Animal Wisdom: Connecting People and Animals

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GILA MONSTER: Discerning Fact from Fiction

A striking sight with her beaded skin of pink and black, Gila Monster blends well into her desert home in Arizona. This sluggish-seeming lizard intently flicks her tongue to detect a tasty mouse. At other times, She adroitly climbs the cactus with her sharp claws to hunt for perching birds. Tasting the air with her forked tongue, Gila Monster finds Desert Rat, and quickly chomps down with her vice-like jaws. Then She swallows her paralyzed victim whole and head first.

Gila Monster with her Brother – Mexican Beaded Lizard – are the only venomous lizards (Helodermatidae) in the world. Because of their venom and forked tongues, Gila Monster (Heloderma suspectum) and her Brother (Heloderma horridum ) are distant relatives of snakes. These two lizards are also close relatives to monitor lizards (Varanidae), who possess poisonous saliva, and could be ancestors of snakes. These two beaded lizards have an ancient ancestry, extending back to the mid-Cretaceous.

Contrary to popular belief, Gila Monster uses her venom for defense and not to hunt with. When She is angry, Gila Monster will open her mouth very wide and hiss. When She does this, her venom is pumped from her salivary glands into her grooved teeth. Thus when She bites Coyote, and clamps down hard, her venom flows into his wound. Locking her jaws, Gila Monster will hang on until Coyote howls in pain. After making her point, She then lets go. Learning his lesson, Coyote limps off.

Reclusive Gila Monster spends much of her time in her burrow. Digging deep with her heavy claws, She creates a snug home for herself. In the extreme heat of summer and cold of winter, Gila Monster rarely leaves it. The springtime is when She feasts. The rest of the year, Gila Monster lives off the fat contained in her large wide tail. (Her tail acts like a camel’s hump, storing food instead of water.)

Poorly understood, Gila Monster is the subject of many myths. More than that, these stories about Her are presented as facts. For example, Gila Monster does have powerful jaws and a tenacious bite. From this comes the legend, “Once She clamps her jaw on something, Gila Monster will not let go before sundown.” That is patently untrue. Other myths state that Gila Monster can kill with her bad breath, and has no anal opening. None of these silly stories are true, but they often get repeated as facts.

Another legend informs people that Gila Monster is a killer. Yes, her venom is toxic, but a human can easily avoid her bite. Old timers in Arizona say that only an idiot gets bitten. They add that said idiot would have to place Her on his bare leg, then annoy Her until Gila Monster bites. In other words, the said idiot would want to be bitten.

Sluggish in appearance, Gila Monster can suddenly turn and bite, usually when She senses a tasty meal. She warns those who would disturb Her, so that they leave Gila Monster alone. Separating fact from fiction is what Gila Monster teaches. Inspired by her tenacity, you can hang on for the truth. Before repeating something, discover whether it is false first. Some fiction comes disguised as the truth. Do not be an idiot counsels Gila Monster.

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Virginia Carper, a Roman Polytheist, lives in the Washington D.C. area with her family. She navigates life with a traumatic brain injury which gives her a different view on life. An avid naturalist since childhood, she has a blog called “Nature’s Observations.” Having experienced the animals directly, she teaches on-line classes about the spiritual and natural aspect of animals. She has published articles on her brain injury, Roman polytheism, and working with extinct animals. In addition her writings on animals (including dragons and other mythic creatures) can be purchased her book site, Animal Teachers.  


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