Location: Miami, Florida
Date: July 5, 1992


On July 5, 1992, Chris and Maria Elena Hernandez of Miami, Florida, were backing out of their driveway in Maria Elena's car when the steering column locked. They were on their way to a friend's birthday party, so Chris decided to drive his car and check out the problem later.

When they returned home that evening, Maria Elena, who was eight months pregnant, went inside while Chris popped open the hood of her car and poked around. Chris peered deep into the engine and was stunned. There was a dead snake inside the engine.

Chris went inside and told Maria Elena. He grabbed a broom and they both went outside. Frightened, Maria Elena stood away from the car. Chris looked more closely at the snake and saw a claw grasping the oil pan. "That's no snake!" Chris shouted. "It's an alligator." Chris poked the reptile with the broomstick and the creature reacted. Chris and Maria Elena jumped back. Whatever it was, it was alive.

Chris called the police department on a non-emergency number. The operator, thinking he was a crank caller, gave him phone numbers to various wildlife agencies. When Chris couldn't reach anybody, he beeped his best friend, Tim Lanham, a 911 supervisor for the Miami Fire Department. Tim was amused by Chris' dilemma--he could just imagine Chris freaking out over a two-foot lizard--but he agreed to help.

When Tim arrived he was shocked to discover the scale of the problem. The creature was completely wedged inside the engine. Tim called the Florida Fresh Water Fish and Games Commission, which dispatched Florida State Police Officer John Esslinger to the scene.

Esslinger thought the creature was some type of exotic lizard and figured he could be dangerous. He contacted Todd Hardwick, who runs Pesky Critters Relocation, a company specializing in nuisance wildlife control. From Esslinger's description over the phone, Todd said the creature might be a water monitor, a large carnivorous reptile in the lizard family that's capable of inflicting a nasty bite. He told Esslinger to be very careful, and he would be right over.

When Todd and his associate, Jill Voight, took a look at the situation, they excitedly confirmed that the reptile was indeed a water monitor. Jill slipped under the car and tugged on it, but the creature was really stuck. "All I wanted was to save this lizard and bring it home with me," recalls Jill. "That's what I wanted--the lizard."

As neighbors came over with beach chairs to watch the show, Todd poured liquid detergent over the monitor in the hope he'd slide out. "But basically after twenty minutes," recalls Tim, "we had a slimy, trapped lizard." Next, Todd poured a bowl of ice water over the monitor's head, hoping it would react to the cold and back out. Instead, the lizard inflated, further trapping himself within the engine. "Everybody else thought it was time to throw in the towel," recalls Todd, "but we don't do that. We get them out alive."

Todd consulted with an exotic animal veterinarian who recommended tranquilizing the monitor. Todd injected it and within one hour, the creature relaxed. Tim slid under the car and unbolted the steering column that blocked the monitor's way. Immediately, the monitor began to drop. Frightened, Tim scrambled from under the car and Jill slipped under to catch her prize lizard. She emerged excitedly hugging the monitor. "It looked like her long lost pet puppy or something," recalls Todd. "It was like, at last, I've got my hands on you."

They didn't have a cage large enough for the six-foot, twenty-five-pound lizard, so Jill held it on her lap while Todd drove to their home. The monitor rapidly recovered from its lacerated tongue and minor chest burns and was adopted by a local film company. They named it Gordon Gecko and built it a lush, tropical outdoor cage, complete with a waterfall and pond.

"He lives better than any lizard in town lives," says Todd. "On a food budget that surpasses mine," adds Jill. "I like Gordon and I'm glad he's fine," says Maria Elena. "And It was fun and adventuresome. At that same time, I don't ever want it to happen again. Not in my car, anyway."