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New sustainability director Nick Sussillo

The Great Wasp War
The call went out to the lads of Silver City: This means war!

Pay to Play
The fledgling Las Cruces Vaqueros' field of dreams

Kiss of the Prairie Dog
Black-tailed prairie dogs once numbered in the billions

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About the cover

  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e   July 2010

The Lizards Among Us

Becoming a New Mexican means learning to live with our cold-blooded neighbors.

Proof that I've finally become utterly acculturated to New Mexico scuttled across the living-room floor the other day: I really wasn't bothered by the fact that we had a lizard loose in the house.

I've written before in these pages about how our cats are champion catchers of lizards (not to mention snakes). Suffice it to say, then, that as the mercury has risen outside, so has the population of lizards inside — most commonly spied between the jaws of our younger cat, the Great Orange Hunter. We try to take pity on these captives, partly out of concern that if the cat did gobble them up we'd soon be cleaning up chewed, semi-digested, barfed-out lizard bits. The lizards seem unable to harm the cats in their own defense, but who knows what nasty vengeance they might inflict from the inside, post-mortem?

Retrieving captured lizards from our cats' mouths, happily, falls under my wife's job description. (I get to cook dinner, while she liberates lizards and unstops hair-clogged drains. Is ours a great marriage, or what?) So, as the summer has warmed, she's periodically found herself chasing the cat around the house in a sort of domestic "Wild Kingdom." ("Much as Lisa here seeks the security of a lizard-free house, Mutual of Omaha can help you achieve financial security in the event of life's larger surprises.")

Unfortunately, pursuit has the tendency to make the cat lose focus and, in the scramble to avoid capture himself, drop the lizard from his mouth. It's not merely that the lizard pulls its time-honored trick of shedding its tail. No, the Great Orange Hunter, a New Mexico native himself, has figured that one out — as evidenced by the detached tails we inevitably find about the house when a lizard has been caught. Somehow, even after the tail trick, the cat catches his prey; we've seen lizards (still alive, amazingly) with the cat's jaws firmly planted in their midsection and around their heads.

Or maybe not so firmly. As I said, when pursued by my wife, the Lizard Liberator, the cat tends to loosen his grip. While this is indeed the ultimate goal, it's better if it happens outside, with my wife holding the cat and gently shaking it until the lizard escapes back into the wild. When the lizard gets loose still indoors, that's not so good.

That's how, the other day, a lizard wound up skittering around on my wife's desk, around and behind her computer, where the cat had taken its prey in hopes of getting the privacy required to gobble it and barf it up. We enjoyed several exciting minutes as my wife, vowing loudly to clean the clutter on her desktop through which the rogue lizard was frantically scampering, attempted to recapture it. She's beyond such niceties as using a paper towel or oven mitt or tongs (all of which I, more squeamish, have employed when she's not around to fulfill her job description — the nerve!) to grab a lizard on the loose. Bare hands, that's all she needs.

With catlike grace, she lunged and plucked the hapless critter from behind her computer. Before the lizard knew what had happened, it was safely back outside to lick its wounds and begin recuperating from its close encounter with our cat.

Barely a day later, this scene was being re-enacted in the living room, where the cat unhelpfully reached the corner at which the CD shelves intersect the fireplace wall before loosing its grip on the lizard. If you're lizard-sized, there's plenty of room to simply disappear behind the CDs — something we neglected to consider when constructing these shelves (again, wife's job description). So there was a long moment when my wife, down on her knees in full lizard-retrieval mode (while I looked on from afar, vaguely offering unspecified assistance — hey, read my job description!), lost sight of her quarry.

That's when the thought scampered through my head: A lizard is loose in our house. We might not catch him — although the cats certainly would, sooner or later, with likely fatal results leading to a strong possibility of my stepping in a puddle of partly digested lizard while groggily going to make coffee the next morning. There might be a lizard in the house, doing whatever lizards do (hiding from predatory cats, mostly), for several hours, even days, if it kept its head down.

Now, I realize we might frequently have lizards in the house — must have, in fact, in order for the cats to capture them and thereby bring them to our attention by a combination of skulking and pride of possession. But the difference is that I'm unaware of these lizards. Heck, the house could be crawling with critters! As long as I don't encounter them, they do their business and leave, I'm fine with that. Ignorance, in the case of lizards on the loose, is bliss.

But knowing that a lizard is inside is the stuff of nightmares. How could I sleep, suspecting that at any minute a lizard — bent on revenge, no doubt, for its rough treatment at the paws of our cats — could crawl across the covers? Every minute in the kitchen, doing my job of fixing dinner, I'd be eyeing the floor for signs of scuttling. (Thus distracted, I'd probably chop my fingers instead of the onions. Damn you, lizard!) What's that sound, half-heard over the din of the TV? Is that the lizard? How could I enjoy watching "Whale Wars," knowing that a one-lizard invasion was going on in our very own house? (And maybe by now it's more than one! Could the lizard be calling its friends? "Get over here, everybody, we can take this guy!")

And yet I remained serenely calm as the lizard vanished behind our CD collection. (OK, true, part of me did think, "Time to switch to MP3s. Let the little bastard try to hide behind a bunch of bits and bytes!") Indeed, I briefly considered whether we (by which I mean, of course, my wife) should even bother further pursuing the poor thing.

Heck, I could see some advantages to having a lizard loose in the house. They eat bugs, don't they? And bugs are surely worse around the house than a lizard — which, let's face it, looks kinda cute. If we could somehow keep the cats from eating/barfing it, the lizard could be useful. Maybe I could train it to sit on the couch beside me and we'd watch "Whale Wars" together. We could chuckle at the gecko in the Geico commercials!

This little reverie was interrupted by my wife's shout of triumph as she barehanded the fugitive lizard. Before I could even try out my New Zealand-y gecko accent like in the commercials, our "house lizard" was exiled to the backyard. Goodbye, little buddy!

He's mending just fine out there — my wife has spotted a tail-less lizard, watching her when she works on the backyard chores enumerated in her job description. (We soon found the detached tail by the screen door. The cat got treats in lieu of lizard meat, with much praise for being a mighty hunter.)

But still, I wonder. When I take morning walks now, before the summer heat completely glazes the day, every shadow hides a scuttling and scampering. As my footfalls reach this yucca or that bush, lurking lizards dive for cover. Sometimes I can half-spy them, gray-green wraiths dashing through the dappled dirt.

"Anybody want to come home with me?" I consider calling out.

I walk on, instead, in silence. We have cats at home, after all.


David A. Fryxell is editor of Desert Exposure when
he's not practicing his gecko impression.



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