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Q&AZ: Are Gila monsters legal as pets in Arizona?

A Colorado man died earlier in February after being bitten by his pet Gila monster. But while 34-year-old Christopher Ward's death may have been the first from a Gila monster in the U.S. in almost a century, the creature's bite is well-known to be excruciating — and venomous. Reports said he had two of the lizards, and at least one of them was purchased from a breeder in Arizona.

Through KJZZ’s Q&AZ reporting project, a listener asked on social media if it's illegal to keep Gila monsters as pets and breed them in Arizona. 

While Gila monsters may be legal to own in some states and easily found at reptile shows, they fall under the restricted live-wildlife rules in Arizona. This means it is illegal to possess one without a special permit from the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

"Basically it's hands-off," said Thomas R. Jones, the amphibians and reptiles program manager from the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

In the Colorado case, if a Gila monster did indeed come from a breeder in Arizona, that would be illegal. If someone is caught breaking the live-wildlife rules, the charges and penalties "would depend entirely on the court and the AZGF Commission," Jones said.

Collection or possession of the animals is allowed with a special permit issued by Game and Fish, usually for education and research. Permits can also be given to companies and individuals that relocate wildlife from construction sites, for example.

Jones said that while Gila monsters are protected in Arizona through Game and Fish rules and the fact there is no open season on them for hunters, the lizards are not considered endangered.

Gila monsters, whose natural range includes Arizona, are not rare in the wild.

"They are actually quite common" and even "quite abundant" in some areas, according to Jones, but they tend to be "secretive," so people rarely see them in the wild.

Venomous reptile

“It’s like getting your hand slammed, caught in a car door," Arizona State University professor Dale DeNardo said of the lizard's bite. "Even that initial pain is extended for an hour. Then you get the typical days of soreness, throbbing pain. It’s much worse than any bee, wasp or scorpion.”

A Gila monster enthusiast who has studied the reptiles for decades, DeNardo said even he wouldn't want to have one in his house.

Within minutes of Ward’s pet lizard named Winston biting down on his hand without letting go, Ward was vomiting and couldn't breathe, according to a report by the animal control officer who interviewed his girlfriend.

He was put on life-support and died less than four days after the bite.

Because Gila monsters are slow, they rely on their painful venom for defense, often giving a warning hiss before their strike.

“It’s never accidental," DeNardo said. “You’ve got to be messing with them.”

Before Ward, the last person to die of a Gila monster bite, around 1930, may have had cirrhosis of the liver, DeNardo said. A yet-to-be released autopsy report may show if the venom from Ward's lizard killed him outright or whether an underlying condition, such as an allergy, was a factor.

“I highly suspect that this one is going to be similar," DeNardo said, “that this person had some underlying cause that made him more susceptible.”

Rules vary across states

Ward's girlfriend told animal control they bought Winston at a reptile exhibition in Denver in October and another Gila monster named Potato from a breeder in Arizona in November. She relinquished the lizards to be taken to a South Dakota reptile sanctuary after the bite.

Colorado requires a permit to keep a Gila monster. Only zoological-type facilities are issued such permits, however, and Ward apparently didn't have one, said Colorado Parks and Wildlife spokesperson Kara Van Hoose.

States such as Maine and Kentucky prohibit keeping Gila monsters as pets, while others such as Montana not only allow possession but don't even require permits. Many states fall in between, requiring a permit to have the animals.

Online, breeders sell Gila monsters for upward of $1,200 after hatchlings emerge in the fall. While it's possible that some people catch wild Gila monsters to keep as pets, DeNardo said roads and habitat loss to home construction are the reptiles' biggest threats.

Natural range

The lizards' natural habitat ranges from northern Mexico across Arizona and into parts of California, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah.

They can live at least 20 years on a diet of small rodents and quail eggs, living in a smallish aquarium of 15 to 20 gallons, Young said.

In the wild, Gila monsters spend as much as 95% of the time underground to conserve water in hot, dry weather, coming out more frequently in wet weather, DeNardo said.

Individual Gila monsters can travel over an area as big as 100 or more U.S. football fields in pursuit of prey, including bird eggs in nests high up in cactuses. To get there, they conserve energy, maintaining a slow but steady pace for a lizard.

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Chelsey Heath is a digital editor at KJZZ.