I think I've found my perfect mate. He's a six-foot South American who's also a strict vegetarian. Of course, our relationship won't be without problems. His skin sheds three or four times a year, and he won't touch his food unless I cut it up for him first. Oh, and he's not human -- he's an iguana. Want a reptilian roommate of your own? Here's what you need to know.
1Picking your pet
Green iguanas, the variety sold in American pet stores, have brilliant emerald or turquoise skin. Hatchlings may start out the size of your hand, but they'll grow and grow -- up to six feet long in some cases. Most live 12 to 15 years. It's best to choose one that's less than a year old, unless you find a domesticated adult that was raised by thoughtful owners. Signs of a healthy animal include bright skin, a round belly, a plump tail, and a mild but alert disposition. (The ideal candidate should be calm when you hold him -- though you'll probably have to restrain him a little.) There shouldn't be broken toes or nails, or discharge around the nose or eyes. The MARS Reptile and Amphibian Rescue in Baltimore (410-580-0250, www.reptileinfo.com/rescue.html) doesn't charge an adoption fee for its rescued lizards, though it does interview all prospective owners.
Depending how quickly he grows, your baby iguana can live in a 20- to 55-gallon aquarium tank for up to one year. After that, he'll need more spacious digs. Liz Palika, author of "Your Iguana's Life" (Prima Publishing, $14.99), suggests giving Iggy his own room -- just affix a full-length mesh or wire screen to the door. If that's not an option, Holli Friedland at MARS Rescue advises using a ferret cage. Or build your own from wire mesh: It should be about 8 feet high, as wide as the length of your iguana and twice as long as he is. (Detailed building instructions can be found at www.iguanaden.com.) Include plenty of climbing surfaces, such as driftwood, and keep it toasty -- about 94 degrees near the wood and 72 elsewhere. A heating lamp, UVA/UVB lamp and thermometers will help monitor and maintain temps.
3Food for thought
Iguanas are vegetarians. They can't digest meat or meat byproducts, such as those found in cat and dog food. In "The Iguana Handbook" (Barron's Educational Series, $11.95), registered dietician Patricia Bartlett suggests a diet of 45 percent root veggies (carrots, parsnips), 45 percent leafy greens, 5 percent fruit and 5 percent whole grains. Vitamin supplements are also important. Serve your reptile his food in a shallow bowl with everything cut into bite-size pieces -- iguanas use their teeth as tools, not for chewing.
Your pet's personality will be as colorful as his skin. Some iguanas are curious wanderers, while others give new meaning to the term "lounge lizard." Territorial by nature, most don't like other iguanas but do tolerate cats and dogs -- from a distance. The key to a happy animal? Frequent human interaction. Most iguanas love to swim, so give yours tub time at least once a week: Use lukewarm water (about 80 degrees) that's shallow enough for him to stand in while keeping his head above water. Training is also a good way to bond -- teach Iggy to eat from your hand or ride on your shoulder. Also show him off: You can put him on a leash and walk him around the neighborhood. He may not be a perky poodle, but he's probably the only critter on your block with a third eye peeping from the crown of his head.