Home for Wayward Iguanas

The iguanas peer down from atop the cage in the living room, from the stairs, from the back of the chair. "Here, have a seat," says Jonathan Scupin, 25, as he scoops a 5-foot iguana off the sofa to make room for a visitor to sit.

In all, there are more than 40 iguanas sharing living space with Scupin and his fiance, Ann-Elizabeth Nash, the founder and director of Colorado Reptile Rescue. Many have the run of the house, though some are confined to the Iggy Room, a back room they keep very hot and very humid – much more to the lizards' liking than the arid climate of Longmont, Colo.

They also have, at last count, four box turtles, nine leopard frogs, three snakes, a tiger salamander, and Hunted, a 4-foot-long-and-growing Nile monitor lizard with a taste for fresh eggs, dead mice and turkey strips. He mostly stays in their bedroom.

200 Reptiles Rescued

In the 2 1/2 years since founding the rescue organization, Nash has taken in almost 200 reptiles, mostly iguanas. She's found new homes for 140 of them. The rest live with her and Scupin, or in one of the 13 foster homes associated with the group. (Scupin used to be one of her best iguana foster caregivers. That's how they met. Their mutual love for iguanas nurtured their own love affair.)

"The snakes are not a problem to adopt," says Nash, 36. "Snakes are easy to take care of. But an iguana will languish forever. There's not the interest in them." Many of the iguanas in Nash's care have similar stories: They were adopted as cute, little lime-green babies only a few inches long. But then they started growing. Their cages got too small. Maybe their owners got bored or – worse – frightened by them. Left alone, they weren't properly socialized and started hissing at or tail-whipping or even biting people who approached too closely.

When they eventually land in an animal shelter, shelter workers more comfortable with furry clients than scaly ones call Nash. In addition, Nash says she gets five to six calls a week from people wanting to surrender their iguanas to her directly. She's had to put a temporary freeze on incoming lizards. "We are beyond overflow," she says.

House Crowded During Breeding Season

Things can get a little dicey around the house in late summer to early fall. That's breeding season, and male iguanas can become positively unruly during that time and must be separated. "Males in full bloom will fight until they kill each other," Nash says. "The females don't fight as much. They express their irritation, get into shoving matches, but it's not as bloody as with males."

Even when not worrying about iguana in-fighting at the house, Nash and Scupin have their hands full. It takes more than an hour every morning to get everybody fed. They spend most of their evening hours feeding and socializing the animals. On her days off, Nash frequently loads some of her tamer critters into the car and does classroom presentations. She's also brought in veterinary students from nearby Colorado State University so they can learn to handle iguanas and become comfortable around them.

The non-profit organization is run on a shoestring. Last year, it brought in $14,000 in donations – including $3,000 from Nash and Scupin. Nash expects operating expenses to be just slightly more this year.

Nash – who met her first iguana just 3 years ago and was immediately smitten – believes reptiles are gaining ground as mainstream pets, particularly among women. "I'd say an equal number of men and women won't have anything to do with reptiles," she says. "But right now, there are more women than men in reptile rehabilitation."

It's a challenge not everyone is up to, she says. Having a pet reptile is a different experience from having a dog or cat. "My dog," she says of her cocker spaniel, Sandy, "I am the center of his universe. There's no trick to getting a dog to love you. But reptiles don't interact with you that way. They are wild animals who may choose to be with you. If you watch them awhile, you'll see their personalities emerge. And they do have distinct personalities."

For information on Colorado Reptile Rescue, check out the organization's Web site: www.geocities.com/\\~corr98