CHICAGO – Nobody who smells of dead mice and rats is allowed to go into Faust’s enclosure.

That’s a hard and fast rule for keepers at the Shedd Aquarium’s temporary exhibit of lizards from around the world. Faust, an 8-foot-long Komodo dragon, normally is pretty friendly with the people who clean his habitat daily. But a forgetful keeper who had fed other carnivorous lizards before visiting Faust would risk being mistaken for lunchmeat and attacked.

The “smelling like a rat” rule is just one of many that the exhibit’s principal keepers, Ray Owczarzak and James Clark, have imposed on the staff caring for the 25 lizard species that populate the exhibit.

To keep the animals alive and themselves safe, the keepers have to be mindful of the peculiarities of each lizard species.

To begin with, the lizards are so different from one another that remembering when to feed them is a problem, let alone what to feed them.

Some are herbivores that get chopped salads prepared daily from collard and mustard greens, romaine lettuce, kale, strawberries, bananas and apples. Some are insectivores fed crickets, cockroaches and other living insects. Some are carnivores that eat just once or twice a week, getting live, wriggly mealworms or dead, defrosted mice, rats and rabbits.

Some are omnivores, eating all of the above.

The habitat that holds chameleons must be kept extremely humid, with lots of beading water dropping from leaves of plants they climb upon. That’s because although chameleons can crank each of their eyes around separately, allowing them to see forward and backward at once, they are unable to see water to drink or food to hunt unless it moves.

“Chameleons won’t drink from a bowl,” Clark said. “They have to be around dripping water that attracts their attention. If their prey stands motionless, just like T. rex in “Jurassic Park,’ they can’t see the prey to attack it.”

That’s life for one of the most popular lizards in the exhibit, an ambilobe panther chameleon that attracts visitors because of its vibrant colors. Native to Madagascar, its species is the one used as a model for “Louie,” the droll lizard that starred in swampy Budweiser commercials a few years ago.

For food, keepers supply chameleons live insects and wriggling mealworms, giving them moving prey they can see and stalk. That explains why the Shedd’s own “Louie” spends much of his day moving in bizarre, catlike slow motion – he’s hunting crickets.

Keepers use color-coded tape, attached to the service doors that open into each habitat, to remind them of the tendencies of the animals on the other side.

“Green tape means mellow; red means crazy; yellow means be a little careful, because the animal is mellow but will come to the door and possibly try escaping when we open it,” Owczarzak said.

The keepers have to be very careful not to startle some animals. The 4 1/2-foot glass lizard from Europe, a footless, legless lizard that looks exactly like a snake, will literally break in two if unduly alarmed. It detaches its tail when attacked by a predator, hoping the attacker will gnaw on that while the head and body squiggle to safety.

“Snakes have internal organs through the length of their bodies,” Owczarzak said, “but the last half of a glass lizard is its tail, with no internal organs in it.”

Glass lizards sometimes drop their tails in captivity, too, and the Shedd is hoping to keep its glass lizard intact until the exhibit closes Feb. 28 and the lizard goes back to its permanent home, the Cincinnati Zoo.

(EDITORS: STORY CAN END HERE)

When keepers open doors to work inside the exhibits, some of the animals gleefully approach them to play and beg for treats. South American basilisks, sometimes called “Jesus lizards” because they can run across water, dart to the door to greet keepers they recognize. The Australian bearded dragon likes to ride on Owczarzak’s shoulder.

Owczarzak said he is always a little extra attentive when he opens the service door to the Fiji banded iguana habitat, where for weeks he has been trying to evict one of the inhabitants.

It isn’t an iguana he wants to get rid of, but a brown anole that hitchhiked a ride to Chicago on the tropical plants in the exhibit, purchased by the Shedd from a Florida greenhouse. The staff created a display of other brown anoles it had caught in other exhibits, but this one remains at large.

“I’ve had it in my hands twice,” Owczarzak said. “But he keeps managing to escape.

“We don’t want him in there, simply because we can’t be sure whether Florida anoles carry bacteria or a virus or something that we don’t want the iguana exposed to.”

It is the bigger carnivore lizards – the ones that eat things as large or larger than whole mice – that often have strips of red tape on their doors.

Faust, a member of the biggest lizard species in the world – one that is known to dine out on humans when given the opportunity on its native Indonesian islands – is a case in point.

At least two keepers have to go into Faust’s 1,000-square-foot habitat every day to clean the premises and remove his stupendously stinky droppings. They do it early in the day, when he is still a little drowsy, and usually he is like a puppy, blissfully closing his eyes as keepers squat and stroke his head and scaly green neck.

Still, “we don’t ever let anybody who has been handling food for other animals to go there with him,” Owczarzak said.

(EDITORS: STORY CAN END HERE)

Komodo dragons are gluttonous feeders that like to eat a huge amount at once and then lie around for days while they digest the meal. At the Shedd, Faust gets a once-a-week banquet of several big, defrosted rats and rabbits, served from a gated doorway.

“We use a huge set of tongs from behind the gate, reaching in to hand him the animals, which he bolts down whole,” Owczarzak said.

They use similar care while feeding the South American caiman lizards and the Chinese crocodile monitor, both big, quick animals whose snapping jaws are filled with razor-sharp teeth.

Keepers rarely go in with the crocodile monitor because it could use its extraordinarily long tail like a whip at any moment. It gets fed rats and mice with tongs, instead.

So does the Gila monster, a poisonous lizard from the southwestern United States.

“There is no known anti-venom for Gila monsters,” said Owczarzak. “It’s rarely fatal, but it’s extremely painful and uncomfortable.”

The Gila monster, which spends most of its time hiding under a flat rock in its exhibit, gets fed a couple of dead mice twice a week. Holding the mouse with tongs, the keepers lure the lizard from the rock and make it run around a bit before giving the furry morsels.

“If you just hand the food to him under the rock, he might not ever come out. So this is a way to make him be a little more active,” Owczarzak said.



(c) 2006, Chicago Tribune.

Visit the Chicago Tribune on the Internet at http://www.chicagotribune.com/

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

—–

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): LIZARDS

AP-NY-06-04-06 0600EDT


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.