Since this is never going to get published and it’s the best thing I’ve ever written, thought it was time to share it. It pays homage to Jonathan Franzen’s My Father’s Brain.
As I write this, my anole lays dying in the warmth of the sun, which beats down through the open top of his glass cage. The colors on Simba’s body tell me two things: that he is stressed, as he has been since this crisis reached the critical point yesterday, but that the sunshine has made him about as happy as he can be. He will be dead soon, within hours. He has ceased to move his arms and legs, though he did flinch promisingly not long ago when I prodded his underbelly with tweezers.
An uninformed observer might think I ought to do something, bring him to the vet or, more realistically, toss what’s left of the damaged pet into the woods and let nature take its course. But this is not what Simba wants, and I know that.
It started brightly enough eight months ago. My eleven-year-old son Matthew had been nagging me for a pet for several years. As unlikely as it seems in this day of parental indulgence, I had not acquiesced.
He started the long list of “can I haves” with a dog, which was out of the question, much as I love dogs. I am a single mother of three boys, the youngest of whom is five. Must the obvious be stated, that I knew it would come down to me to do 99% of the pet care? Having a preschooler was already a lot like having a high-maintenance animal. Also, between taking care of the inside and the outside of a house, three children, and, ostensibly, myself, I couldn’t see taking on another life and a new set of responsibilities. If I were the perfect mother who had raised at least somewhat obedient and responsible children, perhaps, as a team, we could have pulled it off. But, as I pointed out the beds the boys weren’t making, the chores they weren’t doing, the basic household rules they weren’t following, I had little trouble saying no to my son’s request.
Being a clever and unusually persistent child, Matthew made his way down the list of potential pets. I am simply not a cat person, so there was no point discussing that. Then there were the rodents. Hamsters and gerbils, as far as I can tell, are little poop machines. Mice, I can say for certain because of the occasional trespassing field mouse that has visited my kitchen, are definitely little poop machines. Guinea pigs are noisy and smelly little poop machines. The rodents were out. For a brief moment, I considered getting a rabbit (poop machines, I know) and keeping it in a hutch outdoors, but I learned that someone would have to change its water twice a day in the winter to prevent the water from freezing. Once again, I did not want to get stuck with an extra chore, especially when it might mean traipsing outside in two feet of snow.
But one day, Matthew asked, “Mom? Can I have a lizard?” And I cocked my head, pointed a finger at him jauntily and, to his surprise, said, “Yes. You may have a chameleon.”
He had something a bit different in mind when he said lizard, but I, too, had a little something different in mind when I said chameleon. What had inspired Matthew to ask for a lizard was that one of his teachers kept one at school. He motioned with his hands at the size of the thing.
“A gecko,” he said “They eat live crickets.”
I shook my head and brought his hands a lot closer together.
“A chameleon,” I said. “They eat mealy worms.”
We both had something to learn.
I went to the pet store to purchase the supplies and Simba, who Matthew had prenamed. I was pleased to find an aquarium full of exactly what I had in mind: green lizards with about a two-inch long body and a thin, tapering tail. Unlike the other reptiles in the pet store, these had no spiny scales, nothing creepy, nothing to make you go Ew. And, as a bonus, they did something cool which was, of course, change color to blend with their surroundings.
The clerk was recommending an aquarium the size of the one in the store. I don’t think describing dimensions in gallons is very helpful but I could have cooked about four lobsters in the tank they were suggesting. That was putting me out a bit more than I wanted in terms of counter space. I asked the clerk to help me locate the smallest container that could hold the chameleon and its paraphernalia.
I was told I needed a hot rock, a piece of clay sculpted to look like a rock that heats up when plugged in. The rock would provide the warmth Simba needed. I also needed a water bowl as well as wood chips as substrate for the cage. (I could write a whole article on types of substrate, but let’s just say, right or wrong, I stuck with the wood chips.) When we tried to place all of the components in the cheap plastic container I’d selected, everything fit, but there was no place for the hot rock’s cord to extend. I needed to switch to a more expensive glass aquarium.
When the habitat seemed to be outfitted, I asked about food. Where were the mealy worms? I had cared for the class chameleon when I was in second grade and knew that chameleons ate mealy worms. The clerk shook her head. Chameleons do not eat mealy worms. They can’t digest them, she told me. Eating mealy worms will cause a blockage. Chameleons eat…live crickets.
