All About Tegus

Sometimes, you just have to write a follow-up. This is one of those times. Last week’s column about a tegu on the loose in my neighborhood elicited a huge response and so many questions that a second chapter was definitely called for.

First, how does one pronounce “tegu”? The answer I came across most often was “teh-goo,” with a slight emphasis on the first syllable. Tegu lizards are native to South America. The one lost and found in my neck of the woods is an Argentine black-and-white. Tegus can grow to be five feet long and weigh up to 20 pounds. They have powerful jaws, sharp teeth, thick claws and a long, strong tail. They feed on fruits, invertebrates, small mammals, carrion and eggs.

Because they can run at high speeds and charge, bite and use their tails as a weapon, tegus have only a few natural predators. These include cougars, birds of prey and big snakes. Also humans, who hunt tegus for meat and leather.

Those are facts that can be found in any encyclopedia. But they address only a few of the many questions that arose when my neighbors and I captured a three-foot long tegu on our quiet cul-de-sac a couple of weeks ago. For starters: Do people really keep these critters as pets??? Yes indeed. Though many kinds of lizards— from geckos to iguanas— are sold as pets, tegus are among the most popular.

The second question: Why? Well…according to folks who have pet tegus, they’re intelligent, non-aggressive (if adopted and gentled at a young age), mellow (if not harassed), relatively inexpensive (averaging around 200 dollars) and long-lived (up to 20 years if well cared-for). Tegus require a large enclosure with tall sides and a top, bedding that can be burrowed into (tegus brumate several months a year) and a steady heat source. They thrive when handled on a regular basis and allowed to explore their owner’s house and yard, though (obviously) it’s best to keep an eye on them.

Last but not least: How did my neighbor Whitney come to have a tegu? And how did it get loose?  Whitney lives just up the road from me. She’s an emergency room nurse and the mom of young children, so she works odd hours and sleeps when she can. It was while Whitney was napping that the tegu, whose name is “Fatty,” escaped the reptile room. He shares that space with a bearded dragon, a ball python and two other tegus. Whitney had opened the window to air out the room, as she does most days. Fatty somehow climbed from his cage, pushed out the window screen and went for a walk in the wide, wide world.

If you don’t know what happened after that, check out last week’s column at

Whitney welcomed me to her home and we sat on the screened porch to talk. Fatty sat with us, relaxing on a blanket in the corner. Whitney told me she had loved amphibians and reptiles—from frogs to turtles to snakes to lizards—since she was a little girl. “It’s always been my dream to have a tegu,” she said. “Now I have three!”

We talked about Fatty’s tail, about half of which came off when he was pulled from under a storage shed. “That’s known as ‘dropping a tail’,” Whitney said. “It’s a defense mechanism lizards use when they’re threatened.” She said Fatty is putting lots of energy into growing the tail back, which means he’s sometimes grumpy and lethargic. But there’s no infection and he’s taking pain medication. He’s also feasting—I watched him–on freeze-dried baby quail, which helps with healing, so he should be back to his old cheerful self very soon.

His new tail will likely never be what it once was, and that’s okay with Whitney. She’s just glad to have her dear tegu home.

(August 19, 2023)