Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Adventures of Lizzy

This summer we adopted a new pet, a green anole lizard. She is six inches long, from her nose to the tip of her tail. In her short lifetime, this tiny creature has traveled farther than many people do. She has also survived being attacked by crickets, two nights of camping out in freezing temperatures, and a visit to the second grade at my sons school.

Lizzy came to us from a friend who rescued her when she was found in a roll of sod that had been trucked from east of Colorado Springs up to Crested Butte Colorado. How she got to the sod farm is still under investigation, but from what I've read, these lizards are native to southeastern United States, from Florida to Oklahoma. They have not yet been documented in the wild in Colorado. But, it's not impossible that they are either expanding their natural range or perhaps establishing wild populations from escaped pets in areas where the climate is compatible with their native habitat.

The coolest thing about Green Anoles is that they change colors from a drab brown to bright turquoise green. In response to what is hard to determine, but it seem like she either likes the warmth of our hands or is completely stressed out when handled, which is usually when she turns green. Camouflage has little to do with it as far as we can tell. They also have bulging eyes that move around a little bit to check out whatever is going on. Lizard eyes have a certain wiseness about them.

Green anoles are marketed widely as "starter pets," something small that doesn't require a lot of space or time to take care of. But any child ready to embark on a relationship with a lizard will have had to sell a lot of lemonade to support the equipment and food necessary to keep a lizard alive in a cage. Pet stores have an impressive line of Anole products, ranging from dried mealworms and reptile vitamins, to special basking lights meant to replicate the sunlight that they are now deprived of in captivity. Creating the warm humid environment she is adapted to was a challenge in the poorly insulated house I was renting in Colorado, which cooled down to 50 F at night, 20 degrees cooler than recommended for Lizzy, so her cage was also outfitted with not one, but two special heating pads that helped warm her tank 24/7. Here in Phoenix we have dispensed with the heating pads, but continue to spritz her cage with water several times a day to keep up the humidity.

If you have a pet lizard, you wind up with pet crickets, which also need to be fed. We had a hard lesson in the relationship between crickets and lizards when we took Liz out of her cage one morning to find her guts hanging out. I had put more crickets in the cage than the lizard could eat, so the crickets started to eat her! Horrified, I cleaned out the entire cage, and started her on a diet of mealworms, which presumably would not be quite so carnivorous. Lizzy's gaping wound was miraculously healed without so much as a dab of Neosporin within two weeks, although she is a bit asymmetrical with a hunk of muscle missing in her abdomen.

During our move from Colorado back to Phoenix, we camped for a couple of nights in near freezing temperatures. Without a plug-in for heating pads, we improvised by putting boiling water into water bottles and putting them next to the cage, then wrapping the cage in our down jackets. Wild anoles in the south probably survive cold winter nights, but as adoptive parents, we were feeling a little over-protective, especially after the harrowing cricket incident.

Visiting the second grade may have been even more terrifying for Lizzy then being eaten alive by crickets. Imagine being her size and having two hundred hands reaching out to touch you. She stayed green throughout the experience, which supports the "green when stressed" hypothesis. But, she didn't jump or dart from Orion's hands in an attempt to escape as he carried her from classroom to classroom. Another survival strategy is to stay still so predators won't see you.

All of this has been intriguing to me because it illuminates the quixotic desire of we humans to keep creatures in captivity, despite the complexities, and sometimes cruelty, of taking animals out of the wild. In this case, there was some kind of altruistic instinct in play when she was first discovered in the sod. As a pet she teaches us about her kind and gives Orion a sense of how to care for the needs of others. Some people surround themselves with pets like these. Creating terrariums becomes an art and obsession.

Someday though, I would like my son to see anoles in the wild, or at least living independently in the suburbs of Texas, where crickets are free, the sun is their source of light and they survive the coldest months by hunkering down in a hole in the ground. And there are other lizards like her to mate with.

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