by Vera Marie Badertscher, Arizona Highways, January 2003
A flash of misplaced color halts my mad rush to do chores. Who dropped that black and salmon beaded bag on my green garden hose? Stretching into an oblong with fat legs, the bag transforms into a Gila monster. When Southern Arizona bakes in the oven of summer, even the tiny reservoir of water inside the tip of a hose lures desert animals. The largest and only poisonous lizard in North America has bellied up to my bar.
I freeze in fascination, not dread. If you run from danger, you may miss beauty. The “beaded bag” stretches one stubby leg, then another. Slow progress. Up and over the first coil of hose. Over a second coil. It finally lugs his 15-inch body onto level ground and starts an erratic path around the swimming pool.
The lovely creature shows no fear of the human looming nearby. Nor does it seem inclined to fight over water rights. It trudges toward a patch of dirt 3 feet away. The border of the pavement presents a dilemma. One foot rises. Head swivels. The thoughts in the lizard brain plod even more slowly than the stubby legs. Rejecting a change of surface, the foot returns to pavement and resumes the meander around the swimming pool.
Engrossed in the pilgrimage of this beautiful creature, I wonder why it is called “monster?” Does the reticulated coloring offend those looking for symmetry? Ragged bands and blotches sketch mystical maps around the chubby body. Small dots of contrasting color scatter like islands between strips of dark continents. The color scheme of bright salmon-orange and black shouts, “Don’t mess with me.” From its short, thick tail to its broad head, this is a creature of heft and substance.
The Latin name, Heloderma suspectum, reflects the impression given by this animal: the Greek heloderma, studded skin; suspectum: suspected to be poisonous. In Mexico, both the Gila monster and the beaded lizard are called “escopión” or “spitter,” because of the misconception that these lizard cousins spit venom at their enemies.
Frightened by the oversized lizard, Territorial settlers made up gruesome tales, which launched the Gila monster’s nasty reputation. Every time one clamped its jaws onto a person and refused to let go, the lizard’s legend grew. A 1959 book snarls, Gila Monster: Boris Karloff of the Desert.
I’ve seen one hiss when disturbed, but his fits of pique are rare. A Gila monster will defend himself, but it’s not itching for a fight. It does not have to battle the eggs, baby birds and rodents he eats. Gila-phobic people can relax. People are not on this monster’s menu.
Of the 40 or 50 Arizonans bitten by Gila monsters in the past five years, only a handful had to spend the night in the hospital. The bites hurt, but no one dies. Rule one: Don’t put your hand or foot where your eyes can’t see. Rule two: Don’t hassle a Gila monster and it won’t hassle you.
Since Gila monsters spend up to 98 percent of their lives underground, most people never see one. I am amazed at my good fortune. Look for Gila monsters where paloverde trees and saguaro cacti grow. In late May and early June they will emerge from their dens seeking mates. Then they pop underground again, subsisting on small rodents that make a wrong turn and enter the Gila’s hiding place. Snug in their hidden homes, they can exist on only two or three meals a year. The female lays three to five eggs in late fall or winter. The male plays couch potato in his separate den.
It takes 45 minutes for the lizard to meander around my swimming pool, and ever-so-tentatively drop down through a drain hole to the desert below. A detour across 10 feet of desert to the shade of a mesquite bosque adds 20 minutes to his itinerary, and more time for me to contemplate this latter-day “dragon.”
I’m looking at the unique skin, a feature shared by extinct dinosaurs. The Gila monster’s “beads” are actually rounded scales, each covering a small bone. This armor led to the myth that it is impossible to kill. “Can’t cut him, can’t beat him to death, can’t even drown him,” the old-timers say. The myths grow from his primitive defenses. When it bites, attempts to pull it off will make it bite harder. Under water his respiratory system will drop into low gear. It lumbers slowly through life and even more slowly toward death.
Quail are quicker. As the Gila monster approaches the shrubs around the mesquite, one…two…six Gambel’s quail scurry out. The quail, chattering shrilly, hop, strut and dart around the lizard, staying a discreet 2 feet away. The feathered cowboys herd the intruder away from their nest. Their eggs and young offspring are the Gila monster’s favorite meal, and the birds know it.
Unruffled, the marauder plots a tranquil alternate route, putting up with full sun for a little longer. The Gila monster crosses another 12 feet of dirt. It’s now in the home stretch, heading for its subterranean den in a rocky patch under a cholla.
Looking at it, I see colorful art, not a Saturday matinee monster. I’d like to rename him. A Tohono O’Odham myth appeals to me more than the wild tales of the settlers.
Indians and animals were invited to attend the first saguaro wine festival. Of course, party goers wore their best. Gila monster, not wanting to be dowdy like some lizards, gathered bright pebbles and tossed them over his back, making a durable and beautiful coat.
Let’s call it the pebble-coated lizard. In the Sonoran Desert, the Gila monster glows in Technicolor.