Rescuing Kerouac

Daily Prompt: Tell us about the time you rescued someone else (person or animal) from a dangerous situation. What happened? How did you prevail?

She was small and bright green, her skin the texture of raw silk. Her tiny fingers grasped the stick to which she clung, as she paused in the sickly, bright light of her cage.

Little flies hopped here and there along the stick and below, in the cedar wood chippings.

I couldn’t help smiling at the sweet creature, despite its sad surroundings.

“It’s so cute!” I said, looking at the other two, almost identical, baby iguanas in the next cage over.

Straightening, I frowned slightly as I remembered the large iguanas I had seen on the island of Monserrat when I was younger. They were large, probably about four feet, and came and went as they pleased, living a good life out in the wild.

I looked back at the tiny, dirty cages and shook my head.

“These cages are awfully small,” I said aloud, as the man who worked in the pet shop stood by, ready with his rebuttal.

“Well, these are babies, they don’t need much space. They feel safer in a smaller space at first.”

“Hm,” I replied, dubious. I looked over at my friend, Alan, who had been driving down the main street when I asked him to stop so I could take a look in the pet shop.

I had never noticed this pet shop before, though I wasn’t really familiar with this area of town. It looked nice from the outside, and the signs in its windows boasted of its extensive collection of reptiles and exotics.

I had long held a special place in my heart for reptiles, and iguanas in particular. Ever since that visit to Monserrat when I was younger.

The thought of taking home one of these little guys rolled around in my mind for a few minutes. I looked at the various terrarium sizes and flicked through a book titled, Raising your Iguana.

“How big do they grow?” I asked the store clerk.

“Oh, they grow. They grow quickly. They can be up to four or five feet long including the tail. You’d start them off in a little terrarium, but you’d soon have to move them up to a bigger one,” he continued.

“They need heat lamps, too, one in the day, and a red one at night,” he added, supplying enough information to confirm for me that this was not a commitment I should be making in my third year of university. These little animals obviously required more time and care, and money, than a 20 year old university student could provide.

But Alan, meanwhile, had become intrigued during the discussion. He had one of the other employees at the door to one of the cages and was asking how one would pick an iguana to take home. What were the signs you should look for if you were going to buy one?

I raised my eyebrows.

“You can’t buy an iguana! You don’t know anything about them! They take a lot of work. And money.” I stopped short of saying it, but Alan had less money than I did; certainly not enough to buy an exotic animal all the anticipated and unexpected things it would need to survive in a northern country.

Of course, telling him he couldn’t buy it pretty much convinced him he should. It was a  character trait that had irritated me on more than one occasion, but never so much as it did in this particular instance, when an innocent animal’s life would be affected.

Alan and the sales assistant were releasing first this then that baby iguana onto the floor of the store. The sales assistant was explaining that the ones that were hyper were not the ones you wanted. He said he thought Alan should get the quiet one that calmly walked over to sit in the shadow of a feed bag.

But Alan was watching the first one I had seen. It was full of life, darting this way and that, impossible to catch.

“That one,” Alan declared, pointing at the vanishing tail. “That one has lots of life. I want him.”

I had a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach but there was no talking Alan out of his decision. A short while later, we left the shop with a small terrarium, some cedar chips, a little stick with a round fungus growing out of the top of it, the heat lamps and a UV lamp to mimic the sun. And one rather jumpy little iguana who seemed to be running at the insides of the small cardboard box in my hands.

It was cold outside, a grey February in Canada. The cold wind whistled around the box and I quickly opened my jacket to protect the little cold blooded creature which was, for now, in my care.

It was not an auspicious introduction to this animal’s new life.

The iguana lasted with Alan for no more than two weeks. In that time, it grew beyond the first terrarium and Alan, not surprisingly, discovered that he didn’t have the money or the interest to feed and care for what was, essentially, a wild animal.

During that time, I had been reading about caring for iguanas in the book I had bought that day at the pet shop.

I read about the iguana trade, a lucrative business involving the capture of babies who are often smuggled in burlap sacks, transported on planes to northern climates to be sold in generally unequipped pet shops. I read about how fast iguanas grow, what an ideal diet in captivity would include, the dangers of too much phosphorous and not enough calcium, the stress that iguanas suffer in captivity, and how long they could live if cared for properly.

When Alan came to me and said he was going to return the iguana to the pet shop, that I had been right and it had been idea, I was horrified.

“You can’t take it back there!” I cried. At that moment, I knew I would take it in myself and rescue it from the pet shop and from Alan.

I found a more reputable pet shop that actually did know about iguanas and their needs, and I spent a lot of time with the staff, choosing the right food, bedding, lighting and terrarium.

Initially thinking it was a male, I named him Kerouac after the writer. It seemed to suit him; an outsider, unique, beautiful, fierce and fiercely alone.

Kerouac flourished in my care.