I sighed. Somehow chameleon care had evolved in the thirty-plus years since I managed to keep the class pet alive such that now these lizards, which are considered a step up from cockroaches in their indigenous Southeastern United States, indulged in haute cuisine at ten cents a pop. But fine. What were the ramifications for me? I needed to buy a separate cage for the crickets. And I needed to buy special food for them, at $6.99 a jar, so that they would be nutritionally gut-loaded, which is necessary for the good health of the chameleon. I would need to go to the pet store every week to replenish my cricket supply. Furthermore, the crickets do elicit an Ew. They are bugs, rather spider-like, and they are also, I soon discovered, little poop machines.
But I’d promised my boy a pet. There was no backing out.
I selected a chameleon, the one that looked to me the most like a Simba. The clerk showed me the red markings on the underside of its neck that indicated it was male. Matthew would be thrilled.
I set up Simba’s new home while Matthew was at school. When Matthew came home, he was so excited, you would have thought he had just given birth. He called everyone he knew, sounding very much like a father in the delivery room, announcing that we had a new member of the family and inviting people to come see him.
It’s just a lizard, I thought.
The next morning, Matthew extracted a cricket from the cricket den to feed to Simba. We all watched nervously, but with great anticipation. We’re not really The Nature Channel type of people, so I was marveling that Matthew could have gotten the cricket into the cage, even if he did use a tissue to grab it. The idea of watching one animal eat another live was discomforting, but we were drawn to it, like spectators at a cockfight. (And I’ve seen a cockfight, or a few moments of sparring, and let me tell you, it’s a more riveting sight than you can imagine.)
Simba ignored the morsel, to our mixture of disappointment and relief. He was getting used to his new surroundings, we rationalized. We headed off to school/work/daycare.
But when we arrived home, Simba still had not eaten. Nor did he eat the next day. Perhaps the cricket was too big? Matthew tossed in another, smaller one. Simba ignored it. Later on, I noticed the larger cricket crawling along Simba’s back. This did not bode well.
The next day, I looked in the cage and there were three crickets in with Simba. Matthew, in his worry and frustration, kept throwing in more bugs.
“Mom, call the pet store. He’s not eating.”
I worried that Simba would be down to skin and bones and that the crickets, with their greater numbers, would attack him in his weakened state. I made the call.
“How warm is it in the cage?” the pet store owner asked.
How was I supposed to know that?
“Do you have a hot rock?” Check. “A warming lamp?” A what? The sales help neglected to mention anything about warmth other than the plug-in rock. Chameleons, cold-blooded creatures, do not eat unless they are warm enough. The hot rock alone does not simulate the heat of a Florida day.
So I brought Matthew to the pet store and we gathered more supplies: a heat lamp, a clamp (to attach the lamp to my kitchen cabinetry), a reptile thermometer, and a reptile light bulb. Matthew picked out plastic greenery and a hollowed-out coconut shell to serve as a cave. By the time all was said and done, the cost to house and feed the $5.99 chameleon was close to $90.
With the temperature in Simba’s cage being maintained at the prescribed 80 to 90 degrees, we watched and waited for him to eat his crickets. The crickets continued to climb over Simba’s tail while he ignored them. With nothing in the habitat for the crickets to eat, I started to worry that the crickets would starve to death, that Simba would starve to death, and that my son, who doesn’t deal well with disappointment, would be in therapy for the rest of his life when he saw the various carcasses littered throughout the cage. I tried to prepare him for the possibility that Simba might not make it, that outfitting the cage properly was a learning experience for us and that perhaps the next chameleon would do better. But he insisted that I keep this one alive.
The first cricket died. I was getting frantic. It had been six days since we’d brought Simba home from the pet store. The crisis started to remind me of when my oldest child, Michael, would not poop when he was a newborn (again with the poop). My grandmother had lost her only son (“my boy” as she always referred to him with a quavering voice) as an infant because of an intestinal blockage. My son was only the second male offspring in the next two generations on that side of the family and the people who remembered my grandmother’s “boy” were superstitious about male babies and their bowels. Imagine the fretting as my newborn child went days without a movement, and the celebration that followed when the soupy green product finally filled his Pampers.
While not so dire, this chameleon business was reminiscent of that time. On the night of day six of Simba’s hunger strike, I went downstairs to check on him, to see if his skinny little body had dropped, lifeless, from the branches onto the wood chips below.
