Green Anole Escapes from Circus (ca. 1920)

If you spend much time at all in the collections of a natural history museum, you’re guaranteed to come across some weird and hilarious stuff (e.g., see this book).  Here’s a gem of a specimen label – this is a green anole skeleton from the Smithsonian (photo and “discovery” by Thom Sanger).

circus fugitive anole

The collecting remarks seem odd enough that I figured it might be an inside joke.  But Thom found the following question posted on the Circus History Message Board, which probably explains everything.…

“I have a somewhat of a bizarre question. My aunt, who is in her late 70’s, told my husband and I a story about when she went to the circus a child. My Aunt told us that when she was little girl her mother would buy her a little lizard that was attached a chain that was then attached to a pin. The pin would be worn and the lizard would walk around you until it died.”

The message board has replies from many old-time circus-goers confirming that Anolis carolinensis were indeed tied to strings and peddled to kids at the circus.  According to one poster, the lizards were called “bugs” and the peddlers “bug men.”  (!?!?)

“Jennifer, the lizards (which have been called chameleons) were known as “bugs” and the sellers on the midway were known as “bug men”. The pitchman would pin a “bug” on his lapel to be viewed as harmless and he carried the “bugs” for sale mounted on a board. Unfortunately the “bugs” didn’t last too long after leaving the circus grounds but kids loved them. John Goodall”

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3 Responses to Green Anole Escapes from Circus (ca. 1920)

  1. rglor says:

    It seems so sinister to give a kid a pet that you know they’re going to kill in a matter of days.

  2. lukemahler says:

    Different times I guess… Definitely pretty dark from the anole’s perspective.

  3. I never saw them at the circus myself, but I do recall hearing or reading (perhaps in Mervin Roberts’ TFH pet anole book) that they were popular circus souvenirs, and that buyers were told they could live on sugar water. The anoles of course would not survive long on that, but probably longer than they would on the pre-packaged, dried, dead crickets that some pet shops try to sell anole owners today.

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