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As a boy, I flew away to distant planets and fought the aliens in my mind . Up there I was the strong, brave Flash Gordon. I escaped the real world, if only for a few minutes. Then it was back down to Earth. BUMP!
sengoku (my old pet iguana)
Image by LHG Creative Photography
He got to 23 years old and about 6ft 3 inches, and was undoubtedly one of the longest lived and largest green iguanas ever seen in britain.
His early life was a massive struggle, he was bought in newport gwent from a filthy and tiny cage where he sufferred with maybe 40 other iguanas, I could only save one, so it was he that I chose, the one with greatest chance of survival.
He was anorexic for two years despite my giving him all I could, importing uv lights years before most people used them, the vivaria was thermostatically controlled and always perfectly regulated for temperature, even with seasonal values, and humidity, and basking was always available, I even had different fittings in similar locations so he could still control his temperature at night without even waking up. I even tested the thermodynamics of his viv to ensure the gradient was correct and that the ventilation was sufficient. I used vitamins,a balanced mixture of 3 different makes with extra individual components to balance them for different ages and biological states. I helped him heal from injuries, cure and recover from metabolic bone disease, salmonellosis, cryptosporidia, and protozoan ailments , stomatitis of the mouth, and premature antipericular gout, treated his skin for fungus, even cured an infection of the vent and hemipenis, and more unusaually still, a major imbalance of the lacrymal gland which meant he excessively sneezed salt and knackered his own ability to retain fluids. For two years it was totally touch and go , always another problem just because he had been imported badly . I bought some very expensive aloe based moisturisers for two years to keep his cracking skin supple and keep repeat fungal infections away. The bills hit quadruple figures in two years and thats even with me be able to do most of the medical aid myself and saving on labour costs and many veterinary price markups on drugs. After 2 years of ownership he sloughed perfectly every time from being given to me with the skin consistancy of lumpy porridge with cysts and severe symptoms of MBD, 18 months into ownership, after force feeds, and nearly dying on me he regained the will to live, and never looked back.
For the best part of 20 years his scales were glassy smooth, soft because he never scarred, but hard as stones, and from aloe massages to baths he was in such condition that even his neck studs were razor sharp and perfect, his sloughed skin parted in whole perfect sheets and quickly, his nails were hard as iron. A rotting swollen mouth was replaced by perfectly flush fit lips, strong teeth, his nosetip grew back, and I discovered he even had three nose horns. His jaw and subtympanic scale was so large I have never seen bigger. His bone structure was so good he had a flexibility in muscular movement I have never seen outside of a wild iguana, he could seriously bloody jump, five feet straight up, nearly 8 feet along, and when he ran, he could run as fast as me on his back legs,and swim much better, casually, effortlessly. He could crush up or stretch out like a cat, he didnt have the stilted stumbling movement I see in most captive iguanas, he moved with precision.
His bite power was transformed from risking a jaw break with a nip on a bit of cucumber to a bite that split a broom handle in half and even chomped through whole carrots, ripped into butternut squashes and chomped down whole bananas and could handle the toughest leaves. I would make him balanced daily meals of up to 22 different fruits vegetables and leaves, plus commercial formulas. I used supplementation from the beginning. It was the predatory temptations of locusts, waxworms and mealworms that finally broke his post trauma anorexia, and I had to work very hard indeed to up his vegetable intake. A year later though he was taking a 95% veggie diet happily, but I couldnt ever overestimate how much work that took. Tricks like stuffing a bit of romaine or banana in his face when he went to grab a locust so that he would get a taste for it , get used to eating it again. That cracked, he doubled in size vitually every year until he hit 6 foot.
In his life he had loads of freedoms, physically I almost never restrained him unless he was a bit territorial through spring and likely to bite people (no small thing a bite from an adult iguana – with his bite power and strong skeleton and well exercised muscles a square bite to your hand would break every bone in it, and leave you with fleshwounds like someone had a go at you with a hacksaw) and eventually our relationship grew and I do genuinely think we finally became friends, or at least achieved a retained mutual respect , the "I live, I am here, and I command my life" thing was mutually understood and appreciated. Sure we fought, but it was 99 times out of 100 ritualised, and he was testing me, and sometimes I picked up the game and tested him back. We found an accomodation of ego.
Somehow it seemed humanity was finally forgiven for the wrongs they inflicted upon him, for we had done him much wrong collectively, we sent some peasant out to capture him for pennies, we demanded perhaps unwittingly, that he be loaded into a crate together with other panicking members of his brethren, teeth claws, whipping tails and all, unfed , unwatered, covered in shite, denied the sunlight they love and need to live, put for endless days in transport, by truck, by boat, by plane, then loaded into dealers and warehouses alien environments, then finally to petshops where snotty nosed kids gawp and bang on glass. For an animal, surely even being eaten is less sufferring by a magnitude of many times.
Those days over, he would run to me, climb my arm willingly take food from me, even scout the fridge, he got in the shower with me, we went across fields and climbed trees together in the warmth of summer.We watched birds and people come and go and I knew that he felt alive when so many others in captivity did not. It pleased me because of what I was able to achieve for him, but I felt a deep shame towards my own race treating others of his species so very badly.