Instead, by the light of the heat lamp, I saw Simba, to my mind, smiling, with two cricket legs hanging out of his mouth. Then his mouth opened wider and his red tongue was fully visible, surprisingly supple looking, snapping up to force the bug down his throat. I could feel my face mirroring Simba’s, and I felt the same relief and excitement as I did when my newborn son finally passed his much anticipated stool.
The cricket was past Simba’s mouth and was making its way through the throat and beyond. This was clear from the physiology of the lizard’s body. A lump protruded from his neck. To force the remains through his digestive tract, Simba bent his body in an S shape, then in its mirror image, performing a wiggling dance that made me laugh out loud. Then he licked his, well, I don’t think he has lips. But his tongue reappeared in a way that looked canine. I selfishly savored the moment, watching him until his tongue stopped flicking out in search of missing tidbits. Then he settled on his coconut shell, rested his chin on the hard, hairy mound, and closed his eyes.
Only then did I share the news with Matthew that Simba would survive. I’d taken emotional ownership of the animal. Of a lizard.
Since I was now mommy to a new living thing, I needed to find out everything there was to know about how to care for it properly. Before my first child was born, I read Dr. Spock’s Your Baby And Child, cover to cover, as well as What To Expect The First Year. Of course, the latter book was a must-read because I wanted to be well-prepared. I wouldn’t want to have to deal with anything unexpected, after all. Naturally, that first year of motherhood went perfectly smoothly, since I’d already read about everything that could possibly happen.
A marketing award should go to whoever named that book.
Regardless, I put my faith in research because of course a small lizard is a lot simpler to care for than a small human. (Rest assured, this is actually true.) I went on the internet and discovered I’d already made a number of mistakes with Simba.
The first thing I learned was that Simba was not, in fact, a true chameleon but a green anole (as opposed to a brown anole). I also learned that the color-changing ability of an anole does not help it blend into its surroundings but instead indicates its state of contentment. A green anole is a happy anole. The brighter the green, the happier the anole. A brown anole (of the green variety) is an unhappy anole. An anole can be unhappy (technically stressed) for any number of reasons. It could be that he is not warm enough. It could be that he has lost a battle against another male anole and, out of humiliation, wants to die. It could be that his cage is too small. It could be that he is sick. It is generally because something is not right with his environment.
Anoles make a clear statement when they are highly stressed: they get black spots behind their eyes. They might show this kind of stress when they have been handled extensively (they do not like to be touched) or when they are under some other form of extreme duress or in pain. I was relieved I had not seen this level of stress in Simba, only the low-level stress of the imperfect-environment kind. I sought to find the key to turning Simba green.
I found a web site that had the answers to all my questions, although I thought the guy whose site it was seemed a tad obsessed with anole care. For example, he said that as soon as an anole is brought home from the pet store, it should be quarantined, its stools tested for worms, and it should be brought to a qualified reptile vet for a physical. I felt reasonably sure my six-dollar lizard would not be making any trips to a vet for a fifty-dollar physical that wasn’t covered by the family health plan.
Despite the web site author’s tendency toward overkill, he had a lot of useful information. One thing I learned was that the hot rock I was using for night heat was not good because it could cause burns (and he had the pictures to prove it). This was in conflict with other information I’d read, but, since my hot rock had stopped working, I decided to listen to the advice. What was needed for night heat was a reptile night light, a specialized, heat-emitting bulb that gives off a purple glow.
I also learned that the 60-watt, UVA-emitting bulb I was using to heat the cage during the day was not the only other bulb I needed. Lizards need both UVA and UVB rays. The UVB rays are particularly important because they aid in the absorption of calcium. In its natural environment, an anole obtains both UVA and UVB rays from the sun. If Simba did not absorb enough calcium, he would die before the age of one of the dreaded metabolic bone disease. (The life span of a well-cared-for anole can reach seven years.) To this end, the site, as well as the pet store clerk, recommended that the crickets be dusted with calcium powder before being fed to the anole. (Shake-and-bake is what the pet store clerk called it after suggesting I put the powder and the crickets in a baggy and shake to coat.) There is some discrepancy over whether extra calcium is necessary with a UVB light, but I decided we ought to do it.
Anoles also need moisture. Moisture can be supplied either by an elaborate automatic misting system or a human can spray the cage using a laundry mister two to three times a day. This is necessary not only for moisture, but because many anoles do not drink from bowls. Instead, they lick droplets from leaves. However, I had witnessed Simba on his hind legs lapping from the bowl, so I was not as concerned about misting as perhaps I ought to have been.
