Pat Riley is not a religious man.
"But Eegads is a gift of God," he says. "Iguanas are some of the most beautiful creatures. He is like a living piece of art to us."
This gift of God is being pulled around the Rileys' home on a towel and he is ecstatic, his mouth open in approval. When this play is done, Eegads climbs up a ladder ramp to his window ledge, tucks himself on his heating pad under his full spectrum UV light and waits for breakfast: a large salad of fruits, vegetables, and greens prepared by Laura Ames Riley. Eegads adores strawberries and melon."He is pretty keen on what is fresh, and I also shop for as much organically grown produce as I can," Laura says. "With their tiny little bodies consuming that much produce I can only imagine the cumulative effects of chemicals."
As he quietly waits for his salad of love Eegads' beauty and grandeur dominates his room, which is also the Rileys' bedroom.
Eegads is 12 years old, 14 pounds and five feet long from head to tail. He has spikes along his back and tail, a parietal eye on his head, also called a third eye, and a segment of skin called a dewlap that hangs below his chin.
When an iguana extends his dewlap he can be saying hello or making himself seem larger to fool predators. Extended it also creates a larger surface area to take in heat for the cold-blooded reptile.
An artist with a thriving art conservation business, Laura said Eegads inspires her.
"You can only imagine that a person's work doing art conservation requires focus, patience, and calm. I get all of those things from Eegads. He brings being in the moment to a high art form," she explains.
Eegads sleeps on the bookshelf headboard of the Rileys' bed. As evening creeps in, he climbs up and gets settled leaving his tail hanging. He likes it rubbed before he goes into what Laura calls his deep lizard sleep.Iguana people
The Rileys had no idea they were iguana people.
Indeed these animals are not good pets and if iguana advocates had their way, there would greater legislative oversight protecting their import and sale. Too often new owners are ignorant of iguanas' complex needs or how dangerous they can be.
Darry Conner helps run Triangle Iguana Rescue. When Eegads needed a home four years ago, she called the Rileys. With two prior iguana rescues under their belts, the Rileys had decided not take in another after their second had died. But Conner told them Eegads just needed a temporary home.
"I thought immediately of the Rileys because they are loving, caring, and realistic about what it takes to take care of a big iguana. They are willing to make the sacrifice to do what it takes to be excellent iguana caretakers," Conner says.
Iguanas can live to be 20 years old. The rescue has shifted its priority from rescuing to education, focusing on spreading its main concern - iguanas are not the best pets for most people."They get big, which people are not usually told. They need very expensive lighting. Owners need to spend an extraordinary amount of time with them to socialize them. Also females may need to be spayed to prevent or treat egg-binding and males may need to be neutered in order to avoid what can be very nasty seasonal aggression," said Conner, who with her husband Ted is guardian to Ivan the Magnificent, an 8-year-old green iguana rescued from a shelter.
If owners do things the right way, Conner estimated that an iguana's expenses are $1,000 the first year. They need a lot of space and despite their initial small size, they start out fitting in one's hand, Conner said putting an iguana in a tank is not acceptable for many reasons. The main one being that their parietal eye, which is sensitive to changes in light and detects motion, sees a hand coming into a tank and believes it is a predator.
"So if you have to reach into a tank all the time it traumatizes them into thinking that a big hand is not friendly," Conner says.'Your own dinosaur'
Conner and the Rileys met when the couple agreed to take their nephew's iguana Sweetie when he entered college. They turned to the rescue to learn about iguana care.
"Sweetie was so exotic that it reminded me of having your own dinosaur. Sweetie lived with us for three years and we weren't the brightest iguana parents in the world," Pat says.
One mistake they made was buying the conventional wisdom that iguanas get all their fluids from their vegetarian diet. "They need water," Pat says. Every morning Eegads climbs down from his bed and ambles into the Rileys' walk in shower, which is filled to its lip with water. He can spend up to two hours soaking.
He drinks water from a container Pat or Laura holds to his mouth. He will not drink from his soak water. He repeats the process at night, ambling out when he is done.
After a month of fostering Eegads, the Rileys told Conner they wanted Eegads for life if his owner could not take him back. So Eegads became a permanent Chapel Hillian. Eegads was nice but then got territorial after six months.
"He always allowed us to bathe, and water him and help him shed his skin but you could not walk up and pet him or he would nip. A nip from an iguana usually means stitches. Their teeth are so sharp it is alarming," Pat says. The Rileys had Eegads neutered and this did help some. "It may never be perfect," Pat says.
Iguanas do know how to say they are sorry. "Eegads makes a sighing noise and his whole body goes limp," Pat says.
The Rileys know their iguana education is never complete. Eegads would bob his head and the Rileys thought it was a form of iguana swearing. "But we discovered it was stop ignoring me and come over here. I may not want you to pet me but come talk to me and then maybe you can pet me," Pat says.
Green iguanas are native to Central and South America.
When he is allowed to, Pat will rub Eegads' belly and tell him that he knows how hard it must be to live in the human world.
Pat says, "He should be in the wild. I fully understand that although he gets everything he needs, it is like a prison to him. He is living in a human world and he is reptilian. We really really give him a lot of space."