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January 31, 2007

The Dinosaur Down the Street

The Dinosaur Down the Street

By Elaine Viets

So there I was driving down a four-lane road in South Florida when I saw a palm tree trunk in the middle of the road.

Except when I got closer, the palm tree had eyes. Evil prehistoric eyes.

Holy cow! I mean leaping lizards!

That wasn’t a palm tree. It was a giant lizard. A freaking dinosaur. The thing was gray brown and as long as my car – at least six feet. Jurassic Park was in the middle of the road.

I went straight home. I was not going to wander around with a dinosaur on the loose.

I called the local nature park and said, "It’s five o’clock in the afternoon. I am perfectly sober and I just saw a six-foot lizard in the road."

"Yes," said the woman at the nature center. She didn’t sound surprised, which was even more alarming.

"Those are monitor lizards," she said. "They’re related to the Komodo dragon. They get to be six to nine feet long. They live in the nearby mangrove swamps."

They do?

"They’re escaped pets."

I don’t know which was scarier – a six-foot lizard, or some idiot who kept that thing as a pet.

I did know this: There is a mangrove swamp near my home. The giant lizard had crawled out of the swamp to sun itself on the warm asphalt road.

"Are they dangerous?" I said.

"They can eat small pets," the nature expert said.

Small pets? If these things eat cats and poodles, they could also snack on a toddler or two. Tell that to Grandma: "Jared won’t be coming to see you this Christmas. He was eaten by a giant lizard."

"The bite can be dangerous to humans," the nature expert said. "The lizards’ mouths are full of bacteria. If they bite, you can get a bad infection."

At that moment, I wanted to go back home to the Midwest, where lizards do NOT grow to stupendous sizes. I wanted a nice, normal life.

I quickly smothered that urge. That’s why I like Florida. The place is wonderfully weird. It’s a challenge to come up with good fiction when everyday life is so strange. I decided to be a little more careful when I took out the trash late at night. I hoped that strange rustling noise by the Dumpster was a nice, lazy possum.

A quick check of the news shows that monitor lizards are only a few of the exotic pets that have escaped into not-so-wild South Florida. Abandoned boa constrictors and vervet monkeys are making nuisances of themselves. Cuban tree frogs are eating the native croakers. And recently, a Burmese python took on an alligator in the Everglades. The python tried to swallow the gator, and both died in the epic struggle. (There’s a moral in that story, but I’m not sure what it is.)

News reports say monitor lizards have sharp claws and teeth, and may attack humans if they’re feeling surly – and they usually are.

However, I did get this reassurance from the nature expert: "Monitor lizards are not native to Florida. They’re not a protected species. If one attacks you, it’s OK to shoot it."

I was afraid to say I was probably the only person in Florida who didn’t own a gun. I might be breaking a state law by going around unarmed.

Besides, I’m not a native of Florida, either. So it could be OK to shoot me.


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Here is a local Delaware story, true story, and Ramona can probably back me up.

A couple of years ago, a 20-something guy was found dead in his apartment in Newark (that's New-ark to you uninitiated). By the time they found him, his 6-foot pet Komodo Dragon had eaten half of his body. I do not recall the denoument, that is, whether they determined that the pet killed him or was just opportunistic. Either way, it was not a nice scene.

As for being shot, you don't look like someone who would be a criminal, if you get my drift. This is America, you should have no problems.

This reminds me of the time my extremely-manly father ran into the house shrieking that there was a snake next to the trash can. Only problem was we were living in New Zealand where there are no snakes. Mom went out and shooed the lizard away.

Alex, lucky you, getting to live in New Zealand.

Elaine - I've heard this from Floridians before, how living with all the criminals/corrupt politicians/freaky weather and now, monitor lizards, makes everyday life colorful. A friend of mine, Jim Kenyon, who used to work for the Tampa paper, bemoaned pruning his own trees here in New England when he used to be able to slip the utility guys a 20 and they'd do it for him.

Intellectually I know all this. But in my gut, I'm not sure I could take it.

Great story! Now going to look up monitor lizards.

Jeez. And I was complaining about the squirrels that keep getting in my birdfeeder.

In South Florida, realtors are selling glamourous homes in what used to be swampland. My theory is that the Everglades will one day reclaim their home.

Ten years ago, there was a series of gators that were found in stripstore parking lots. The gators were returning to their former swamp home. They truly paved paradise and put up a parking lot!

I can't help but think, Elaine, if those monitor lizards were hanging out in Texas, there'd be guys throwing saddles over them and selling ride tickets. Doesn't matter if the thing doesn't move much, either. You know people would be taking pictures of themselves astride the things.

Yes, Josh, I can confirm the komodo dragon story. Happened just after we moved here. Very comforting, let me tell you. This was also about the time when some, uh, person decided that " A Small Wonder" was not a good state motto. The state paid a kajillion dollars to some, uh, person to come up with "It's Good To Be First" as a replacement. What a waste of government funds. I think "The Man-Eating Komodo Dragon State" is a lot catchier.

