By Jack Gurner
WATER VALLEY – Rumors of giant lizards roaming the streets of the city hopefully will come to an end after what is said to be the last of the escaped reptiles was captured Monday.
It was the final scene in a story that reads like the script from a bad 1950’s science fiction movie. But, for several area residents, the tale of the giant lizards was all too real. And, officials are hoping there won’t be a sequel.
Reports of sightings of everything from alligators to iguanas to monitor lizards have circulated in the area for several weeks. One report said that a creature fitting the description had been run over on the Hwy. 7 bypass.
Nancy Fachman, a full-time wildlife rehabilitator with Mississippi Wildlife Rehabilitation, Inc., said that she had received numerous phone calls about the creature.
She said a woman called about two weeks ago and said that she and her husband had seen an iguana on the road. “They had seen it before out on the bypass.”
The woman said that it was moving much faster the first time. This time it was moving slowly. “She wanted to know if I could do anything,” Fachman said. “She was concerned that it might starve.”
Fachman drove out to the bypass and although she didn’t find the lizard, she did encounter a motorist speeding the wrong way down the shoulder of the road. He had seen it and was coming back for another look.
Not long after, Genora Holloway was coming out of the garage at her home on Wise Street and spotted a creature in her front yard. “He wasn’t but about 15 feet away and I thought, ‘My God, what is this, an alligator.'”
She called to her son, Steve, who captured it with a dip net. “I put him in a plastic container,” Holloway said. “I put it in my shop and I went back out there and he got out and scared me to death.”
“He was standing right there at the door when I walked in,” Holloway said. “He was two and a half to three feet. He was big. He was mean.”
Holloway enlisted the help of Mike Williamson who contacted a conservation officer from the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks. The officer took the lizard to Jackson to the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science in Jackson.
Bryan Fedrick, an aquatic biologist with the museum, told the Herald that he turned the tegu lizard over to a wildlife rehabilitator in Jackson who is trained to handle exotic animals.
On Monday, June 8, reports began to reach the Herald that one or more giant lizards were spotted in the Wise Street area near the intersection with Lafayette Street.
The next day, Animal Control Officer William Beard was called to the area after one of the lizards was spotted crawling into a storm drain on Lafayette Street near the Poultry Plant.
Beard had been working on the case for several days and had spent several hours of his personal time searching. Although he wasn’t able to find the lizard he was able to locate the original owner of the creatures, Eric Lago.
Lago is a herpetoculturist, defined as one who keeps reptiles and/or amphibians in captivity, sometimes for the purpose of breeding. This is in contrast to herpetologists, who are engaged in the scientific study of reptiles and/or amphibians.
Lago’s father is Paul K. Lago, a biologist currently serving as chairman of the Biology Department at Ole Miss. “I grew up with my Dad going all over the world collecting bugs,” the younger Lago said. “I grew up in the shadow of Dr. Kaiser at the university who was the herpetology professor. He taught me everything I know and I took it to a more commercial level. There’s a big demand for a lot of this stuff.”
Lago lives on County Road 109 just outside the Water Valley city limits. He told the Herald on Wednesday, June 10, that he had a tegu lizard break out of an enclosure in his back yard about six weeks previous.
He described them as being a powerful lizard, but not particularly dangerous. “They are more defensive than aggressive,” He added. “Just like anything else, if you corner something it is going to come after you defensively. For the most part they are just going to run away.”
“I think I had ten total here,” Lago said. “I put them in this fence I had constructed. But, didn’t really take into account how rotted this fence had become over the years.”
“They actually climbed up and pushed their way out one of the planks I had sealed up from the other side. It was a secure enough enclosure until they broke out of the wood. There are no more in here. They are basically all gone.”
Lago, who sells animals on the reptile show circuit and online, is well known in that business, according to the information on the Internet. He purchased the tegu lizards from a dealer who is going out of business, Agama International of Montevallo, Alabama.
“There were two that actually got out. I said one because I knew that one had been picked-up already,” said Lago, referring to the one captured by Holloway. “They are a really strong-bodied lizard. They’re not given to climb. But, they are given to push and test the limits of their cage, which I found out, unfortunately. I don’t have anymore and I don’t plan on getting anymore.”
Lago said that he raises mostly geckos. But he also has bearded dragons, skinks, barn snakes, painted chubby frogs, and even some insects and spiders. All are kept in a secure facility on his property.
Although he has snakes, he said that he stays away from the big ones like Burmese Pythons. “My collection is for the most part small stuff,” he added. “If it is a non-native exotic reptile you don’t need any special permits to keep it in Mississippi short of anything that is USDA regulated.”
The final chapter of the saga began to unfold last Friday when Loretta Spence saw the tegu on County Road 109 as she was driving home just before noon. She reported the sighting and Beard was given permission to go outside the city limits to assist the Sheriff’s Department with the search.
By the time Beard and deputies arrived, the lizard had managed to get away. However, a search was conducted of the area near the sighting. “It scared me to death,” said Spence, who described the creature as being about a foot and a half long.
There were no reports over the weekend. But, around 11 a.m. Monday one was seen on the Hwy. 7 bypass at the intersection with North Main Street.
Officer Nathan Noe reported that he had spotted the lizard and was standing by at that location. Noe put a windbreaker jacket over the tegu after being told that it would cause the creature to hunker down and not move.
Lago was called to the scene since he had offered to help capture the lizard. He arrived along with backup from the Police, Sheriff’s Department, and Animal Control.
Lago grabbed the jacket and quickly had the lizard under control. He dropped it into what appeared to be a pillowcase and tied the top.
Lago told officers on the scene that out of the original 13 he had, three had escaped. He said one was killed on the highway, one was captured on Wise and the last one was in the bag.
Beard, who normally ends a animal chase by saying that it is all in a day’s work, just shook his head.