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Iguana Love

By Wendy Townsend

Once I said to my husband, No lizards, no love. I didn’t mean that I would not love him, but that without iguanas, I would have a hard time loving my life.


In his bestselling book Beyond Words, What animals think and feel, Carl Safina writes, “I wanted to know what they were experiencing, and why to us they feel so compelling, and so close. This time I allowed myself to ask them the question that for a scientist was forbidden fruit: Who are you?”


I ask this question of iguanas.


Sebastian and me, Catskills 2024

My iguana love started with a five-lined skink. I was six years old, staying with my grandparents in rural Indiana, when I saw her. I knew from pictures that lizards had scaly skin, different from the wet-skinned salamanders I found under rotting logs. One hot day I was sitting on the ledge that went around the pool. Something made me look over by the dogwood tree behind the low brick wall and I saw a dark, glossy-scaled creature slip out of a crack in the bricks. Thin gold stripes went nose to tail. I kept still and watched her flitting along the edge of the brick wall, breathless with wanting her to come closer. She moved like no animal I had seen, not just her ready-to-flee tense moves, but everything about her, even when she sat still, she was miraculous. When a crow flew overhead, she streaked across the patio and disappeared at the edge. Hot Weather Lizard, I called her, because I saw her only on hot days.

That same year I saw another lizard, this time in the Bahamas. He was small and brown, resting on the side of a tree. As I ran to him, the lizard climbed partway up, just out of reach, then turned to face me. It seemed to me that his eyes said, “I see you,” and I was changed. It was during that year of the lizards that I became fully aware of my belonging with the Earth’s creatures—birds, snakes, hermit crabs, turtles, praying mantises, lizards—all of us together in the web of life.

When I was 7, my mother moved us from the woods and ponds to New York City. It was the early ’70s, and I had a very hard time adapting to the concrete and grit of lower Manhattan. I found green iguanas in pet shops, and we looked at each other through the glass of the tanks they were held in. I knew they were frightened and displaced, like me. I told my mother that I needed to have pet iguanas, and she helped me set up their home.

Mooresville, Indiana, my iguana and me when I was 16 years old

Having iguanas got me through difficult times. They were a steadfast presence, and we took care of each other. By the mid-1980s, baby green iguanas flooded the pet industry and died miserably because information about proper care was not available to pet owners. I was living in L.A. My apartment crawled with “rescued” iguanas, and I loved it, but that wasn’t solving the problem. So, though I hated writing because I stank at it, I got over myself and wrote a care sheet and delivered copies to pet shops, and soon after, I coauthored an iguana care guide. Writing, it turned out, would be my way of speaking up for iguanas.

One morning I was in my L.A. apartment, drinking coffee, opening the mail. My iguanas were eating breakfast. The very first issue of Iguana Times, the journal of the International Iguana Society, of which I was a new member, had come in the mail. I was learning about West Indian Rock Iguanas, and other endangered iguana species, and I opened the journal eagerly. And sat up straight in my chair when I read that a live Jamaican Rock Iguana had been caught by a pig hunter’s dogs in Hellshire forest. Jamaican iguanas were thought to be extinct.

Later, I was sad to read that the Jamaican Iguana in the Hellshire Hills had died from his ordeal with the dogs. I remember hoping, wishing, if only he wasn’t the last one. If only more of his kind survived, hidden away in that remote forest of thorny trees and rugged limestone rock and if so, maybe, just maybe, I would get to see one someday.


As it turned out, that wasn’t the last Jamaican Iguana, there were more. And 27 years later, my dream of seeing a Jamaican Iguana would come true in a big way. But first, I moved back east, built a home in a barn in the Catskills with my new husband Mark, got an MFA in writing, and met Mao.