I also learned that anoles can go on hunger strikes from either an imperfect environment or from being bored with the same old bugs. Mealy worms and wax worms (I didn’t know what those were, though I was sure I could order some on the internet for a price) were recommended for an occasional treat, as were any other pesticide-free bugs the ambitious owner might catch while dragging a net through tall grass. I couldn’t quite picture myself trolling for insects in this manner, but I did add mealy worms to the list of things to get for Simba.
I came away from my research with a lot more information about how to care for an anole, and with a bill for $40 for the only screw-in UVB light bulb I could find on the internet. I had thus far refused to increase the size of Simba’s cage to one that would accommodate the more common and less costly bar type of UVB bulb. I paid the price of my resistance with the outrageously expensive light bulb, which promised to turn my reptile bright green and make him more active.
I felt slightly ridiculous because of the amount of money I’d spent when I could have bought a new anole every week for a year for the cost of the improved setup. But the price of the creature was not the point. The point was that I had taken on the responsibility of keeping another living thing alive, and I took that responsibility seriously.
Under the light of his forty-dollar bulb, Simba seemed reasonably happy, eating his crickets and mealy worms. In my increasing obsession over proper anole care, I discovered that mealy worms are a controversial food choice because they have been known to survive ingestion and eat their way out of their host’s belly. The solution is to decapitate the worm immediately before serving, because anoles like their mealy worms still moving and the worms will squirm around for a bit, even without their heads. The head-cropping task I left to my son, although I had started handling crickets during the weekends when my boys were with their father. Neither my son nor I, equally skittish, would handle Simba.
Despite the dream cage, a problem soon developed. Simba shed his skin, or most of it. I noticed about a week after his shed that his tail was looking lumpy. It appeared that he had not shed all the way to the end of his tail. I figured he knew what he was doing and decided to let nature take its course.
The course nature took was to completely kill the tail. I came downstairs one morning to swap out Simba’s night and day light bulbs and saw that all that was left of the bottom half of his tail was a shriveled up brown thing, still attached to Simba. My subsequent research told me that the unshed skin had constricted the blood flow to Simba’s tail, which killed it.
I read about tails and found out that it is okay for an anole to lose its tail. It’s a defense mechanism so that, if a bird catches an anole by the tail, the lizard can simply drop its tail and scuttle off. However, when a domesticated anole loses its tail, there are some concerns. Infection and gangrene are the most pressing ones. Oral antibiotics or topical ones such as Neosporin or Bacitricin are recommended, as well as breaking off the tail (I am not making this up) at a healthy spot above the injury.
After I read all about the complications from tail injuries, I did two things I would have sworn I would never have done: I pulled off the dead section of Simba’s tail and I called in a reptile vet.
The first vet I reached was available the next day and, get this, made house calls, which was convenient because it was the middle of winter and I didn’t think Simba would appreciate being in the frigid air. After he weighed and examined Simba, the vet concurred that the incomplete shed had caused the problem. He decided that the tail needed to be cut off above the injury. After he performed the surgery, he told me that Simba would be fine and that his tail would grow back. He encouraged me to mist the cage more often and told me that at Simba’s next shed I should moisten his tail with a wet towel. I wasn’t sure how I’d pull that off if I wouldn’t touch the thing, but I assured him the next shed would go better.
Simba was doing well. Then, though showing no signs of illness, he started to spend most of his time brown. I realized then that what my research had told me was true. I couldn’t fight it anymore: he needed a bigger cage. It wasn’t the investment that was at issue since the cost, compared to what I was in for between the light bulbs and the vet visit, was minimal. It was the amount of space the animal would take up, between the larger two-gallon tank (now I can describe tanks in gallons) and the two light bulbs that were already clamped to my cabinetry.
But I did it. Matthew and I went to the pet store and picked out a new tank, an additional plant, and an artificial branch for basking. Though the obsessed web guy said that each anole should have a ten-gallon tank, I was satisfied that the new setup was good enough.
With the larger tank, Simba was happy. I could stop working on creating the perfect environment and just enjoy him. If you have never owned an anole, you may wonder how someone whose first choice of pet is a dog could get any enjoyment at all from a cold-blooded creature that seemingly gives nothing back. But Simba did give something back. He did his job, which was to hang from the ceiling of his cage, hide under the leaves, squeeze himself into the shape of a stick and hang upside-down from an electrical cord. He darted after crickets with speed and precision. He wiggled with excitement when he watched me preparing his mealy worms, which I was now beheading without a second thought.
