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Jewish World Review April 24, 2001 / 3 Iyar, 5761

Bob Markey, Jr.

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Consumer Reports

Love for lizard lands lady in lockup -- PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- A pet lover's persistence in recovering what she believed to be her lost lizard could land her in a cage for a year.

Instead of enjoying the company of her pregnant, 2-year-old bearded dragon, Sugar Plum Houdini, Delphene Sneed may never get her back. Then there's the more than $1,000 she's already spent to fight a misdemeanor retail theft charge.

"I don't have any guarantee I'll ever see her (the lizard) again," said Sneed, 44, who keeps two of the friendly, foot-long lizards at her home.

"They are like a dog or a cat," she said. "They are my kids."

Sugar, who is pregnant, escaped March 18. Despite an exhaustive search, Sneed said she almost gave up hope of finding her.

Then neighbor Ron Stein came over last Thursday with a box of crickets which she had ordered but had been delivered to him in her absence. That's when she discovered that Stein had found Sugar and given her to the Mr. Pet pet store.

Sneed immediately went to Mr. Pet to reclaim Sugar. But store clerk Thomas Johnson refused to give it to her.

After talking to store owner Brad Behan by phone, Sneed said she was turned away, and that Johnson even refused to let her pay for the lizard's "board" or to buy Sugar outright. Sneed said she thinks Behan wanted to wait for Sugar to lay eggs and sell the babies.

Afraid the $119 lizard could lay eggs at any time and would not be there later in the day, Sneed took Sugar home.

Behan said he told Johnson not to give Sneed the lizard because it wasn't hers. The lizard he had accepted from a man weeks earlier was a male, Behan said, and the lizard Sneed took was among 16 he had purchased three days earlier. Behan said he has a receipt to prove it.

"I told her I'd be there in the morning and we'll work something out," Behan said.

But when she took the lizard, Johnson called police. An officer went to Sneed's home and confirmed that she had the lizard. He took Sneed to jail and Sugar back to Mr. Pet.

If prosecuted, Sneed could spend a year in jail and be fined $1,000.

"How do we know that it was her lizard they brought in?" asked store co-owner Karen Behan.

"I never took a female," Brad Behan said. "I got a big old male and it was at least twice the size of the one she stole."

Sneed said the lizard calmed down when she held it and was obviously hers. "She crawled right up in my chest and went to sleep because she knew it was me," she said.

Stein, who captured the lizard with a laundry basket in his front yard, assumes it belonged to Sneed. "It's the same size, it's the same color," he said. "Can I be sure? No."

He made photos of the lizard he captured and the police made photos of the lizard Sneed took from Mr. Pet.

Regardless of who owns Sugar, neither the Behans nor Sneed claim to have her. Police returned the lizard to Mr. Pet, but it was not displayed in the store.

"I don't know if it's sold or if it's died," Brad Behan said. "I have three of them (dead lizards) in the freezer."

Sneed said her lawyer advised her that "It's almost a sure thing that I'm not going to be convicted of stealing my own property."

Sneed said she's planning to sue the Behans, but would settle for the recovery of Sugar Plum Houdini. "I want my lizard back and I don't want a record," she said.

Bob Markey, Jr. writes for The Fort Pierce Tribune in Florida. Comment by clicking here.


© 2001, SHNS