Mao and me, 1993

On a warm spring day in 1993, when Edwin Duffus was in the Hellshire Hills, I was in Big Pine Key, Florida, stepping inside a cage where a Rhinoceros Iguana named Mao and his mate, Gretta, lived. Rhinoceros Iguanas and Jamaican Iguanas are cousins, both in the genus Cyclura. The cage was 18 feet by 12 feet, furnished with big limestone rocks, a long, thick tree branch, and several cacti.

Mao and Gretta were finishing up their lunch of shredded greens, veggies, and fruit. I sat down on a rock and Mao followed me. He placed one of his feet on my left foot. I remember looking down at his black foot—his hand, really—and how it nearly covered the toe of my white sneaker. Mao began to stand on his back legs to climb into my lap, and I reached down to help him up. For a moment I leaned back slightly from his head that was as big as both my fists put together and just inches from my face. I looked at the long lines of his strong jaw, aware of the many sharp teeth inside his mouth. Lizards and dinosaurs diverged millions of years ago, but I still felt like I had a dinosaur in my lap.


Mao’s belly was warm from the sun, and he was heavier than a cat. I stroked his back and around his chest and head. The small scales of his skin felt like raw silk, but alive. He tilted his head and he peered into my eyes with his gray ones. My throat tightened and my eyes filled from the emotion of connecting with another being. We looked at each other like that for a few moments. I didn’t want to leave Mao, and I promised myself that one day, I would live with rhinoceros iguanas.

Ten years later, I would bring home Mao’s grandson, Sebastian.

Sebastian, 2003

After I wrote three books for young readers, Lizard LoveThe Sundown Rule, and Blue Iguana, I wanted to write about the comeback of Jamaican Iguanas, and the amazing people who are working to save them. I traveled to Hellshire Hills, Jamaica, and sat in the blind with Dr. Stesha Pasachnik to watch female iguanas digging nests, and wrote the following in my journal.

Camera trap photo of nesting Jamaican Rock Iguanas

Big lizards rapidly dig in the brick red earth, kicking it up in sprays, coating each other in a dusting of red. It’s a hundred degrees F on this patch of earth the size of a living room, where the female lizards are digging burrows that lead to chambers underground. A red plume shoots out of a hole as the tail and rear legs of one lizard wriggle out backward, and then go down to dig some more. Another comes out of her burrow headfirst to push and kick soil across its entry. Her flanks are sunken; she has laid her eggs in this “upper nest site,” one of only five that are known where these female Jamaican Iguanas come once a year to dig nests and lay their eggs. The iguanas strut and face off, rising high up on muscular legs. Their red-dusted lizard bodies and long tails curve as they turn in half circles to check on their work of digging nests. It is a dance of red dragons. A big female rushes at a newcomer to the edge of the nest site. Not yet wearing her coating of red, this new one is slate gray and olive, dappled in aquamarine and turquoise blue. She is small and will have to fight extra-hard for space to dig. Near the center of the site two iguanas go nose-to-nose with their chins and bellies on the ground; rapidly bobbing heads to say, this is my nest! The determination to dig nests seems extra-fierce, as though the iguanas know how close they came to going extinct.

Once Jamaican Iguanas roamed the southern plains of the island in numbers so great that the region was called the Liguanea Plain, from the Taino word for iguana. Habitat loss, invasive mongoose, feral cats, dogs, and pigs brought these lizards to the brink of extinction. Most iguana species face a similar plight.

In our time of immense human suffering, we say, people first—but we must also realize that losing iguana species will impact every one of us, because biodiversity is crucial to the strength of the global web of life. Wildlife is crucial to our wellbeing because animals help us connect with our humanity. Some of us are bird or wolf or tiger people, others, elephant, dolphin, tortoise, or butterfly people, while still others, like me, are iguana people. Nobody wants to live in a world without their people.

A colleague who read my work told me, “I don’t even like lizards, but you make me love them in these parts.”


That is why I write.

Sebastian and me, 2009

Wendy Townsend has been featured on a podcast from WJFF Radio in the Catskills! Check out her interview:

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