Elaine, I am not laughing. Honest. Cross my heart. I'm not. Really. Seriously. I mean it. Trust me. My eyes are watering because cigarette smoke got in them. (It might be more convincing if I had a lit cigarette nearby, but....)

Having lived in Miami/Lauderdale in the 70's and 80's, I have to concur with Dave. I think Society went too far, and the 'Glades are reclaiming what is theirs. Dave, wasn't there a drive-in movie back in the 70's about this very thing? I'm pretty sure Sam Elliott was in it; something about "Nature Strikes Back" or some such. Can't quite place it this morning, pre-coffee.

And honest, Elaine, I'm not laughing. Not even a snicker. Really. Trust me.

Let's not even talk about the scary dogs people have. Every psycho killer I ever prosecuted had a pit bull that he trained to be even more bloodthirsty than it was naturally inclined to be. The scary dog trend has now made a successful leap from the criminal world to hip hop music to the general public, and the number of maulings, esp. of children, in the New York area is out of control.

You have to wonder about the people who choose to share their homes with killer animals. I'd worry about your neighbors, Elaine.

Funny blog!

Good point, Michele. I live in Pittsburgh where one of the Steelers owns 2 large dogs that escaped their fence and killed a pony.

I grew up in a rural area where 2 deer jumped through the picture window of a neighbor's house and proceeded to crash through the entire house in a panic---the family cowered under beds and the kitchen table--until the teenaged daughter managed to open the back door and let one of them outside. The other one died in the dining room, gushing blood from broken glass.

Wow, Nancy. That sounds worse than my adventure with the bat in my daughter's room a couple of years ago. Tennis racket. Raquetball racket. Broom. Terrified staggering backwards when it fell from the curtain rod onto the floor. Careful pushing of it into a gift bag lying on the floor and lifting the bag out onto the roof of the floor below.

Lifetime experience and great excitement for 9-year-old daughter, "helping."

You are right, Dave -- we're living where we aren't supposed to be in South Florida. But so are those darned monitor lizards. They're natives of Africa.
It's OK to laugh, William. I'm a big person, though not as big as THAT FREAKING DINOSAUR.

FWIW, monitor lizards (some species, anyway), start out life small. The problem is that, just like lots of exotic reptiles, they keep growing beyond peoples' expectations. At some point, the idiots who thought they would be cool pets decide that maybe that wasn't such a hot idea and let them go. Mayhem ensues on many levels.

We now interrupt this great blog (Elaine's and others', not mine!) for a lecture/rant . . .

I am not an animal rights activist by any stretch, but I am a trained biologist. And from that perspective, the exotic pet trade (birds, fish, herps, whatever) makes my blood boil. It causes so many problems and does so much harm on a truly global scale for no good end. Although I can giggle at the thought of Elaine calling in a dinosaur sighting, the underlying issue is no laughing matter.

Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming . . .

Jeez, Elaine. The worst we have here are tarantulas, rattlesnakes, and mountain lions.

But it's the ants that do me in every time. Ants in the kitchen. And, of course, rodents.

My thoughts are with you in this time of stress.

Funny post, Elaine. At least you weren't like a few of my traveling companions on a bear watch in Alaska...the bus stopped to let a brown bear meander on by and you'd have been surprised at the number of people who wanted to get off to get a picture! Our guide had to remind them that Alaska isn't just one big zoo! Here in Illinois, we get raccoons, squirrels and the occasional coyote (or wolf or something), but I've had friends who have had nasty encounters with possums. Not too smart but definitely mean (the possums not the friends). And a woman I work with is minus a car after her husband hit a deer.
Have a warm Wednesday...-9 wind chill here in the Midwest!
PS. I agree with Kerry. Exotic animals should stay exotic...in the wild.

Jeez I would have freaked. That is scary Elaine. My very scary adventure yesterday included a 16yo with a 104 degree fever, a rush to the ER as my son could not stop shaking in a sezure like manner. Scared me to death! I've already lost one child didn't want to lose another. He is now fine with the motrin I gave kicked in at ER plus the tylenol and iv fluids they gave to him. I think I would have preferred a lizard just this one time. :)

Scary, Janice. If it makes you feel any better, I had a 105 fever at age 19 and am here to tell the tale.


Janice -- your day is a lot scarier than mine could ever be.
I don't get this exotic pet thing -- it seem so cruel to take something out of its natural habitat just so you can say, "Hey, look what I've got."

Sarah so that's the reason for the twisted sense of humor? LOL.What's my excuse then? Elaine I have no idea why anyone would want to live with a 10 foot boa constricter. We watch the National Geographic channel and have seen reports on the exotic pets left in the 'glades. My teen boys are plenty 'exotic' enough........never a dull moment. Thanks.

I have to say that being rather used to large animals, my horror at moving to Texas was all the *tiny* things that could kill you! I mean, little tiny spiders, relatively small snakes....

