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‘Running of the Lizards’ yields a slithery quarry

Residents of Topeka, Kan., turn out for the 11th annual event to collect and count Italian wall lizards in the name of science and fun.

By David ConradsCorrespondent / September 10, 2008

Italian wall lizards, caught during the annual "Running of the Lizards" in Topeka, Kan., are held in a five-gallon bucket.

David Conrads

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Topeka, Kan.

Keith Arkenberg, a college senior, has honed his own technique. When trying to catch a lizard, he doesn’t sneak up behind it or flash a butterfly net. He just gets down in front of it, stares it in the eye, and snatches it before it darts off.

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Which is why Arkenberg, a tall, slender biology major with a brown ponytail, is hunched down in an alley near an auto-parts store here in Topeka, Kan., across from Dimple Donuts. He is stalking the elusive Italian wall lizard. His technique proves triumphant: Over the course of two hours on a sun-dappled day, he snares four of the slithery creatures.

“I used to catch a lot of frogs to feed my snakes when I was younger,” says Arkenberg. “It’s just a matter of getting down in front of them and grabbing them before they take off.”

The point, in the end, may not be how he actually catches them. It may be why anyone who is pursuing a college degree, and thus presumably in his right mind, would be chasing lizards on an afternoon in Topeka, Kan., anyway. In fact, some 30 adults and children are gathered to hunt the four-inch reptiles. They are part of an annual ritual to collect Italian wall lizards in the name of science and a little fun.

Pamplona, Spain, has its running of the bulls. Anchorage, Ala., its running of the reindeer. San Juan Capistrano, Calif., its swallows. Here in Topeka, it’s the Running of the Lizards. For 11 years, college students and a few local residents have been trying to collect and count as many lizards as they can as part of an informal census of the reptiles and to engage in the outdoors.

It isn’t a big civic event, really. It’s more the hobby of Joe Collins, a herpetologist for the Kansas biological survey at the University of Kansas and a part-time professor of herpetology at Washburn University in Topeka. It may take a herpetology degree, in fact, to fully appreciate the joys of scampering after lizards in alleyways – and to actually ambush one.

“Those who have done it before know what has to be done to catch these lizards,” Collins told the gathered crowd before the hunt. “Those who haven’t learn just how fast little lizards can be. They really like to hide under the air conditioners at Kentucky Fried Chicken. It’s their natural habitat.”

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The Italians apparently brought the wall lizard up right: It is a highly adaptable creature cloaked in a skin of bright colors suitable for a Milan fashion runway.

The reptiles have Kelly green backs mottled with black and brown pattens. Turquoise spots dimple their sides.

The size of a large Tootsie Roll, the Italian wall lizard is found in various parts of Europe and is the most abundant lizard species in southern Italy. Its presence in Topeka, one of the few American cities with a sizeable colony, is rooted in a bit of serendipity and mystery.

Local experts trace its origins here back to a biological supply house, Quivera Specialities, that was operated by Charles Burt on SW 21st Street some 40 years ago. Professor Burt – or so he was known in the neighborhood – imported a wide variety of reptiles, birds, insects, and other species and sold them to researchers and universities all over the country.

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