Studies say that pets relax their owners, even lowering blood pressure. Surprisingly, even Simba was a relaxing presence. I talked to him when I was otherwise alone in the kitchen. He never talked back (a good thing), never gave me an argument. And, though he shed, he didn’t leave a mess as a dog would. In fact, it surprised me what he did with his shed skin. I spent an hour one day watching the process, observing him as he pulled hunks of outgrown skin from his body with his mouth. With tremendous effort, he pulled the skin off his claw, the empty skin the shape of an inside-out glove.
And then he ate it.
Simba was giving me pleasure, but he also gave me new worries. I noticed one day that his tail had a black spot on it. I suspected that the vet’s cut had caused an infection that was moving up the tail. The tail had not shown any signs of growing back and its coloration and texture were different from the rest of Simba’s healthy-looking body.
I found a nearby animal hospital with a vet who handled reptiles. The new vet examined the tail and agreed it was infected. But because the injury was relatively high up on a tail that was otherwise alive, the vet was reluctant to cut or break the tail above that point because the injury would bleed too much. The vet instead prescribed oral antibiotics, hoping that the infection was not in the spinal cord, which would be fatal. Because no one in the house handled Simba, I was instructed to (yes, this is true) inject mealy worms with the medication using a hypodermic needle before feeding them to Simba.
This gruesome task was definitely one for my son. He didn’t hesitate for a moment. Matthew has a rather colorful medical history himself and is no stranger to shots. His medical problems started when he was four with sudden liver failure for which he needed an emergency liver transplant. There were serious complications in the years that followed, but he survived them all despite some dire prognoses.
Given Matthew’s extensive exposure to needles, he was not squeamish about shots. So he beheaded the mealy worms and gleefully shot them up with antibiotics. Simba ate them greedily and soon his tail started to look better.
But, with my experience with medical issues, I had come to know that nothing ever goes as smoothly as it’s supposed to. After Simba had three of his five antibiotic treatments, he stopped eating. Mealy worms were his favorite treat so it was disconcerting that he wasn’t eating them. But the tail looked good so I wasn’t sure how much I should worry.
I found out just how much I should worry a couple of days later. When I swapped out Simba’s light bulbs one morning, I found him in one of his favorite positions; suctioned to his cage wall like Spiderman. But something was hanging from his belly, from where he pooped. It looked like it was a stool that he was still passing, so I went about my business.
A couple of hours later, I looked at Simba again. The “poop” was still there, which made me consider that it might not actually be poop. I inspected the mass carefully. It was red and left a trail of clear liquid when Simba dragged his belly against the glass. What on earth could it be?
I did a Google search on “anole lump” and was directed to the obsessed anole guy’s web site, which provided a complete list of every ill that could befall an anole. I read first about abscesses, which sounded a lot like Simba’s problem and required no treatment. But some parts of the description didn’t fit. I read more carefully and saw that abscesses were most likely to occur in the head, behind the eyes or along the neck. Nothing about being on the belly in such a noteworthy spot. And it didn’t describe abscesses as red and juicy.
In the page on abscesses, the author referred to another problem that can occur in anoles, called a prolapse. There was a link to the description of prolapse, so I read that page, too.
A prolapse in an anole is when its insides come out of its vent. (Humans can prolapse the uterus and the rectum, in case you were wondering.) I didn’t know enough about anole anatomy to know what a vent was, but I had a pretty good guess. Sure enough, the anatomical drawing of an anole on the web site showed that the vent was where the poop came out, the same place where Simba was sporting the red, juicy ball of, as it turns out, his guts.
See a vet immediately.
I managed to get hold of a reptile vet who would take Simba on a non-emergency basis, even on a Saturday. (Would I have paid $80 for an emergency vet visit if I’d had to?) Sure enough, the vet diagnosed Simba’s problem as a prolapse, which has no known cause. He stuffed Simba’s guts back in and stitched up the stretched skin around the vent so that the prolapse would not recur. He showed me that he’d sewn the knot in such a way that, if Simba prolapsed again over the weekend, I could cut off the knot (I could, huh?) so that the prolapsed guts would not be constricted by the decreased opening caused by the stitch. Then the vet gave Simba a shot of antibiotic, since the oral dose had never been completed, and sent us on our way, telling me to return in a week to have the stitches removed.
