Deep in the jungles of the southern half of the eastern United States, a posse sweats through the undergrowth on the trail of an uninvited beast. The temperature is melting into the triple Fahrenheit digits, and hanging vines clutch like salesmen. The mosquitoes are so prodigious that two of them hold you down while the third one bites you.
Our quarry, down here in Toombs County, Georgia, is a big and beautiful lizard called the Argentine black and white tegu that is longer than your leg and mouthy enough to chomp an adolescent alligator. Traps have been set for the troublesome intruder, baited with chicken eggs. The cages are engineered to incarcerate, not kill, but the local conservation authority does not advocate such soft-hearted treatment, lest the fecund, foreign reptile multiply uncontrollably and wipe out the endemic Peach State fauna with its tensile jaws and indiscriminate appetite.
“Tegus seen in Georgia,” the authority commands, “can and should be shot on sight.”
Local hunters have taken this to heart.
“We were on the way to go fishing in Rocky Creek,” a 31-year-old electrician named Jared Cooper tells Maclean’s of a recent episode, animating our current quest. “We were driving our Can-Am Defender down the dirt road across the bridge. I walked down the embankment, trying to find a place to park, and I looked down and there was a big lizard laying there right in the sun, so I called my wife, Amanda, and she said it was one of those invasives that we read about in the Georgia Outdoor News.
“I pulled out my nine-millimetre pistol and shot at it and I missed. He ran a little ways and stopped, and I shot again and got him in the back of the head and he went down. Then my wife said, ‘There’s another one!’ So I ran back to the top of the bridge and I shot and it didn’t move so I shot again and it still didn’t move.
“We were real excited. It is pretty fun any time you can shoot something new.”
Armed with Cooper’s stirring account, and finding the first half-dozen traps empty but surrounded by licked-clean eggshells, our party tramps onto that same bridge over Rocky Creek, a lively stream, swollen with our perspiration, that bubbles into the Ohoopee River, which sidles into the Altamaha, which empties into the Atlantic Ocean down near St. Simons Island.
Four empty blue cans of Bud Light beer are scattered on the riverbank, providing evidence for future archeologists of the noisome habits of 21st-century Homo sapiens. The firm sand yields the foot- and claw-prints of white-tailed deer, armadillos, raccoons and gopher tortoises, the official state reptile of Georgia, whose deep, domed burrows provide nesting sites for more than 300 vertebrate and invertebrate species. (The threatened little tortoise’s eggs seem to be a particular favourite of the black and white tegu.) But there are no bicoloured Godzillas sunning themselves on the banks of Rocky Creek this day.
“They’re big, they’re fast, they travel long distances and they’ll eat anything,” says biologist Lance McBrayer of Georgia Southern University, the leader of our safari. “They’re like the reptile version of the raccoon.”
In fact, although specimens as long as 130 cm have been spotted, shot, trapped and even run over along the Ohoopee and on local pecan, onion and timber properties on numerous occasions since 2017, scientists still have found no baby tegus in their traps—a harvest that would prove that the lizards, which are legal and popular house pets, are reproducing in the wild rather than being solitary adult escapees.
Prof. McBrayer is the Anthony Fauci of the Argentine tegu, a student of the species for more than 20 years before it serendipitously imposed itself on his home state. (Escaped tegus have been breeding in several Florida counties for the past decade.) The problem, he says, is that female tegus can produce as many as 40 offspring a year—do the math, and this powerful excavator clearly has the potential to extirpate many other residents that nest on or under the soil, including turkeys, ’gators, bobwhite quail, turtles, tortoises and the endangered eastern indigo snake.
“Why did you choose to study lizards?” I ask the academic as the futile checking of the traps ensues.
“It was either lizards or fish,” he answers. “I also thought about frogs. You can get a lot of tadpoles pretty easily, but once you release it, you can’t re-catch a frog.”
Aside from its predations, the tegu is a fascinating behemoth, a cold-blooded reptile that is able to warm itself up for sex by increasing its metabolism, run a considerable distance on its hind legs, wander 10 km in a single day, be trained to be housebroken, and survive a Southern winter by “brumating” underground in confederacies of a half-dozen or so.
“In Florida,” McBrayer says, “I don’t think it is possible to eradicate them. Here, I think it is. The chances are slim, but it’s possible.”
Certainly, the local gentry is not opposed to abolition. When we drop in on an egg farmer named Michael Kennedy, he relates how he spotted a tegu on the steps of one of his henhouses two years ago and sped to annihilate the fiend.
“I told my wife, ‘I’m gonna mount him and put him over the television,’ ” squire Kennedy recalls. “And she said, ‘No, you are not.’ I went to my truck to get my gun but when it heard the click, it ran and I missed it.
“I said they’ll never survive the winter, and it snowed that winter. But come the spring, they were all over the place.”
Kennedy’s operation is a mouth-watering target for the black and whites, domiciling thousands of clucking layers issuing tens of thousands of eggs. So far, none of the lizards has made it into the facility itself—a cement wall, installed to prevent armadillos and serpents from burrowing into the building, extends a metre below ground level. Tegu lizards will eat almost anything, possibly including your cat, but concrete angers their bowels.
We are standing by the scene of Kennedy’s close encounter, gasping in the shade, when a worker moves past, pushing a tall, wheeled rack that holds at least 200 dozen eggs.
“What did you eat for breakfast?” farmer Kennedy is asked.
“Pop-Tart,” he says.
When it comes to the Argentine black and white tegu, researchers are still at the chasing-tails stage: where it came from is much less a worry than where it has gone.
