The earliest recorded instance of a monitor lizard being kept as a pet comes to us in the form of a story from the borderlands of India and Bangladesh.
Dawa, the founder of a clan of the Garo tribe, captured a baby water monitor and put it in a cage. On each of the days that followed the lizard’s concerned parents came to visit their imprisoned offspring. Astonished by their enormous size, Dawa grew increasingly worried they would take revenge. He finally released the young monitor, gave it a yellow coat and a set of earrings, and promised the parents that he would never capture one again. In return they promised not to harm him or his family. In a postscript we learn that Dawa and the young monitor became firm friends and when the lizard grew up it often carried him across the river on its back.
Recent developments in Palm Beach County in the State of Florida do not seem set for such a happy outcome. Varanus niloticus, the Nile or water monitor, imported into Florida from Africa by dealers in exotic pets have found their way out of cages and condos and into a habitat very much to their liking. Included on their New World grocery list are domestic cats, a sensitive food choice which has led to violent confrontations between the reptiles and gun-toting local law enforcement, not to mention creating angst amongst the bejewelled retirees of Palm Beach County.
Explaining why anyone would want a Nile monitor as a domestic pet is a conundrum best left to professionals. Like most species they’re cute when they’re small but they grow up to be the biggest lizards that Africa has to offer. An adult has jaws like a steel trap, claws capable of slicing your arm to the bone and a muscular tail it can swing like a baseball bat.
Monitors are more closely related to snakes than to lizards and have the forked tongue and the venom to prove it, albeit in doses too small to be lethal to humans.