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What to know about the ‘tegu’, the large, exotic lizard found under a home in Athens

A black and white Argentine Tegu lizard sticks out its tongue at the Yebo Gogga exhibition at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg Wednesday, May 13, 2015. (Denis Farrell/AP Photo) A black and white Argentine Tegu lizard sticks out its tongue at the Yebo Gogga exhibition at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg Wednesday, May 13, 2015. (Denis Farrell/AP Photo)
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ROCKMART, Georgia -

A giant South American lizard is not what you expect to find in Georgia.

“I could imagine that some people would run for the hills,” said Kathy Smith with the Georgia Herpetological Association and Rescue (GHAR).

The lizard is an Argentine black and white tegu.

As you might guess, it’s an exotic pet and invasive species from South America.

“A lot of them are being put up for adoption, and we’re finding that a lot of people are releasing them, which is not a good thing,” Smith said.

They’re legal to own with stipulations. They must be registered with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, microchipped, and can’t be used for breeding.

When they’re caught, they get brought to Smith in Rockmart, south of Rome. She operates the GHAR, which rescues and rehabilitates reptiles.

“So, we take them in, work with them, and find the right home for them,” Smith said.

But outside the home, where they can be destructive, is where they don’t belong. They’ll eat almost anything, including eggs and crops, and can grow up to four feet long.

“An animal that’s not supposed to be out there shouldn’t be out there,” Smith said.

If you see one or think you have one roaming your property, don’t mess with it.

“The wrong thing to do would be to go up to it and catch it,” Smith said.

The lizards aren’t ordinarily aggressive unless threatened. Instead of channelling your inner Steve Irwin, snap a photo and send it to GHAR or the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

Once captured, it’ll likely find its way to Smith--who currently has eight tegus amongst a host of other reptiles--where it can find a new home.

“They’re really the puppies of the reptile world,” Smith said.

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