California Man Finds Four-Foot Lizard in Backyard—and It's a Mystery How It Got There

Man holding monitor lizard
The four-foot crocodile monitor lizard was discovered sunning itself in the backyard of a southern California home on November 1. A zookeeper has revealed what one of their monitor lizards eats in a single sitting.

Of all the things you expect to find in your backyard on a November day in California, a four-foot-long crocodile monitor lizard is probably not one of them.

But that's what confronted Craig Williams on Wednesday when his dogs started causing a fuss at his home in Riverside, California. The large reptile—which is native to New Guinea, thousands of miles away in the southwestern Pacific—was sunning itself on a hedge in his garden.

"The dogs were upset. So we got them into the house right away," said Williams, according to CBS Los Angeles. "Because that type of lizard could do a lot of damage to them and they could do a lot of damage to it."

Authorities from the Riverside County Department of Animal Services came and picked up the lizard. But now they are trying to solve the mystery of how a reptile from thousands of miles away came to be in a southern California backyard.

The crocodile monitor lizard—or Varanus salvadorii —can grow to be up to eight feet long and is a relative of the Komodo dragon, the world's largest lizard. It is usually found in the trees of New Guinea and has a green body with yellow bands.

The crocodile monitor feeds on small mammals, eggs and birds. Williams said that he had heard something around 2 a.m. on Wednesday morning, which sounded like a bird being attacked, but did not find any evidence when he spotted the lizard.

Read more: First humans in Australia lived alongside giant predator lizards

Officials think that the lizard is most likely a pet: it is legal to own crocodile monitor lizards as pets in California.

"It's very unusual to find a monitor lizard like this in the pet trade, they're not the most popular monitor pets that people generally keep," said Kim McWhorter, reptile expert at Riverside County Animal Services. "So given that we know this has an owner out there somewhere that's probably actively trying to find it."

McWhorter said that while the lizards were legal to keep as pets in California, owners should be aware that they require strong cages to keep them secure. "You just have to be conscious of the fact if you're getting a pet like this that they need some pretty specialized caging. As you can see this one somehow got out because they can be pretty strong with ripping things open and squeezing through small spaces."

Williams said he had spoken to others in the area about the lizard but no one knew where it had come from. "We have just a few neighbors. So we've been around to talk to the ones on the immediate sides of us. Nobody that we can find has lost a lizard," he said.

Riverside County Animal Services is appealing for anyone who has lost a lizard to get in touch with them. Agency spokesman John Welsh said that the owner would need to present a certificate of purchase and photographs or other means of proving that the lizard belonged to them. If the lizard was not claimed in the next few months, it will be transferred to an exotic animal sanctuary, he said.

People can contact Riverside County Animal Services on 951-358-7387 or 760-343-3644 if calling from Coachella Valley.