Somehow though, despite my doing all I could, it doesnt make the days of his capture ok , it was from me the best apology I could manage once I realised about the realities of the pet trade. I was young when I bought him, perhaps naive, because in the sale price of that single iguana I justified in one moment the torture the others went through, because I just paid the air fare of more of them. Now of course, I never would encourage the trade, though it is still so very hard to tear yourself away from an animal that you can save for the sake of a couple of hundred quid or much less. If we don’t agree to such trades though, the only way to stop them is starve them of cash, and make sure others do the same.
If theres one message Sengoku could give to you through me- its that. Lizard and reptile though he was and so alien to many, it is noneletheless the voice of one of the best friends and animal teachers in my life speaking , and I want you to listen.
He bit me a few times, and once nearly managed to remove my thumb, but to this day I still miss his head bobbing communications every morning, the way he would be part of my routine bumming around the house, watching TV (he had a thing for golf maybe just liked the green on the screen) and eating the houseplants (loved christmas cacti). I used to collect dandelions and hibiscus flowers for him the works.
His skeleton was one day taken in an x-ray, and he is the model for skeletal perfection used by vets to this day. He sired 60 sons and daughters, and taught me a new way of seeing and of appreciating animal kind and nature, a less human kind of appreciation where egos are left at the door and what you want yourself becomes less important.
I liked his uncompromising nature, but as a 30 pound adult iguana he would sit on me and we would sunbathe together and the level of communication was staggerring. From coming to me when I called him, to pointing out things in the view from windows to each other, head bobbing expressions of mood to each other,using eye communication to reassure from along the length of a room, to make and exchange judgements about people and situations, taking clues from me about whether to be calm or aggressive, relaxed or cautious, indicating where and when he wanted to go places, what he wanted to eat when he wanted to eat, the works.
I couldnt give him freedom but I gave him his reign unsubdued, his male ego was fundamental to him, to suboordinate it would have been unforgivable, and I think we learned mutual respect, and thats a much better fate than that which awaited most iguanas in this country who live in fear, and die from nutritional ailments, poor funding commitment, denial of sunlight, and temperature induced ill-health and the consequences of abnormal behavior caused by the stereotypical symptoms of fear and boredom from living in tiny boxes, and finally the biggest factor of all, one that pertains to all the other factors, that most people do not relate to reptiles properly and cannot see their needs in a timely and pre-emptive enough way with compassion enough to stand back and give them the space necessary for a successful life without a smothering love that is not real compassion. To provide without hope of reward, to give things grace.
He was finally balanced psychologically even when under natural sunlight, and he showed me that there is more to life than domestication. Not fleeing, but still going where he damn well liked. He also taught me not to underestimate the intelligence of a reptile. While his personality saw most of the emotional states that mammalian colonial animals have irrelevant, he was extremely intelligent. I wouldnt have put him far off an african grey parrot for smarts.
By far the biggest bugger about owning him was giving him sufficient vent for his incredibly high sex drive. Iguana courtship is violent as hell, he and his mating partner injured each other a few times, leaving me needing to perform stitches in one case, and introductions had to be carefully monitored. The eventual solution came in the form of a stuffed toy crocodile, and he used to ask for it when horny, drag it off and rape the crap out of it (well it was either that or the cushions on the sofa copped for it- or worse still, my arm!). Used to have to go and spray water on his bits cos he used to get stuck to it like a kid with his tongue stuck ion a freezer door.lol. They don’t tell you that bit in the manual.
What he showed me wasnt domestication, it was intelligent adaptation to circumstances. He was a reptilian genius who had all the initial fear to be anything but, that he overcame this, showed trust and an iron will, was to his immense credit as a species and as an individual, and he showed that while I had to fight hard for his life, he was still an example of natures perfection. I would rather he was a king of his time in the wild, for surely he had that potential, but I could never take him back to guatemala, (surely a loss for him and the iguana population of guatemala, he would have beena fine breeding male contributing to the survival of the species), the place he had been so foolishly ripped from, but I gave him all I could, and in return he taught me things most humans will never know.
It felt like being kings together, equals. He taught me about not only the nature of iguanas but about myself in response to them.
Even now after his death, I can walk past an iguana in a zoo, and ask them through bobbing language how they are, announce who I am , and even though their eyes are jaded from millions of chavvy onlookers they still respond to me. I never fail to feel the weight of that priviledge.Unfortunately its not human sentimentality that allows me to see that the first wish most of them express is that they would like to come to me and to be free, as if I could help them. It shames me that I can’t for I know in our lousy climate they will die outside their cages, and I would never harm our native environs by releasing one here. I wonder if perhaps I saw one caged in its own country if I would walk by, or perhaps just rip that damned cage open. I think I probably would rip it apart.
Even a gift given from a reptile can be a truly special thing.