Simba was not a happy anole. When we left the vet’s office, Simba had black marks behind his eyes that indicated he was highly stressed. The prolapse had made it difficult for the normally nimble creature to move around in his accustomed way, but the stitches were worse. He gave up eating completely, snubbing his mealy worms even though they were no longer being laced with antibiotics. Nothing could induce Simba to eat. He was getting skinny, looking sallow. I brought him back to the vet on Thursday, two days before the stitches were due to come out.
The vet removed the stitches, agreeing they were most likely the cause of the hunger strike, and gave Simba a shot of hydration. Then he gave me a can of prescription dog/cat food and told me to put a “meatball” of the slop on a toothpick and feed it to Simba by hand. I didn’t dare tell this man who had stitched and unstitched the waste orifice of a tiny lizard that I had never held Simba. I would do it. Somehow, I would do it.
The truth was, I was both squeamish about touching a squirming lizard and I harbored a childhood fear from when I’d cared for the class pet in grade school. I must have been less squeamish when I was eight years old (what eight-year-old isn’t less squeamish than a forty-something-year-old adult?) because at that age I not only caught frogs, toads, caterpillars, and all manner of insects with my bare hands, I had no qualms about the grossness of picking up Cathy the Chameleon, as I’d named him. (I know now that Cathy was male because I remember him aggressively puffing out the dewlap under his neck, which only males do.) What I did have a problem with was that Cathy routinely bit me, one time hanging indefinitely from my index finger while I, panicked, tried to shake him loose. Although the bite didn’t truly hurt, because anoles’ teeth are no more substantial than the bumps on sandpaper, it still hurt, because I was caring for this creature, cared about this creature and was rewarded with what seemed, to my fragile heart, a vicious attack on my person, a statement of distrust.
Probably I had—I still have—a tendency to anthropomorphize because of a book I read as a child called The Doll’s House, by Rumer Godden. It was about a family of dolls that lived together in a doll house in a child’s play room. The world of the secretly animated toys (picture Toy Story, without any humor) and the relationships between the dolls who had adopted each other as a de facto family were vivid and realistic. I came to think that my stuffed animals and dolls had thoughts and feelings like the dolls in the book. The neighborhood bullies (and my siblings) learned to torture me by punching stuffed animals in front of me. To this day, seeing a stuffed animal struck causes a visceral reaction.
In addition to being emotionally sensitive about being bitten, I was startled by the suddenness of the animal’s movement. I became afraid of Cathy the Chameleon, who I could have squashed with the butt of the palm of my hand in an instant and who couldn’t have done me any real harm had he bitten me a hundred times. So harmless is the anole bite, in fact, that I have heard about girls who wear live anoles as earrings, fastened to their ear lobes by the anole’s firmly closed mouth.
I knew I would need to put aside my fears and misplaced sensitivity, for Simba’s sake. So I prepared Simba’s meatball, then went after Simba in his cage, trying to visualize the methods I’d seen the professionals use to pick him up. It was a lot like diving into the water, which I was also afraid of as a child. At some point, though, you just have to say, what the heck. After I finally dove, I always wondered what I was ever afraid of.
And so it was with picking up Simba. I just did it. With Simba squirming in my hand, I pressed the meatball to his lips. The mad biting creature of my childhood refused to open its mouth. I had neglected to ask the vet how to force an anole’s mouth open. All I could do was pat the dog food along Simba’s sealed mouth. He eventually licked at his meat-covered lips a few times, and I decided that was as much success as I could hope for.
Matthew had been worried through the prolapse ordeal, but when he found out that Simba was not eating the meatball, he started to talk about his next reptile. I was not as quick to give up on Simba’s chance for surviving the hunger strike, but we agreed I would not bring Simba back to the vet. There was a limit to how much money should be spent on the health and care of an anole and I had more than exceeded it. We decided to set Simba free in the woods if he headed downhill.
But, the next day, Simba ate. And over the next several weeks, he ate like the robust anole I knew he could be, on one occasion scarfing down four crickets in a matter of minutes. Matthew was ecstatic. As Simba’s health improved, Matthew proudly proclaimed that Simba was just like him because he had survived a series of medical crises that seemed insurmountable. We celebrated that the trial that started with the dried-up tail seemed to be over.
