“He was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen--brilliant green and almost three feet long,” says George Turner. “But, of course, I bought him for the boys.” Turner, an amateur paleontologist, and his four sons have had the usual run of furry, cuddly pets. But Gulliver possessed a different sort of charm, a charm that earned him an honored place in the family’s history: “We would come home and find him draped over a valance or up on a bookcase,” Turner remembers. Gulliver was an Iguana tuberculata , or tree iguana.
Being a vegetarian, Gulliver ate much like a rabbit. And though he didn’t bite, he did have sharp toenails--the better to hang from the drapes--so Turner occasionally showed up at the magazine where he worked with lizard scratches on his arm.
Iguanas are normally docile, but they can be persuasive. Turner recalls that when Gulliver was irritated he slapped you with his tail. Since an iguana’s tail represents more than half its body length, it was a slap to remember.
Like all reptiles, iguanas are coldblooded, and Gulliver’s day typically began with a sun bath in the window. Yet despite his fondness for basking, he could move like lightning when he needed to. It was inevitable that he would try, someday, to make a break for it.
“My son David, then 12, called me at work. He was crying and sobbing that he couldn’t find Gulliver,” says Turner. “I told him, ‘OK, calm down. I’m on my way.’ ”
By the time Turner reached home, the boys had searched the neighborhood for Gulliver, without any luck. Turner tried to think like a tree iguana in a suburb, and gathered his sons around him under a big elm in their front yard.
“Gulliver is up in that tree,” he said. “We just can’t see him right now.” They all stood there, craning their necks, watching for some sort of movement. Finally they spotted him near the very top of the tree.
Lowell, Turner’s oldest son, was sent up with a saw to cut down Gulliver’s branch. Turner stood below, ready to catch both branch and lizard. “It was all I could do to keep from buckling when I caught that branch,” Turner remembers. “Gulliver was a little shaken--but in a flash he was off again.”
This time, Gulliver took off on two feet. “It was the damnedest thing I ever saw. He looked just like the new paintings of the dinosaurs. His front feet were pulled up in front of him and he held his tail high in the air.” Turner and his sons chased after Gulliver and caught him on his way up a neighbor’s tree.
Iguanas don’t purr, nor do they beg at the table. Their economic value is limited. But for a modern father and his sons, who could only dream of the age of dinosaurs, Gulliver was a living link to the prehistoric past. He was a survivor. He knew his place. You couldn’t cuddle him, but you could respect him.