I would never take back the time I had with him, but for the sake of his sufferring brethren , I hope never to see this species in a petshop again. Just too big, in nature they dominate a territory the size of a football pitch a totally three dimensional space, and they rule from the highest canopies, this species needs to be free. Its written in their nature, and to be mentally as exceptional as sengoku was is rare. Those not as strong willed and intelligent as he, those who have owners without an ounce of accurate empathic response and the willingness to become a bit reptilian will only ever suffer.
He died in his sleep, in a seasonal brumation period (yep thats right I even read local guatemalan daylight reports and gave him those hours and relative cool periods) from renal failure aged 23 years old (at least). He went to bed one evening at lights off, looking noticeably older than usual and never woke the following day,he died looking like a statue on his tree branch, all six foot of him in his arrogant and kingly pose stiff as a board, even in death he never reliquished his crown, or his authority. I, unlike so many others could never and would never have taken that authority from him. We reached an accomodation, he was never suboordinate to me mentally, and I would never have insisted he be so, this was no dog to be trained, you have to be so much more subtle than that. There are times when neither you nor they can deny what they are and the way it makes them act, and there are solutions other than dominance and sublimination of character. Sometimes its just impractical to fight those raging hormones. Found another old pic which nicely demonstrates that.
In life, even though it was a captive life, he was ultimately triumphant.
On a final note, if I have made iguana ownership seem prosiac or desireable, I should counter by saying that in every aspect of his life, Sengoku was hard work to help find a balance, he was at times physically dangerous, I copped for huge vet bills over the years, and in total I estimate he cost me through accomodation, feeding , heating and various other potions at least £1200 a year average to keep, a lifetime investment probably breaking the £25000 mark, his purchase price of around a £75 was as cheap as anything ever got, and the gifts of comminication and companionship he gave me didnt even begin to emerge for perhaps 5 or 6 years and they had to be consistantly worked at.
At his peak years of dominance he could be hell on wheels, and though I handled him fairly easily, I should also point out that I used to scruff badgers, deadly snakes, insects, handle dangerous dogs, catch deer with my bare hands and Sengoku still rated as one of the most formidable of them when he was in a mood. This is not an animal a layman will cope with well. A fit healthy fully adult green iguana is four times stronger than your average sick one in your average british home, he was muscle and persistance itself and could be genuinely vicious.
This is not a quick fix pet for child or adult. It isnt really a pet, and the smallest size I would recommend for housing one is basically the same size as a family lounge at least, basically a tropical house, not a vivarium in the conventional sense, and I say that hand on heart to stop others making the mistakes he and I made while learning, for I had to work most of this stuff out for myself. 20 years ago outside of the states good literature on this sort of stuff was just non-existant. Now we have to stop each other endlessly repeating mistakes.
I hope the sort of people that declaw cats and chop the balls of of everything, who carry small dogs in handbags, put fish in tiny bowls, who keep hamsters in sweaty little plastic pods, and those who leave their dogs alone all day and don’t walk them or work with them socially, those who put intelligent lizards and tortoises in tiny vivs, and snakes in tubs realize really just how damned far they are off the mark now. Whatever you read, whatever you know, from magazines to books and even scientific literature, exceed the minimum standards by as much as you can, and for gods sake choose your species wisely.
If you havent read anything at all, well just don’t go for it, because not only will you make mistakes but you could buy an animal totally unsuited to captivity, and never see what a sufferance its life can become.
There are lots of animal owners, an animal lover is an entirely different thing.
My most enduring memory of him will always be the day I was lying on my bed asleep to find myself awake with a warm sunbeam coming in from the window, and a warm 6 foot lizard on my chest with his face 6 inches from mine. I forgot to shut his enclosure properly, and being smart and dextrous he probably just used his claw like a human hand and slid the door open as I had seen him do many times before. I was probably overworked at the time, it wasn’t like me to forget the lock, but he wasnt being aggressive, in fact, given his weight and his razor claws he must climbed up and settled down on me very gently not to wake me, without doubt he didnt wish to disturb me. He could have been there already over an hour for all I knew but he seemed completely calm, just perhaps wanted to be close to something else living. He gave me a head bob as soon as he saw I was awake the "hi dude " sign. I gave a half bob back a sleepy kind of "yo", and yawned, he yawned back. The universal language for "lets just have a kip". He settled his chin into the base of my neck, I nodded off again and so did he, both happy in our sunbeam on a sleepy day, my hand on his tail and he not objecting, It was the day of complete trust when two powerful creatures who had not one reason to get on, or trust, decided that they would anyway. All fears of past and all ego settled, just friends enjoying a sleep in the sunshine.
To you my good buddy. Rest well.
Shapolsky @ the whitney
Image by DayDreamPilot
This kind of ‘Information Art’, I just don’t get! This exhibit is called "Shapolsky et al Manhattan Real Estate Holdings."…etc from 1971. It was first prepared for the Guggenheim museum in the 70’s, but was rejected by director Thomas Messer, who deemed it ‘inappropriate’ and said it was ‘an alien substance that has entered the art museum organism’. ha! i agree. I mean, a bunch of pages which were gathered from the city archives… are framed and put on museum walls, this is suppose to be art? what do you think.