With time it built a reputation. It slithered around and under homes in Balboa Coves, appearing and disappearing like the lead in a low-budget Loch Ness monster movie.
It frightened homeowners by showing up on their patios to sun itself and arrogantly flicking its long forked tongue.
They called it the “thing.” They thought it might be an alligator. Stories flourished that the lizard-like creature was able to sneak up on unsuspecting ducks and eat them with a single gulp.
“It was like a fisherman’s story,” said resident Dave Van Drimlen, 33. “It kept growing and growing, and at one point it reached 6 foot long.”
Well, Saturday they captured the “thing” in Balboa Coves in a vacant lot about 500 feet from Newport Bay.
“I’m glad it wasn’t 6 feet long,” noted Van Drimlen just after he almost stepped on the creature as it hid in the ice plant and bushes.
The “thing” turned out to be a Nile monitor lizard. At best it is 3 1/2 feet long and weighs 7 pounds. The animal’s name, according to the person who showed up to claim her, is Cleopatra.
“She’s been missing since July, 1987,” said Steve Crothers, 31, who lived on Newport Island when his lizard escaped. “She got out of her cage and jumped from the second floor and disappeared.”
Crothers, who works for the Long Beach Unified School District, said he contacted Newport Beach animal control officers in December when he read a story in The Times about sightings of the creature. “It sure sounded like my lizard.”
On Saturday, Newport Beach Senior Animal Control Officer Bill Lyons knew exactly whom to call when he captured the lizard with an instrument resembling tongs.
When Crothers was contacted by The Times later in the day, Cleopatra was on the kitchen table being watched by his wife and daughter in their Costa Mesa home. He said a lot has changed since the lizard walked out on him 19 months ago.
Apparently the wild life did not agree with Cleopatra. In captivity, she weighed 15 pounds, Crothers said. On her own, faced with the challenge of finding her own fish, birds and bird eggs, she lost 8 pounds.
Lizards like her come from the Nile River region of Africa and are accustomed to tropical weather, Crothers said. He said he talked to a person with a zoological society who was amazed that Cleopatra had survived on her own.
“I would like to sell her,” Crothers said. “I paid $150 for her at a pet store and I’m willing to sell her for $75. She’s lost about half of her body weight and I am willing to sell her for half-price. I really can’t keep her.”
Does Cleopatra remember him? “She hisses at me and slaps her tail the same way,” Crothers said. “But I don’t know if that means anything.”
Lyons, the animal control officer, said Cleopatra was first sighted about 11 a.m. Saturday. The lizard disappeared again, but was relocated when resident Van Drimlen, who was helping in the search, almost stepped on her. Lyons used the tong-like instrument to hold the lizard in the neck just behind the head.
The lizards are very shy, Crothers said. They are not aggressive. “I was very surprised when they called and said they had captured the lizard. I really did not think I would see her again.”
And so the mystery is over for the residents of Balboa Coves.
Beth Curtis said she can’t wait to tell her neighbors that the “thing” has a name, Cleopatra, and an owner, Crothers, and a new home--in Costa Mesa.
“I think it really scared some people.”