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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.

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Perhaps it was inevitable, but some of the animals escaped, as captive animals are wont to do. Keith Coleman, who has attended many lizard runs over the years, grew up in a house next door to the supply store. He remembers occasionally seeing exotic birds and snakes and other non-native species in the neighborhood.

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Legend has it that when Mr. Burt died, sometime in the 1960s, his widow let all the animals go. Most perished in the cold winter, but since southern Italy is roughly the same latitude as Kansas, the lizards survived, even thrived.

Now, 40 years later, it’s estimated that tens of thousands of wall lizards, also know as ruin lizards, have taken up residence in the southern section of the state’s capital city.

As it turns out, two different lizards have adapted to urban Topeka, the other one being the Western green lacerta, which is all green and much larger then the Italian wall lizard. It is also far more scarce. The green lacerta are more arboreal, living primarily in bushes and low trees and are rarely seen and even more rarely caught.

“If you get one of those, that’s extra special,” Collins tells the group, then adds with a audible wink, “If you’re in my class, that’s a really good grade.”

Many of the gathered reptile hunters are, in fact, Collins’s students. Others include former students, a coterie of amateur herpetologists, and interested citizens, among them lots of children, who seem to view the event as a cross between an Easter egg hunt and a reptilian petting zoo.

The primary objective of the event is pure enjoyment. But it also serves to give the students in Collins’s class a tuneup before he takes them out on a longer field trip into the woods, where they’ll have to wear boots and gloves, grapple with chiggers, and forgo ready access to doughnuts, fast food, and, if possible for this generation, Facebook.

Collins himself looks like a good fit to be a Marlin Perkins of the lizard world. He has a bald pate and a bushy white beard. He looks out from behind wire-rim glasses and smiles readily.


Collins starts the event in a parking lot at SW 21st Street and Gage Boulevard. It is a warm day with peekaboo sunshine – good but not perfect for catching lizards, which come out in the sun and heat. Wearing jeans and sturdy cowboy boots, Collins encourages the crowd to work in groups to better corner the wily creatures.

Then he leads them, Moses-like, across four lanes of traffic to the rear parking lots of several commercial buildings – an auto-parts store, a dry cleaner, a gas station, an empty video game store. The group fans out over a two-block area, hunting in weeds and tall grass, under rocks and debris, behind dumpsters.

Three sophomore biology majors work together and manage to catch four among them. Seventh-grader Jenna Brunkow has a good day, too, corralling two in her first event. Fourth-grader Shania Edmonds’s catch is truly a joint effort: A lizard jumps on her back and one of the adults puts it in her bucket.

Others aren’t so fortunate. Young Michael Cantrell decrees the whole thing “boring,” as he and his brother go home with only a single lizard – and that one caught by someone else. But Jacob Van Hoye, 12, is so excited by his multiple lizard outing, he vows to return the next day after school.
(My own scientific conclusion, gleaned from two hours of close study and observation, echoes the common refrain about fishing: One’s enjoyment of the Running of the Lizards is directly proportional to number of lizards one catches.)

By 2 p.m., the lizard chasing is winding down. The lizard hunters head back across the street to their cars, many of them carrying jars, small plastic aquariums, and other containers holding their quarry. Collins estimates the participants caught more than 40 lizards and spotted at least 100. He plans to take a tiny blood sample from many of the 20 or so he caught and then release them into the “wilds” of urban Topeka.

“Everyone had fun,” he says of the day. “A lot of people got lizards to take home. The sale of crickets will go up. Life is good.”