purchase on our curtains – or a horizontal one, under a couch or some other bit of shelter.

Capturing our pet during these early misadventures was a team effort involving me, the lovely and talented Angela, and kitchen gloves to minimize the damage wrought by tail and claws. Eventually, Eustace came out only for cage-cleaning. We’d put him in the bathtub where he couldn’t escape. Even though we’d return him to a nice clean bed of litter and clear glass walls, he always seemed angry for some reason.

I was considering how this unfulfilled existence had made Eustace’s demise a stroke of mercy for all when my mind seemed to trick me. I blinked, turned my head from the lizard’s enclosure and looked back. Eustace had moved.

Thus we learned iguanas don’t always die when cold shuts down their bodies. Eustace wasn’t mellowed by his near-death experience. Together we endured a couple more years of wary co-existence before he stiffened up for good.

Those years came to mind recently, in a way that made me pine for a bygone day when ours was less of a “feel first, think later” culture.

After his report on cold green iguanas falling from trees in Florida, National Public Radio’s Ari Shapiro took Twitter heat for a perceived callous attitude. One tweet said iguanas falling out of trees was “tragic and not funny” while another called Shapiro an “anthropocentric bleep.”

NPR brought on an expert to talk facts, and he began with a disclaimer. “This is going to sound very confusing coming from a person who’s dedicated himself to animals and to conservation,” Zoo Miami’s Ron Magill said. “But the bottom line is it’s kind of nature’s way to take out a population.”

Why the disclaimer? Magill is an expert. His explanation shouldn’t have sounded confusing. Non-native, iguanas are in Florida as a result of pets escaping or being dumped and then breeding. They’re damaging the environment.

I did a quick Google search and learned iguanas’ munching on nickerbean leaves, on which the Miami blue butterfly lays its eggs, has contributed to that species’ near-disappearance in the Florida Keys. For animal lovers, if anything is tragic and not funny, it’s that fact.

We seem less likely than ever, though, to let facts hold sufficient sway in our discourse. We turn to our “inch deep, mile wide” information sources and stiffen in our opinions like an iguana on a frosty tree limb, rejecting reasoned discussion with those whose opinions differ.

I worry this trend threatens the health of our democracy as much as green iguanas threaten the Miami blue butterfly. I hope the butterfly survives, and while this may sound anthropocentric, I hope even more that our democracy endures this rough patch and reason begins to show greater signs of life. Much depends on it.


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