Unfortunately, this was not the end of the problems. During this time of Simba’s physical prosperity, he was growing so well that he shed two times over the next month. The first shed went well and I didn’t need to moisten the tail for the entire skin to come off. But, at the second shed, Simba started to show a distressing symptom. While the top part of his tail, which had always been healthy, had gotten thicker, the part of the tail that had been infected did not likewise thicken. It also wasn’t supple like the rest of his body. It looked like pressure was building up between the healthy upper tail and the non-growing lower tail. The bottom part of the tail started to develop some black marbling, signs of an infection or, more likely from what I saw, of a lack of circulation between the fat upper tail and the increasingly unhealthy-looking lower tail.
Despite my decree that I would not pay any additional veterinary fees for Simba, I couldn’t let it go, especially because Matthew was away at overnight camp. I did not want him to return home and find that his pet had died. There had to be a solution. It was obvious to me that Simba had to lose the lower part of his tail and that, if cared for properly, it would grow back as it never did the first time. Perhaps then he would be on his way to good health. I brought him to the vet.
While the vet examined Simba, the necrotic part of the tail, which was most of it, came off. There was not much blood from the gaping maw where his tail had been, but Simba looked downright bizarre.
I once saw a documentary about language that described how most spoken sentences are unique, that the combinations of words people can use to form sentences are, on a practical level, infinite and that humans tend to take advantage of those infinite possibilities. I think of this documentary whenever I say a sentence I am certain is unique. I thought of the documentary when I saw Simba without his tail and said to myself: He’s not half the anole he used to be.
The vet gave me oral antibiotics to administer to Simba to prevent infection at the site of the wound. However, he didn’t want me to give them by way of mealy worm, as the last vet did, because too much of the solution could be squeezed out of the worm’s ends while it was being chewed. Instead, he told me I needed to squirt antibiotic directly into Simba’s mouth.
Perhaps I should have stood up then and said, “Now see here. Enough is enough!” Instead, I explained the difficulty I’d had getting Simba to open his mouth for the meatball. I watched carefully as the vet demonstrated how to pull the anole’s “lips” open by tugging on the skin on his neck, then force the syringe into the small resulting opening to pry the mouth open wide enough to receive the dosage.
Don’t ask me how but, while shushing my five-year-old so I could concentrate on the teeny life I held in my hand, I managed to do what the vet had done with the syringe. I also swabbed clean Simba’s wound with diluted Listerine as the vet had instructed me. I had not been this involved with my own son’s extensive medical care, leaving all the shots and most of the IV infusions Matthew had to receive at home to my then-husband. I have a lifelong phobia of needles; I cannot abide watching anything being stuck into anyone’s skin. On top of that, having watched even professionals mess up with my son’s IV (I once stopped a nurse a second before she injected a syringe full of air into my son’s central line which, in the dose she was about to administer, could have killed him), I was terribly anxious that I would likewise make a mistake. But with this lizard, I somehow managed to provide the needed medical care, perhaps because the stakes weren’t as high. Or perhaps it was simply because I was the only one there.
I was a bit nervous while Simba was on antibiotics because I’d had a nagging concern that the first prolapse had been caused by the antibiotics. Sure enough, several days into this antibiotic course, Simba prolapsed again. He hadn’t been eating his crickets, either, only his mealy worms.
The prolapse occurred on a Saturday afternoon. Faced with it this time, I decided not to pay emergency visit prices for an anole whose future seemed so uncertain. I did, however, clean the guts with antiseptic solution and tried to force them back in, without success.
On Monday, during regular office hours, I brought Simba back to the vet. With tremendous difficulty this time, the vet forced the guts back in and stitched Simba up. We decided that, following my hunch about the cause of the prolapse, we would stop the antibiotics. We also agreed to take the stitches out on Thursday, acknowledging that Simba could survive a few days without eating.
But, at home, Simba wasn’t doing well. I knew his condition had deteriorated when I tried to pick him up and he let me instead of scurrying about his cage, running from the giant, pale hand as he normally did. And it seemed to me that his guts were sometimes in and sometimes out. But he was green, which I took to be a good sign.
When I brought him back to the vet to have the stitches removed, the vet proclaimed that the prolapse site looked better than he would have predicted. The guts were in. The stitches were out. I brought Simba home, feeling in high spirits.
