am generally not one to "anthropomorphize" animals but this experience from a few years ago really got me thinking.
It did not require too much prodding from my friend Randy to convince me to help collect some desert lizards from one of his field sites in the southwest. The animals would be captured, the tip of the tail retained for genetic research and then released unharmed. This is my kind of field work; chasing and noosing fleet-footed lizards and benefiting the scientific community in the process. As we drove up to the first field site near the Arizona California border, Randy spotted a chuckwalla on a rocky hillside. Chuckwallas are large, handsome lizards that can often be seen basking on rocky hillsides in the morning sun. If disturbed, they usually race under rocks and wedge themselves into a crevice, inflating their bodies like balloons. This practice makes it very difficult for coyotes and other predators to extricate and eat them.
This chuckwalla was perched on a ledge with his head raised and his body alert. He appeared ready to blast under cover if needed but he did not move as we walked up the hill toward him. When we got within a few yards, I reached out with the long bamboo pole and placed the soft nylon noose over the lizard's head being careful not to lose my footing on the rocks. I pulled back snugly with the pole, lifting the lizard into the air and off the ledge. I swung him over to Randy where he could be removed from the noose and processed. The animal was a magnificent male almost two feet long with a thick black body and red tail. Since he was a vibrantly colored specimen, we bagged him so I could photograph him later.
We spent the rest of the day collecting lizard tail tips from other localities and ultimately decided we had all we needed for the research. I spent a few minutes getting some pictures of the chuckwalla that we had bagged earlier. Even though we were 40 miles from where we had collected the lizard, I considered releasing him there since it was good chuckwalla habitat. After deliberating for a few minutes we hopped in the truck and drove the extra hour to take him back to his rocky outcrop. As I walked up the hillside for the release, I noticed another animal sitting on the ledge where we had collected the male. As I got closer, I realized that it was a female with very different coloration and patterning. I was amazed that the animal did not bolt under a rock even as walked to within twenty feet of her. I opened the bag, placed the little male on the ground and he crawled off. Now here is the really cool part. As he climbed up the hill, the female raced down to meet him. The lizards touched snouts and walked over the rocks and into a crevice together. I know what you are probably thinking. It was hot, the desert can make you see strange things, but I promise this is how I remember it.
On the drive back to Mesa, I had a horrifying thought. What if I had not taken that lizard back to his hillside? Was the female I encountered his mate, sibling or parent? I realized that lizards have specific microhabitats that are just as important to them as our homes are to us. Moving an animal out of its home range can have terrible consequences and even potentially lead to its death. This experience taught me the valuable lesson that any animal released back into the wild should be returned to its original site of capture whenever possible.