Lizards had the run of dead man's home

Posted: January 18, 2002

NEWARK, Del. — Ronald J. Huff held the lease on the small studio at the Towne Court Apartments. But it was his seven monitor lizards that owned the place.

Two handmade, wooden cages big enough to hold a 6-foot animal were stacked against one wall, partially blocking the kitchen. Aquariums and cushions for the smaller lizards to lounge upon were scattered around the apartment. Small shelves had been cut into his bathroom closet, providing a place for the reptiles to snooze after roaming freely.

Huff's fascination with the giant lizards came to a grisly end this week; New Castle County police found his cold-blooded pets eating his body Wednesday.

Foul play is not suspected, said police spokesman Trinidad Navarro, but authorities do not know how or when the car-dealership lot attendant died or whether his lizards killed him.

Huff's relatives speculate that infection from a lizard bite may have contributed to his death. Results of a Delaware state medical examiner's autopsy won't be known for several weeks.

Huff, 42, stopped by his grandmother's house Sunday, complaining that he wasn't feeling well and wouldn't be going to work the next day, said his father, Ronald E. Huff.

"He's been bit by those lizards quite a few times," he said. "I used to kid him, 'one of these days you're going to wake up and your arm is going to be missing.' "

John Caldwell, director of the Delaware Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said an infection from a lizard bite could contribute to death if not treated. He dismissed the likelihood that the whip-tailed, sharp-clawed reptiles turned on their owner.

"Do I think the lizards attacked and killed him? No, I don't," he said.

Police went to Huff's apartment Wednesday morning after receiving calls from concerned family and coworkers at Martin Oldsmobile. Officers found the television on, the heat up, and Huff's body against the door, several lizards atop him.

Police called the SPCA to remove the reptiles. When animal-control officers entered the apartment, officer John Saville said, most of the seven lizards hissed and puffed.

The animals ranged in length from 2 1/2 feet to 6 feet and weighed from 2 pounds to 20 pounds, Caldwell said. Most of the reptiles were Nile monitors, although some were possibly other species.

Monitor lizards are not considered deadly, and the American Federation of Herpetologists says there has never been a recorded human death caused by a large monitor. The lizards do have powerful jaws with small, sharp teeth that can deliver a bite full of bacteria.

It took two people to remove each lizard, Saville said.

The SPCA also removed one of Huff's cats and three containers of Madagascar hissing roaches, brown and orange insects that can grow to the size of a small mouse. Huff kept the roaches as lizard food, Saville said.

Huff's apartment was relatively sanitary, considering the menagerie inside, Saville said.

"For such a small place with so many large lizards, it was fairly clean," he said.

Huff's father described him as an energetic hobbyist, an animal-lover who chased snakes as a child.

"Anything he did, he did all out," the elder Huff said. The lizards were an interest developed over the last four years. Huff kept photo albums for each of the lizards and enjoyed talking about them.

He showed off the lizards to neighbor Jeffrey Wildonger a few months ago, throwing them pieces of raw chicken. Wildonger said the reptiles had bitten Huff previously and had attacked one another.

"He respected them. He knew what they were capable of doing," he said. "His life was pretty much centered on those things."

Managers of Towne Court apartments said yesterday they didn't know about Huff's hobby - the complex has a strict pet policy that doesn't include lizards, said Jennifer Johnson, assistant manager. Suspicions were raised once when a lizard escaped, but she said Huff claimed he got rid of the pet and denied keeping others.

"We had no idea what we were in for," she said.

Though New Castle County has a ban on exotic pets, Huff received a permit from the state Department of Agriculture in 1999 to keep the lizards.

H.W. Towers, Delaware state veterinarian, said the permit allowed Huff to keep an unlimited number of reptiles, as long as he didn't sell or trade them.

Now, one of the cats is up for adoption at the SPCA. Wildonger is feeding the other. The roaches were "disposed of."

As for the lizards? They've settled into separate SPCA cages, Caldwell said, but several are still aggressive, "hissing, snapping, charging."

They will be placed with an animal sanctuary or zoo, possibly even the Philadelphia Zoo. Euthanasia would be "the last resort," he said.

Chris Gray's e-mail address is

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