Shaffer: Elegy for departed Cary lizard Ozzy

jshaffer@newsobserver.comDecember 1, 2013 

Ozzy, aka the Lizard of Oz, lived 20 years, nearly all of them as the mascot of Science Safari, a nature toy store in Cary.


— Ozzy – the 3-foot iguana who lived two decades on a diet of watermelon and collard greens, who introduced thousands of suburban children to the enchantment of rainforest life, who acted as Cary’s unofficial ambassador from the reptile kingdom – has died.

He was 20 – long in the serrated tooth.

For nearly all his life, he occupied a high shelf in the back of Science Safari, an educational toy store on Kildaire Farm Road, where he delivered unfiltered lessons on the nature of the wild.

He scratched.

He escaped.

He whipped his tail.

He wore festive hats.

“He’s buried in my backyard,” said Becky Blair, the store’s former owner. “He was such a special lizard. I cried for three days and felt like such a fool, crying over a reptile.”

So beloved was this beast that children made T-shirts in its honor.

A family from Scotland visited every year, nicknaming him “Beastie.”

On his 18th birthday, the store threw Ozzy a birthday party complete with cake.

“He had a good life,” Blair said. “The only predator he ever knew was a boy who pulled his tail.”

Like many iguanas, Ozzy started life as a bad house pet, too wild and demanding for his unsuspecting owner, too overwhelming with his biting habit and his fresh-salad diet.

“He was kind of wild,” Blair said, “the way an iguana can be.”

She brought him into Science Safari as the next-best habitat to the wild, making him a living exhibit alongside the crystal radios and stomp rockets.

He took to the job like a Santaland elf, patiently enduring reptile classes, rain forest units, kids’ birthday parties, the taunts of an iguana puppet. Under a heat lamp, Ozzy represented herpetology at its leather-skinned, spiny-backed best.

“He was back there with me for 20 years,” Blair said, choking up at the memory.

Iguanas worldwide can face a troubled road, harvested for meat and skin. In some parts of the world, they go by the name “chicken of the trees.”

Feral populations thrive in California and Florida, either because they’ve escaped captivity or been purposely released into the wild. Once loose, they disrupt the natural ecosystem and cause domestic damage. In Hawaii, such lizards are illegal to own.

Ozzy lived inside a climate-controlled retail establishment, free from all but admirers. His occasional breakouts gave his fans a fabulous chance to make reptile jokes:

“He’s in Greenville,” one of them quipped on social media.

Blair sold the store in August, and Ozzy persisted under new ownership until he stopped eating. Blair prepared her house for lizard hospice, placing her scaly friend in warm tubs and sun rooms.

He died as peacefully as an iguana ever did, and he leaves his claw-footed mark on Cary: a cold-blooded creature who basked in a world of warmth. or 919-829-4818

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