Portrait of an Iguana by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen

While celebs lead the pet-reptile rampage, Winged Iguana helps prevent cold-blooded murder

By Michael Collins

Los Angeles magazine – January 1998

AN IGUANA CAN SLICE THROUGH human skin with its long claws or break your arm with a whip of its tail. If it goes for your nose with its razor-sharp teeth, you might need plastic surgery to repair the damage. But despite these risks, iguanas are crawling into the living rooms—and hearts—of Angelenos from Beverly Hills to Buena Park. Thousands of the beasts will be exchanged as gifts during the holidays, but when hapless new owners realize how tough lizard love is, many will try to unload the creatures on pet stores, abandon them in fields or, if they’re small enough, flush them down the toilet.

Before they started clogging Malibu drainpipes, lap lizards roared into mass popularity with the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park. More than two million green iguanas have been removed—many of them by poachers—from their primarily Central American native habitat and brought into the United States in the past five years, and 2,000 legally slither through customs at LAX every week, according to the Reptile & Amphibian Rescue Network. Los Angeles County now contains an estimated 450,000 iguanas. Others try to warm their blood in the Hollywood limelight. John Travolta has an “ig,” as does Burt Reynolds. Jim Carrey hired a special cook for his iguana on the set of Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls. Shelly Duvall recently had to leave a film set and rush her reptile to the animal hospital for surgery on a prolapsed intestine.

Winged Iguana is trying to keep these scaly reptiles—and their owners—from getting tied up in knots. Founded in 1993 Joleen Lutz and her husband, Danny Hart, the Burbank-based group provides free workshops covering all aspects of human-iguana relations and has more than 70 of the green companions available for adoption. Winged Iguana’s mission, however, is not to put a lizard in every household; Lutz and Hart hope to keep the animals off the wish lists of trendy Southlanders who think high maintenance means getting a tune-up for their Range Rover. “Once we make any animal our pet, we destroy its natural abilities to survive in the wild,” says Lutz. “They are not toys we can play with.”

Lutz and Hart used to be green with iguana ignorance when a friend gave them a four-inch baby lizard five years ago. Now measuring more than four and a half feet long and weighing 19 pounds, Lord Osbourne is potty-trained, has learned to open the screen door to let himself out and has even cavorted with a miniature dachshund a block away from home. “Iguanas are truly wonderful animals,” says Lutz, an actress and former Chicago Bulls cheerleader who played the wacky stenographer on Night Court and the sheriff of Smallville on Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. “They are pets for someone who has a lot of time, energy and patience.”

At Winged Iguana workshops, giddy new and prospective owners blanch when they learn their curtain-climbing friends need more than fruit cocktail and a plant light. The proper iguana environment includes a large cage with plenty of climbing branches and a temperature held constant between 85 and 95 degrees with high humidity and daily exposure to unfiltered sunlight. Their strict vegetarian diet demands lots of parsley but absolutely no rhubarb, and twice as much calcium as phosphorus.

The little green monsters gobble greenbacks, too. An adult iguana can run up a sizable grocery tab during its gluttonous summer season. Then there’s the fancy equipment like UV lights and decorative rocks. Elaborate veterinary care is likely: Calcium-deprived iguanas often develop metastatic bone disease, while a pregnant female may experience egg binding, which can necessitate cesarean section and a hysterectomy. Even spaying a female runs $400. “Just like Barbie dolls,” warns Hart, “the retail price of the iguana itself is a fraction of the money you end up spending.”