The next morning, I ran downstairs to see how much better Simba was doing. Instead, I found him curved into an awkward position, pressed against his water bowl. I could see that his belly was swollen near his vent, which I determined to be caused by a blockage. I decided either part of his gut had been damaged by the prolapse which was causing an internal blockage or that his vent had fused shut because of the stitches. Whatever the cause, waste could not pass. Simba seemed beyond hope. I wanted desperately to keep him alive, not just for him, not just for me, but for Matthew. Besides the fact that I did not want my son to come home from camp to find his pet gone, with the parallel he’d drawn between himself and Simba, it would be especially upsetting for him if this anole died. But reason, for once, won out over emotion. Simba was going to die. I would not bring him to the vet. My son would have to be convinced that Simba was not his cosmic doppelganger. And I would have to believe it, too.
I fretted over the decision, though, as I watched Simba. With his little remaining strength, he climbed up the side of his water bowl, from which most of the water had evaporated under the heat of the light bulbs, and lapped at the low water with a robot-like repetitiveness that made me wonder whether he was fully conscious. I poured more water into the bowl so he would not have to strain to reach it.
Then he crawled into the water bowl. With the addition of the body, the level of water rose to the point where Simba was drowning. In healthy times, Simba would have flitted out of the bowl with the speed of a water bug. But, sick and weak as he was, he couldn’t climb up the bowl’s slippery sides. I frantically reached into the cage, removed the water bowl, and poured off the excess water. Simba didn’t move.
Thinking this was the end, I brought Simba outside, in the water bowl, and sat with him in the sun for a while. When he hadn’t moved for a long time, I decided he had died. I informed my five year old, who set his head on his arms and wept.
But I was wrong about Simba. He twitched slightly. “Please, Mommy, get him out of the bowl. Don’t let him die. Bring him to the doctor.”
But Simba had been through enough. I set the water bowl on its side so that he could climb out if he wanted to. Later, I checked on him. He had mustered the energy to climb out. His head was raised and his tongue sought liquid on the plastic leaves. I sprayed the leaves with the mister; he sucked at the stream of water droplets, trying to quench an unslakeable thirst. Maybe, I thought, he knows what he is doing. Maybe he can fix the blockage with enough water. Maybe he’ll pass whatever it is and tomorrow morning he’ll be on the mend. How many times had I put Matthew to bed with a precariously high fever or during a vomiting spell—both symptoms which, if they worsened, would result in a hospital stay—only to make it through to morning and find all was well? Anything could happen.
But, for Simba, no overnight miracle occurred. In the morning, Simba was deep brown, with black stress spots behind his eyes. Unlike the previous day, he showed no interest in his water bowl.
I checked on Simba later and found him on his back, not moving. I picked him up and he twitched his arms and legs. Something was sticking out of his bloated belly and I wondered if I might pry whatever it was out of the way. Using tweezers, I tried to work on it, knowing it was a job for a vet, also knowing the futility of the action. I managed to clear something out of the way. But then I was faced with a closed vent and nothing else to poke at.
There was nothing left to do. I wanted to make Simba as comfortable as possible. We sat in the sun, with him resting in my palm. He surprised me by turning green, which seemed impossible given that he was uncomfortable enough to sport stress spots behind his eyes. Should I put him in the woods? Let nature take its course in the wild? That way, I would not have to watch him die. What would be the kindest course of action?
I knew the answer, because Simba had told me, months before. Anoles are territorial. The glass enclosure that I’d gone through so much effort to optimize was his home. It was where Simba wanted to be. He proved that the time when we thought he had escaped. Sometimes anoles are difficult to locate in their cages because they hide. But on that occasion, we took everything out of the cage and still could not find Simba. Matthew was frantic and in tears. We couldn’t locate Simba anywhere in the house. I decided that the best plan was to leave the cage open and the light on, like the parents of a teenager, and hope he would return to his territory overnight. The next morning, to our relief and amazement, Simba was in his cage, sunning himself on his branch as if nothing had happened.
But the next night, Simba again went AWOL. I couldn’t understand how because, unlike the previous night, the cage had been closed tight. It didn’t seem possible. Yet, again, when we removed everything from the cage, Simba was nowhere to be found. Matthew laughed and said not to worry, Simba would come home again.
I decided to use the occasion to clean out the cage. I put my hand into the wood chips to throw them away and suddenly Simba’s head popped out. Either to cool or to warm himself, he had hidden himself under the mulch. We got a good laugh out of it. But we also learned from this event that, even with the cage open all night, Simba did not leave. It was where he wanted to be. It was his home.
Simba, despite his lack of words, had told me what I needed to know. He would be happier in his home than in the strange woods. And he would be happier outside, in the true daylight of the sun. He told me so.
I brought the cage outside and gently set him down in it.
He was green when he died.