You've never seen anything as funny as me the day it was close to 100 degrees and my dog, who I'd just let out in the back yard, decided to explore under the house. And got stuck under the front porch. This necessitated me crawling under the whole length of the house. So it's the middle of summer and I am wearing: heavy jeans tucked into knee-high socks with duck boots, a tucked in long-sleeved shirt that was tight at the sleeves, a scarf (nothing's biting my neck unless he's cute), a hat and gloves.

And then there's the habit of buying exotic pets that eventually kill their owners. Like *that's* a big surprise? You were the one who wanted a *cougar* as a pet. What did *think* was going to happen?

Just days after we moved to Panama, the base newspaper had a letter in it from a woman thanking the MPs for removing the 6 foot snake from her washing machine. After commenting on this at work, co-workers told my husband to make sure we weighted down (with a large rock or similar item) the washing machine lid if our machine was outside, because the snakes liked to climb inside and sleep. It was a few weeks before I'd go down to do our laundry without making him do the snake check first.

My husband and I lived in St. Petersburg, Florida for 5 years. In our apartment complex we had 3 extremely large ponds. In 2 of them lived aligators. The owners had to post signs Do Not Feed Aligators. Now what moron thinks feeding an aligator is a good idea? Especially when it is literally in your back yard.

When I was a little girl I wanted every type of wild cat as a pet. I however grew up and realized that they are not pets and look much better in the wild than in a backyard. I make do with my 2 domestic kitties and my 5 angelic children. Well, they are angelic...when they are asleep.

Josh I can back you up on the New-Ark (a fine place to live) Delaware man who was partially eaten by his Komodo Dragon...apparently he use to work in the same building as me, before my time. A good friend did live in the same apartment complex as the man and dragon in question. I had just started working/living in Delaware and was pretty shocked, as I recall the man in question died of natural causes and his pet got hungry.

The only wildlife that really got to me in a domestic situation were the brown recluse spiders that haunted a friends' house where I was housesitting in Kansas City, MO. Considering that I'm mildly arachnophobic anyway, it's a wonder I survived the stress of having to kill one (I hate killing insects -- not because of warm fuzzies, but because they crunch) almost every night to get to the bathroom, not to mention finding them in the tub, sink, laundry room, etc.
Give me bats and rodents and snakes any day.

As long as I'm preaching . . .here are some other things folks don't often realize about exotic pets. First,
when they come from the wild (legally or otherwise), you have to figure that a whole bunch more were taken from their original population than actually survive to reach the market. So we're killing a whole lot of things, for starters. Then there's the problem of the exotic diseases they bring with them -- by transporting the "pets" around the world, we're transporting diseases to populations of critters who are susceptible, but have no natural defenses against them. The chrytid fungus that is causing massive die-offs of amphibian populations around the world is a case in point. Finally, there's the problem of the "pets" being released into new habitats when the owners get sick of them. Sometimes they get lucky -- they wind up in a comfortable habitat with enough others of their kind to establish a continuing population -- which then eats and/or competes with a variety of native species. Bad juju all around.

Don't feed the alligators, eh? Sounds like a Jean Kerr book :)

I hear you about the brown recluse spiders. I had always had a live an let live thing with spiders. We could peacefully coexist, then I found out the spiders that were sharing my new home were brown recluses. It's almost 3 years and I am still freaked out at the concept even though they have been poisoned into submission.

This year, right before Christmas a squirrel moved into our home. That scurrying sound is just wrong to hear in your home. Do you realize how expensive it is to get rid of a squirrel? The sad truth was that my big present for Christmas was a dead squirrel, the second was going to be my husband's but it turns out we only had one.

My parents live in SW Florida, in a golf course community. Their house backs up to the water trap, which has two resident gators. They tell me that one of their (part-time) neighbors was caught feeding the gators. This is a normally-smart man, so who knows why. Apparently the gators occasionally end up closing down the golf course when they decide to take a stroll along the greens.

Hah. Squirrels. Don't get me started on squirrels. When I lived in St. Louis, they gnawed their way into our attic and ate my wedding dress. They're rats with bushy tails.

Do golf-course alligators wear shirts with little people embroidered on the chest?


I 'am' in the Midwest, and we have wild coyotes running in our suburban yard. We also have a small 13 pound dog that I worry about. I am not sure if the kids were out there the coyote's wouldln't attack 'them!' But no way could I live in Florida...fire ants, aligators, cockroaches, sharks and biting invisible jelly sacks -- and now dinosaurs?! Keep writing about it and I will be more than happy to read about it, just not experience it myself!

Elaine, you were wise to avoid going mano-a-mano with the monitor. Its bigger cousins back on Komodo are thought guilty of killing and devouring a German tourist two years ago.

This is unusual, since no member of the monitor family has ever before been seen eating kraut.

Hey, That guy that was eaten by his Komodo dragon was a friend of mine. We used to work out together at High Energy the gym on Chruch St. I always warned him about those things. I thought it was crazy that years later, I had moved to Tampa, Fl and my brother calls me from Newark, Delaware to tell me to look up the news story on the internet. I was not completely surprised but what the hell.....he was actually partially eaten by his pets. Very sad!!! RIP Ron.

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