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About the cover

  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e   October 2008


Lizard Lounge

When the cats are away, the lizards will play — in our house.

Whenever one of our cats starts staring fixedly at some point inside our house, I worry. Sometimes it's over nothing: We used to have a cat who, as we put it, "saw Martians" when there was nothing there to see, and I'm pretty sure that now and then cats simply like to play the game of "made you look!" Usually, though, a staring cat has spotted some variety of icky prey and is pondering how best to kill it, eat just enough of it to be disgusting, maim it, play with it and/or present it to us in the bedroom with a prideful look on the cat's bloody-whiskered face.

One memorable night when we lived in Cincinnati, we caught the cats staring at a bulge in-between the staircase carpet and the wooden step, a bulge that turned out to be a mouse. That denouement involved a steak knife, considerable cursing and several holes stabbed into the carpet, and it was not pretty nor something we're proud of.

Years before, the "seeing Martians" feline dropped a wounded mouse smack in the middle of the gameroom floor for us to admire. The cat probably felt that we were inadequately appreciative of her efforts.

Since we don't let our cats outdoors, these mice and similarly dispatched critters all found their way inside to their doom. Thank goodness, we at least avoid "presents" of mangled birds toted into the house.

We have had snakes, however, since moving to New Mexico. Most unforgettably, one day our cat Peaches — who, being a frustrated would-be mama cat, liked to carry toys around in her mouth while humming loudly around the mouthful — was being particularly musical in the other room. Instead of her toy tiger tail, however, she was wrapping her mouth around a writhing little snake. We managed to rescue the snake and return it to the great outdoors, but never again took Peaches' happy humming for granted. (What's she got now?)

Lately, the object of our cats' attention has been New Mexico's official state reptile, the whiptail lizard. To be honest, though, we've been too busy rescuing the things from the cats and redepositing them outside — or, ick, failing to — to pay strict attention to the lizards' identifying marks. So I can't be certain which have been Cnemidophorus neomexicanus and which have been their whiptail kin, the Chihuahuan spotted whiptail (Cnemidophorus exsanguis), the checkered whiptail (Cnemidophorus tesselatus), the desert grassland whiptail (Cnemidophorus uniparens) or the Western whiptail (Cnemidophorus tigris). My handy-dandy Audubon Society Field Guide to the Southwestern States indicates that all are possible candidates for whiptail sightings in our corner of New Mexico. It fails to note, however, which are most prone to home invasions.

I can testify, in any case, that the whiptail lizard is well-named, as its long tail does tend to curl and coil like something Zorro might employ to flick a cigar out of Sergeant Garcia's lips. The whiptail's renowned ability to lose all or part of its tail in order to escape a predator has also been vividly demonstrated by our cats.

I think our first lizard in the house may have been back when we first had three cats, one of them belonging to our daughter and being fostered at our place while she supervised a no-pets college dorm. The cats' staring in this case was unmistakable, as all three were pointed at the same spot on the dining-room floor, perfectly triangulated on a hapless lizard intruder. My wife bravely tossed a dish towel over the lizard, strode in among the feline mob and swept up towel and reptile for a rapid return to the backyard.

Another time, we didn't actually spot the lizard until Frodo, our older male cat, had it in his mouth. Once again my wife came to the reptile's rescue, picking up cat and prey and carrying both outside — where she shook Frodo until he dropped the lizard from his jaws.

Are we nuts to return these rogue reptiles to the wild? My guess is that, once having slithered into our house and experienced the rough hospitality of our cats, the reprieved lizards want nothing to do with us ever again. Indeed, I suspect they pass the word through the local lizard community: "Stay away! Furry monsters live there!"

I failed rather spectacularly in this policy of reptile rescue, however, in the opening salvo of this year's late-summer lizard invasion. I blame the circumstances, which were surprising even by the standards of our cats' lizard encounters:

Frodo, you see, has taken to sleeping inside his fabric cat carrier. This would be the same carrier that, when forcibly placed inside and taken for a car ride to the vet's or elsewhere, he complains bitterly about being imprisoned within. Entered on his own volition, though, it's evidently a pretty cozy place for cat-napping.

A few weeks ago, I watched Frodo start to enter his carrier, head first (somehow he turns around), only to suddenly jump back as though zapped with a cattle prod. His front paws left the ground entirely and he retreated a foot back from the carrier.

Soon I saw why, as something long, thin and curvy slinked out of the carrier and attempted to escape down the hall toward the kitchen. In the dimly lit hallway, my first thought was that the critter was a giant desert centipede — about which I'd just been reading in the pages of Desert Exposure ("What's Bugging You?," August). I also recalled that this centipede bites and is poisonous. It might, in short, be as dangerous to the cat as Frodo wanted to be to the invader of his cat-carrier sanctuary. So I scooped up Frodo while doing my best to prevent whatever the creepy-crawlie was from gaining refuge elsewhere in the house.

Yes, I sort of stepped on it. There was a nasty crunching sound and an oozing feel under my foot, although whatever I'd squished didn't appear dead — yet. It wasn't going anywhere, though.

Closer inspection — still holding the cat aloft to keep it from snacking on the thing — revealed not a centipede at all, but yet another lizard. In its semi-squished state, I suppose I could have studied it for correct identification, but by this point I didn't want to look at it any more than I had to. Grabbing a wad of paper towels as insulation from ickiness, I plucked the lizard from our floor and tossed it out back. Barring the intervention of some reptile E.R. ("Tail regenerator and an IV of pureed flies, stat!"), I suspect it was soon in lizard heaven.

Picking up Frodo's carrier and shaking it to prove to the cat — and to me — that the carrier no longer harbored any other wildlife, I soon realized why the lizard had looked centipede-like: Part of its tail fell out of the cat carrier. Frodo must have gotten in one good strike, causing the whiptail to leave behind its calling card.

Then just the other day, I caught Pippin — our younger, sprightlier cat — eyeing the sill of the open front door with suspicious intensity. At first I thought he was staring out the screen door, but when I approached he made a run for it with — he thought — his prize quarry. In fact, Pippin carried only the lizard's tail into the TV room, where we later found it.

The lizard itself, still very much alive and squirming, made a beeline for behind the small table we use to stack incoming mail. Rather than swat it with the latest Pottery Barn catalogue, I hollered for help. I'd learned my lesson about stepping on lizards — and, besides, this time my wife was home.

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