Do recent reports of mystery lizards herald the return of the legendary tatzelwurm to its traditional alpine haunts?
Although the tatzelwurm – or clawed serpent – is the best-known Central European cryptid (see FT208:46–49), it tends to be dismissed as a thing of the past. However, sightings of the creature, or at least of large and unusual reptiles, continue to this very day. Because the tatzelwurm (with its regional names – stollenwurm in Switzerland, bergstutzen in Austria, or basilisco in Italy) is now generally regarded as a “mythical beast”, sightings tend to be reported as escaped crocodiles or “dinosaurs”. Yet they happen in the same regions as the traditional tatzelwurm reports, and are merely updated to fit current tastes.
So, when a boy observed something that once would have been called a tatzelwurm in April 2007 in Upper Austria, where tatzelwurms were seen repeatedly in the 19th century, it was reported as an escaped exotic pet: “A Lizard 50cm long. Unknown reptile in the Enns Valley. The observation, by a 12-year-old boy, has caused quite a stir. He claims to have seen a brown lizard, 50cm long, on the bank of the Enns River near Ternberg.”
The boy had found parts of dead snakes along the riverbank before, and on this occasion lay in hiding, waiting for whatever killed the snakes. Before his eyes, a lizard shot out of the undergrowth. Shocked, the boy fled, then returned with a camera to take the picture that would confirm his story. But there was no longer any trace of the creature. As usual, “reptile experts” were quizzed for their opinion, and, as usual, they thought it was an escaped pet monitor. Fire fighters searched the river in a boat, without luck. The incident was widely reported in the Austrian press, but the description remains sketchy. It might have been a large ordinary lizard, an escaped pet… or a tatzelwurm – an idea not mentioned in any of the reports.
Over several years up to 2009, the people of Tresivio, in the Valtelina Valley, a region of Italy on the Swiss border, made repeated sightings of an unusual creature, described as an “agile bipedal lizard, about a metre tall and nearly two metres long.” In short, a dinosaur straight out of Jurassic Park! The first sighting, the papers reported in the summer of 2009, “was regarded as an isolated incident”, and had been made “a few years ago”. A young student of agricultural sciences spotted the animal, but at that time nobody believed her. Now an assistant researcher, she stands by her report. “I was not dreaming! I saw it clearly with my own eyes. It approached me, walking on its hind legs. The anterior legs were very small. It resembled a prehistoric velociraptor, and generally it was like a monitor lizard. Yet while monitors move on four legs, this one went upright. Its back was nearly 80cm above the ground, with the head nearly a metre. I guess it was one and a half or two metres long.”
These memories were published because the monster reappeared in July 2009, observed on several occasions by local witnesses from Tresivio and Ponte. “It is not an iguana, it is less massive, and we saw it running,” they told a local paper, which noted that “Many people now no longer doubt it. With the summer and the warmth the strange reptile comes out of its hiding place…” A fruit farmer from Ponte had seen it, in July: “I had parked my tractor above the village on the road into the Val Fontana. It looked like a lizard with a long tail. It resembled a kangaroo… but it had scales, therefore it must have been a reptile.”
In Italy, the tatzelwurm is often called basilisco (basilisk) or the milk-serpent, as it is believed that the creature milks the cows on the pastures, sucking on their udders. Several regions also use the term cat-snake, as the tatzelwurm has a cat-like head. Venetia, where the next and most recent group of sightings happened, is a north-eastern province of Italy bordering Lake Garda to the west and Venice to the east. In October 2009, an anonymous witness called the local newspaper to report that he had encountered a very curious reptile on the banks of the Longhella river between Marostica and Vallonara. He had seen it on two occasions, on 4 and 5 October. He thought it was a monitor lizard, an iguana, or possibly a caiman – but he was certain it was a reptile about a metre long. It had previously been noted that ducks had disappeared in the river, and there had been talk of a giant carp which some claimed to have seen. Police mounted a futile search for the giant reptile.
Then an earlier witness came forward. On 28 September 2009, at 2:30pm, Giovanni Pianezzola noticed a large reptile in the garden of his house at Vallonara. It measured a metre in length, he said, and was of a brown colour. It ran through the garden and jumped into the river Longhella. The witness thought it had been an alligator. But the villagers, when asked by reporters, saw no reason for alarm. This was not an escaped crocodile, they explained, only the “cat-serpent” or basilisco, a harmless animal they knew well!
Whether these sightings imply a real unknown animal, hoaxes, misperceptions and escaped pets, or simply places where the old tatzelwurm tradition is not yet extinct, I don’t know. But it’s reassuring to think that the legendary beast still roams our landscape.