Back in the forest, Lance McBrayer notes that he has received reports that tegus have been seen 100 km to the west of Toombs County, and 100 km to the north.
“If they’re moving that far already, it’s a problem,” he says. “As the haystack gets bigger, it gets harder and harder to find the needle.”
“The world is shrinking,” McBrayer reasons. “There are more and more people packed on the planet and more and more people have time and money, and so exotic pets and reptiles are being moved around the world at an alarming rate. Geckos, anoles, pythons, iguanas, tegus—all of these things are establishing themselves, really damaging our wildlife, changing our ecosystems, altering our food webs and introducing new pathogens. Yet man still has the attitude that we can take whatever we want, anywhere on the globe.
“The underlying relationship that is revealed by the COVID crisis and invasive species is that man cannot escape nature. We are inextricably linked by processes that are not bound by laws and treaties. Man is a part of nature and we are no better or worse than any other plants or animals that live on this planet. We need to learn how to share a lot better than we have in the past.”
While they wait for an ecological enlightenment, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Geological Survey set out their traps, and the gunners of the Deep South draw a bead on one of the handsomest pests in the hemisphere. Up in Statesboro, McBrayer has Jared Cooper’s two dead tegus marinating in formalin for further analysis.
“There was a rumour that somebody was breeding them and they let them go when they got too big,” he says beneath the indifferent Georgia pines.
“Where was that?” a bushwhacker inquires, swatting a mosquito that is large enough to vote.
“Santa Claus,” the biologist replies.
Santa Claus, Ga., is a real place, named for a real man. Platted and incorporated in 1941 just south of the Toombs County seat of Lyons, the village sits along U.S. Route 1, which used to be the mother road from Madawaska to Miami before the interstate highways sucked all the enchantment out of roadside America.
The address of Santa Claus City Hall is 25 December Drive. The current population is about 150, and the streets are named Dasher, Dancer, Candy Cane, Reindeer, Rudolph, Noel and Sleigh. There is an elected mayor, a four-member city council, a chapel, a public garden and a little gift shop staffed by a woman named Sue Grisham who describes herself, in this grievous season of this terrible year, as “precautious, but not paranoid.”
“Is this not the craziest mess we’ve ever been through?” Grisham asks aloud. Still, the coronavirus has not been disproportionately cruel to Toombs County, claiming only five lives at press time, including that of a man named Ronnie Dixon who had been mayor of the “Sweet Onion City” of Vidalia since 1978. Grisham had known her own suffering, losing her grandson, a Green Beret named Dustin Michael Wright, to a terrorist attack in the deserts of Niger in 2017. And now there was a big lizard on the loose, as if this state and this country and this anguished orb needed something else to worry about in the blazing, breathtaking summer of 2020.
It takes only a few minutes on the ground to discover that McBrayer’s informant has been good, not bad—Santa Claus does indeed seem to be the nexus of the invasion of the black and whites.
Right on U.S. 1 is the Santa Claus Minit Mart, offering the usual staples plus a couple of slot machines in the back room. Into this shop on a sultry Friday afternoon comes a woman named Stacey Morris, who works for the police department in Lyons. Morris announces that she heard about a “6½-foot-long” Argentine black and white tegu strutting right down a nearby street. Call the chief, she advises.
“We had gotten a call to a residence in Santa Claus,” confirms Chief Wesley Walker. “When my animal-control officer arrived, they already had it in a flowerpot.” (Even big tegus, it turns out, can fit in very small spaces when curled up.)
Chief Walker says that the big lizards are even more common a few leagues to the south, near the Rogers State Prison.
“Crazy times,” the chief sighs. “Crazy times.”
“The way things are going,” he says, “they’re liable to cancel Christmas.”
“We caught one walking right down the sidewalk in Santa Claus,” confirms a local firefighter and rescue-squad member named Robert Mills, driving up Dasher Street in a truck equipped with enough radio gear to communicate with the North Pole.
“It looked like a goanna,” Mills testifies.
The fact that there are no sidewalks in Santa Claus is irrelevant. The intersection of myth and faith is a fitting place to question our status in the cosmos, examine our relationship with the multifarious other creations that sustain, annoy, amuse, infect and destroy us, and to wonder if a jolly old elf still might bring a happy ending to a year that is closing on all of us like the spring of a steel trap.
“What do you want for Christmas, if there is a Christmas?” I ask firefighter Mills.
“I just want to get along and be together with my family,” he replies. “It seems like some people don’t want to get along anymore, but that’s all I really want for Christmas.
“Being together with family. They can’t cancel that.”
“Do you think there will be a Christmas this year?” a Minit Mart customer named Ellen Jackson is asked. Jackson is a chipper 80-year-old champion bowler and scratch-off devotee who likes to boast that she shot a previous husband twice—“I had to. The first time, I missed,” she says.
“It might not be the same as it’s always been, but God will get us through this,” she says. “Yes, I gamble, but I give money to the church, too.”
“Do you believe in Santa Claus?” a tourist wonders.
“I believe in letting the children believe in Santa Claus until they get old enough to understand what Santa Claus is,” Jackson answers.
“What is he?”
“Santa Claus is love,” she says.
The clerk behind the plastic shield at the Santa Claus Minit Mart is a mother of two named Brandy Googe. From this perch, she greets them all—the strivers and the failures, the bonded and the lonely, the confident and the fearful of a candy-striped outpost way down south.
“I don’t let fear stop me from being happy,” Googe is saying. “When people stop being happy, that’s when they start getting sick. You have to be happy. Laughing helps a lot,” she says. Outside, the big sun blisters and the lizards crawl.
This article appears in print in the September 2020 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Outlaw of the south.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.