Tipping the Scales

A heart-warming lesson from cold-blooded friends

Greyscale photo of bearded dragon on a wooden log.
Photo by Ren Ran on Unsplash

In case you’re unfamiliar with them, Bearded Dragons can be extraordinary pets. They are friendly, generally amenable to handling, and have relatively few husbandry requirements when compared to the more tropical species of reptiles and amphibians.

They are often labeled as a good beginner pet for people that are looking to own an exotic pet. While I certainly would never support the illegal importation of exotic species for pet purposes; beardies are often captive bred now for the purpose of keeping them as pets.

For this story, we’ll have to go back in time a couple of years…

Okay, maybe more like 17 years — you caught me.

The year is 2004, and I am in eighth grade. Like most great coming-of-age stories, I have a small, tight-knit group of friends, and we hang out pretty much all the time playing video games, riding bikes, having Nerf gun fights, and whatever else 13-year olds did in 2004.

We had a pet dog and cat, so I got the full experience of these pets. However, I also knew that I wanted to become a veterinarian, so naturally, I wanted more. I think it was a show on Animal Planet; though it could have been a teacher I’d had in seventh grade that used to walk around with a bearded dragon on his shoulder. Nevertheless, I became fixated on having a pet beardie.

I spent countless hours researching these lizards and determining what would be required on my part to properly care for one. Finally, I was ready to present this idea to my parents. After a few back and forth discussions, it was agreed that we could adopt a couple of beardies.

Hercules and Winter were the two that I landed on. Winter became very ill almost immediately and was determined to have some sort of congenital neurologic disease.

Unfortunately, he passed away within a few weeks of my adoption. This loss hit me hard, as I couldn’t help but feel that I had done something wrong. I had taken painstaking efforts to ensure that I was gut-loading the crickets, supplementing the right amounts of calcium, and keeping their temperature in the appropriate range. But he had died nonetheless.

When I discussed this with the exotic pet store owner she assured me that this happens sometimes with young beardies and set me up with another one, named Flash.

Hercules and Flash were an instant hit together. They were social, would interact well with each other, and were both hearty and healthy.

Hercules turned out to be a female, which became readily apparent when she began laying eggs, but she garnered Herculean strength nonetheless.

Flash lived up to his name and was a lean, not-so-mean, cricket-eating machine.

I loved these little lizards from the moment I got them when they each measured about 4 inches nose-to-tail until they became healthy adults measuring 18–24 inches (depending on which one you were looking at).

They were docile and tolerated handling for hours at a time. Sometimes, it was just me, and other times my friends or siblings would join. They were inquisitive and it was fun to give them new items to explore. However, most of all, I loved watching them eat. Whether it was their salads, mealworms, crickets, or the occasional pinky mouse it was fascinating to observe. Their sideways glance at their food always made me think of the raptors in Jurassic Park.

Believe it or not, I felt the same amount of love for these little guys as I did for my dog and cat. Though they weren’t quite as huggable, they had their own place in my heart all the same.

As the years with these pets went by, I felt my time with them slowly evaporating away. As I progressed through high school and got older, the commitments mounted. Between student government, soccer, and the AP classes that I felt compelled to enroll in for my future as a veterinarian, the time that I was able to spend with these lizards shrank each day.

The whole reason that I’d adopted these lizards was to interact with them, and I felt that ability was being slowly taken from me. In hindsight, it seems maybe a bit melodramatic; but that’s how I felt in the moment.

I found myself faced with a difficult decision — continue to watch my friends become more and more neglected idling days at a time away without any interaction, or allow them to move on.

After months of serious thought, I opted for the latter.

I’ll never forget the day. It was sunny but cool. It was spring in New Mexico — a great time on days when the wind is calm. This was one of those days.

I distinctly remember the knot forming in my throat as I spoke with the owner of the shop where I’d bought them, their food, and all of their gear over the years.

She wondered aloud why I felt that I couldn’t keep them while she quietly inspected them.

I informed her of my perceived predicament. She was clearly disappointed but assured me that they were healthy and would find homes quickly.

The disappointment that I sensed hurt almost as badly as the goodbye I was preparing to say. I was sure that she was faced with these difficult interactions all the time, but I hated to disappoint her. I had looked up to her for all of the knowledge she possessed and the aid she’d given me over the last 3–4 years.

I pet Hercules and Flash once more on their heads, rubbed their chins, and left the store for the last time. I got back into my car and for a moment nothing happened. Then the tears came.

While this story is both happy and sad, there’s no denying what I learned from these majestic reptiles.

For starters, they taught me how to develop a goal, research the feasibility and requirements, and then present a plan to achieve it. This skill is critical and helped me in the lengthy educational processes that I pursued.

Second, and for fear of sounding overly cliche, these reptilian pets taught me the responsibility of caring for another being. With two siblings and parents who were willing to help with many of the chores for the dog and cat, the care of these lizards fell mostly on me. Though I should mention, my mom would frequently pick crickets up for me if I couldn’t (thanks!). Mostly though, learning about their needs, setting up their cage, and managing their diet largely fell on me. As a relatively young kid, this helped me develop time management and budgeting skills that would be useful in the future.

Third, I learned to allow myself to make a life-changing decision. I put myself into the place of these animals and evaluated their situation and what had changed. These were lizards that had grown up being handled almost daily for the first couple of years of their lives. Now, they were lucky to be out once a week. This discrepancy clashed against the reason I’d adopted them in the first place. Ultimately, these lizards gave me one of the hardest decisions that I’d ever had to make on my own. There are still days where I think back and wonder why my 16-year old self couldn’t have made time elsewhere; however, I used the data that I had available at that time — my goals versus the reality, and I made a decision that I had to. This lesson, however painful, will carry with me forever — not all decisions in life are easy.

My 4-year stint as an owner of bearded dragons ended with mixed feelings. I loved these pets, and perhaps one day will get more. They are such majestic creatures, and I will forever cherish the time that I spent with them.

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