I fed him raspberries, prickly pears which I peeled myself, every now and then getting spines in my fingers, red peppers, the odd fresh fig, and pounds upon pounds of kale, collards and dandelion greens, as well as dried pellets specially formulated for iguanas. I started eating dark, leafy greens myself.

I bought him better lights.

I let him wander around my room until he needed to go back under his heat lamp.

In the summer, I fashioned a harness out of a pant leg and took him out in the warm sunshine. The sudden appearance of this strange creature in the outside world sent the birds screeching and fluttering into the sky which made Kerouac nervous and sent him off partway up a tree after them, his long tail whipping like a sharp switch.

I was amazed as I watched him grow, as I observed him learning to recognize the voices of different people, the different sounds their keys made when they came home. If he heard someone he didn’t trust, his amber eyes would grow wide, his dewlap would drop and he would bob his head in a way that was supposed to be threatening. It was fascinating how much character and personality his little face could emit.

It was when Kerouac had to be taken to a specialized vet that I really realized how lucky it was Alan had decided to give him up.

Kerouac hadn’t eaten in days but his belly seemed swollen. He was quiet, listless. So, I did  some research and located the best of the three vets in the city who specialized in exotic pets.

The vet greeted me warmly and admired the iridescent blue and white markings on Kerouac’s vibrant green neck.

“May I show your iguana to my staff?” He asked. “This is the healthiest iguana I have seen in captivity. You are definitely doing something right.”

When he returned from the back room, he explained that Kerouac had, in fact, produced unfertilized eggs. Kerouac was a female!

We discussed the various options, but really, the only viable one was to have her spayed. I had no intention of raising baby iguanas; I already had grave reservations about the ones that were presently in captivity. And Kerouac, or Kerry as I tried to rename her, didn’t need to go through producing eggs every year or so.

The procedure would cost $500. I knew that Alan would never have paid that, would never have had the interest even if he had the money. I didn’t hesitate.

Kerouac recovered easily from the surgery and returned to being her cantankerous, fierce self. She grew to be three feet in about two years, and retained her beautiful colouring.

This should be a happy story of a girl and her iguana. Iguanas can live up to 35 years in captivity and certainly Kerouac was a well-fed, well cared-for animal who would probably have had no problem surviving that long.

But, two years after I saved her, I graduated from university and seized an opportunity to go and live in Ireland. I couldn’t take Kerouac with me.

I did everything I could to make sure I found the best people possible to adopt Kerouac. I gave them everything: the huge cage that I had had built, the lights, the food, even that book I had bought at the very beginning of my adventure with her. I listened to their plans to dedicate a whole room to their new iguana, and hoped that they really would follow through.

Then I drove away.

I elected not to stay in touch with them. I decided I couldn’t bear to know if they didn’t take care of Kerouac the way I would have.

I had saved one tiny life, maybe, but I wished I could save them all.

I loved that crazy little creature but I realized that no one can provide an iguana with what they truly need: freedom.

Keeping them as pets is selfish, no matter how well you care for them (unless, of course, you are saving them from an unsuitable owner; I know there are lots of good souls who do that). They are lovely, beautiful creatures but they should be out in the wild, not locked inside to please a few humans.

Perhaps I should have done more. Picketed the big pet stores. Thrown eggs at the smugglers as they tried to sneak their bags of baby lizards through customs. Written to all the people who could make a difference.

But I did not. Instead, I decided to make a difference in my small way. I vowed to never buy an exotic pet again. A cat, maybe. A dog, possibly. But that was it.

Did I really rescue Kerouac? I think I did. I’m sure she had a better life with me, and even with those who adopted her, than she would have had with Alan. And I’m glad he didn’t return her to the pet store. As the vet said, there aren’t a lot of iguanas in captivity who are so well cared for. I’ve seen other iguanas in university student dorms and they were definitely not healthy.

Did I really save any animals from similar fates? Maybe not, but I didn’t contribute to the demand, either, and that’s something.

3 thoughts on “Rescuing Kerouac

  1. Love this story. It is amazing how we become attached to our pets, About 6 months ago my hubby promised a Bearded Dragon to my son if he met a 30 day challenge. We researched that this was the easiest reptile. Well, probably $500+ later, we have had this guy, or girl, we don’t know for about 6 months. Love it..but there is so much fussy over eating, the lights, just like you described. He has been trying to brumate over the last week and I felt so funny taking him to the vet earlier this week to figure out whether we should let him or not and testing whether he was ok. Not sure I’d make the decision again, like you said, about taking on the responsibility. I would be broken-hearted if something went wrong.. I walk by him all the time and we “chat”…the expressions they make are so great. I do think you saved Kerouac in your own way….regardless of whether it’s right or wrong to sell them in stores, they do it…and it’s better she was in hour capable hands than Alan or anyone else who walked by thinking they were cute but not willing to take on the complexities as they grow….

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