Friday, June 6, 1997
Bite of the iguana hurts
area landmark

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Dinosaurs in The Lost World stomp San Diego. Up in Eden Park lizards are eating Krohn Conservatory.

As many as a dozen iguanas - including a 6-footer that just showed up one night - are devouring succulent plants, threatening to turn the city's greenhouse into a wiped-out salad bar.

"Two of them destroyed a hibiscus bush in a day," says Krohn's manager, Ruth Ann Spears.

The hilltop by the conservatory's waterfall has also been hit hard. "They've eaten so much up here," she says, pointing to leafless branches and empty patches of earth, "it's barren."

You may remember last year when one iguana - Waldo - was turned loose inside Krohn to become part of the living exhibit. The idea was to make the place more like a jungle. And they fed him so he wouldn't rely on the collection.

To keep him from being a lonely lizard, pet owners started donating iguanas. The conservatory stopped accepting free lizards when the number hit five. That's all the Krohn could handle.

The gang of iguanas now chowing down on Krohn's greenery are not part of the original group of five. They're unwanted and unsolicited drop-offs.

"We just had another drop-off last week and finally found the thing yesterday," Ruth Ann says with a sigh.

The Krohn's manager frets about the conservatory mistakenly becoming the "city's drop-off center for iguanas. People sneak them in - probably in back packs and purses - and let them loose." Seven walk-on iguanas brought Krohn's lizard population to 12 in April. But this week it's down to nine as three were placed with happy new owners.

The old owners are slipperier than their iguanas. After dumping their lizards, the pet lovers call up. They want to make sure the Krohn - and our tax dollars - are taking care of their discarded pets.

Ruth Ann Spears would like to take care of the owners. When she gets them on the phone, she asks for their name and tells them she intends to prosecute.

They hang up.

Krohn employees know the original group of five iguanas - Waldo plus Iggy, Louie Louie, Squirt and Elvis - by their markings and eating habits. The big lizards leave their hiding places to be fed at 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. They're wild about kale and leftover salads set out by the staff. These guys leave the pricey plants alone.

Waldo and Iggy, in particular, are not the least bit chummy with the newcomer iguanas. "Those two hide in the fern room," Ruth Ann says. "They don't socialize with the intruders."

You can't blame them. No one wanted to tangle with that 6-foot iguana. Not even Ruth Ann Spears. So she called the Krohn's iguana handler.

It happened the night in April while George Clooney was touring the conservatory. Krohn employees were told about a dead lizard across the path from the waterfall. The conservatory's manager and handler went to investigate.

"His head was buried in the dirt," Ruth Ann says, explaining that's what iguanas do when they're stressed out. "He wasn't moving. We thought he was dead."

The handler tugged on the iguana's tail. Nothing. Then he gave it a hard yank. The iguana came to life, whirled around and Ruth Ann screamed. Maybe George Clooney thought that scream was for him. The iguana heard enough and dived to the bottom of the goldfish pond at the base of the conservatory's waterfall. The lizard tried to stay there - which is what these things do when an enemy attacks.

After the handler dropped a net into the knee-deep water and wrestled the reptile to dry land, a woman - whose friend just had one of these pets go to iguana heaven - stepped up and asked if she could have the big lizard. No problem.

Ruth Ann does not know exactly how the 6-footer got into the conservatory. She thinks somebody shoved it through the wheelchair entrance at the back of the building.

Or maybe someone put a coat around him and walked him through the front door.

Either way, she doesn't want any more like him, big or small. Just in case, she's got a plan.

"Any more drop-offs and I call the meat market at Jungle Jim's," Ruth Ann says. "I'll tell them: Have I got an exotic deal for you."

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Available to speak to groups. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax 768-8340.