Amateur herpetologist, founding member of the 25-year-old Horned Lizard Conservation Society, advocates for Texas’ beloved reptiles.
A fourth-generation Texan, Carolyn Todd has always been an avid camper and nature enthusiast. Some of her fondest childhood memories include hiking Big Bend, fishing, and observing animal behavior and habitats.
So when, in 1990, a local lawyer put an advertisement in the Austin American-Statesman inviting all citizens concerned about the decline of Texas horned lizards to convene, Carolyn—along with about 200 other respondents—answered his call.
“I was quite aware of the issue, and that’s why I went, thinking he was going to have biologists and researchers present who would let us know the status of the lizards,” she recalls. “As it was, his vision was to motivate a group of naturalists to design an organization with a mission to research, discover, and prevent the reasons for horned lizards’ decline in Texas.”
The plan worked. Following the meeting, Carolyn—along with a handful of other concerned citizens, naturalists, and herpetologists—began to plan and organize what would soon become known as the Horned Lizard Conservation Society (HLCS), a registered nonprofit that has been active for more than 25 years. Today, HLCS has about 250 registered members.
Texas horned lizards don’t make good pets
Over the years Carolyn, an amateur herpetologist, has taken on many roles within HLCS, including giving presentations throughout Texas, advocating for the three species of threatened Texas horned lizards, developing education materials, and surveying land to determine the health and range of the lizards. She’s also been instrumental in rehabilitating lizards that have been illegally kept in captivity and reintroducing them into private ranches and city and state parks under the permits, coordination, and sponsorship by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TWPD) and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“TPWD has their own biologists and herpetologists,” explains Carolyn, a disabilities rehabilitation counselor with the State of Texas, D.A.R.S. program, “but their job is to be on the road conducting research or helping private landowners understand the habitat needs of the horned lizards. They had never had anyone interested in rehabilitating or raising the lizards.”
In the end, Carolyn got stuck holding the bag—or, rather, the box—of the threatened lizards.
“There was a UT grad student from South Africa who had been taking care of them but had to leave Texas one night, hurriedly. He literally showed up at my door with a box full of Texas horned lizards and said, ‘Carolyn, here they are.’”
Many of the lizards came from uninformed but well-meaning people who would find a lizard, take it home, and treat it as they might any other exotic species found in a pet store. They’d put the lizard in an unheated aquarium and dump some crickets or mealworms on it, not realizing that lizards need a temperature-controlled environment (80° to 90°, depending on the time of the year) and that their diet consists primarily of harvester ants.
After lizard “owners” realized the tremendous amount of work involved in keeping a Texas lizard in good health—not to mention the $500 fine issued to those caught keeping a state threatened species in captivity—many people would surrender their lizards to the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (TPWD).
Carolyn’s brother-in-law, David, a carpenter, built her an outdoor exhibit, complete with 400 pounds of sand and a screen that allowed access to sun and rain while preventing attacks from predators.
In the heat of summer, Carolyn would take a spray bottle and squirt the lizards with puffs of water. She biked long distances to find harvester ants to feed them instead of crickets.
“I would wear bandannas when I was riding, and when I saw an ant mound I hadn’t seen before, I’d tear off a strip and go tie it on a fence or tree so that I’d see it when I came back later with my truck,” she says. “An adult horned lizard can eat 200 ants a day, so I’d keep ants in my coolers, aquariums, and buckets.”
Though Carolyn had great success rehabilitating the lizards—she even managed to get them to reproduce while in captivity—Texas Parks & Wildlife forbade her from reintroducing them to the wild for several years, due to concern that the rehabilitated lizards might contaminate native populations. “If people wouldn’t tell me exactly where they found the lizards, I’d have to keep them, even if the lizards were thriving,” she says.
Eventually Carolyn, along with other HLCS members and with the assistance of TPWD, convinced several Texas zoos to adopt Carolyn’s lizards and start exhibits. The Fort Worth Zoo was the first to start a Texas horned lizard exhibit and reproduction program. Now, the El Paso and Dallas zoos have similar programs, and new zoos plan to start similar programs soon.
“When the zoos started taking the lizards, I was thrilled. Getting the zoos on board had been my personal mission all along. It’s very labor intensive to try to get hundreds of ants every day. And zoos have more staff than—just me.”
For many people who grew up in Texas, the Texas horned lizard, along with the two other threatened lizard species: the short horned lizard and the round tail horned lizard, provide a sense of nostalgia—a memory of growing up in a healthy, vibrant Texas environment.
“I think for a lot of people in my generation—40 and older—these lizards are almost like cultural icons,” says Carolyn. “We grew up with them, and now we’re seeing that history and culture slipping away from us.”
“It’s like the canary in the coal mine as an indicator species,” she continues. “Wherever these lizards continue to exist, they are a strong indicator that the flora and fauna are in good shape. Unfortunately, we’re losing lots of mammals, birds, amphibians, and reptiles now due to loss of habitat.”
An avid advocate for conservation, Carolyn has traveled throughout Texas and out of state giving presentations on Texas’ three endangered lizard species. In her travels she hears the same complaint: Texas roads are a death trap for reptiles.
“Reptiles have incredibly high death rates on roads. The lizards and other reptiles are cold blooded, so they warm up on the dirt, gravel, or asphalt,” explains Carolyn. “And of course, during spring, that’s when the males will go to look for the females and become road kill.” This second point is especially disheartening for lizard lovers, since in some years males may account for 20 percent or less of the population birthed.
An end of an era
This year may mark the end of an era for Carolyn, who is scheduled to retire and move to Boston, where she and her husband will help take care of their youngest grandchild, who is seeking treatment for congenital heart problems at Boston Children’s Hospital.
“Texas lizards will have to take a backseat, but my family has been busy looking up reptile groups for me to join when I get there. . . . There’s a beautiful spotted turtle that has an endangered status in its native state, and I hear it calling my name.”
To become a member of the Horned Lizard Conservation Society, donate to HLCS grants, or purchase reptile-inspired merchandise, visit www.hornedlizards.org.