Today it’s bright and warm. The dog is asleep two rooms away. Earlier, someone knocked on the door and Buddy slept through that. But somehow, he hears the soft clank of the leash as I lift it off the hook and he comes running. I kneel to the floor and give him a good rub behind his soft ears. “Go for a walk, Buddy?” He literally bounces with excitement.
We head down to the park. From a distance, I see some guy who is talking to himself. As I get closer, it looks like he is talking to his hand. No, that can’t be… As I get closer still, I can see he is chatting away to pet lizards which are basking in the sun on his outstretched arm.
He turns away as I approach, as if embarrassed to be caught in such an animated conversation with a pair of reptiles.
“Oh, those are beautiful!” He turns towards me and smiles. Openness. Pride.
“What are those?” I ask with more enthusiasm than I feel.
He tells me they are dragon lizards (or bearded dragons or Komodo dragons- some sort of dragon).
“Oh, wow! Hey, would you mind- could I take a picture?”
“Absolutely,” he beams.
One of the weird little chunks of knowledge I possess is that lizards need sun.
Twenty years ago, Mike and I lived downtown in an apartment with our friend, Michelle. We had an iguana named Gizmo. Well, Michelle had an iguana named Gizmo.
Giz lived in an aquarium in Michelle’s bedroom, next to a sunny window overlooking English Bay. Occasionally, we would take Giz out of his aquarium and let him wander the apartment where he would eventually make himself at home in the foliage of a potted plant. He would perch there, looking around in a dispassionate and disinterested way. It’s probably fair to say I loved him as much as he loved me. He did not react when I said his name and he was not excited to see me when I came home. I’ll admit he was an interesting creature, but intriguing and beautiful in the way of a living sculpture rather than a companion.
One day Michelle called out to us in a panic. Gizmo’s face was all “squished in,” his nose or snout or whatever was pulled up into his head. It was bizarre and horrible. Michelle, Mike and I rushed him to the animal emergency hospital.
Michelle gently passed Giz to a man who disappeared behind a swinging door. After a few minutes, the three of us were brought into the back. A woman in a lab coat was sitting at what looked like a card table. Giz was laid out in front of her. As she spoke, she made long slow strokes from Gizmo’s neck, down his body and the full length of his long tail.
She explained that iguanas need either sun or a UV lamp to help them make vitamin D, which is needed to process calcium. Without it, their bones can deteriorate. Gizmo’s sunny spot by the window had not been sufficient. His jaw bones weakened, snapped, and the tendons in his face pulled his mouth into his skull. He would not be able to eat, so euthanasia was probably the most humane option. The vet explained that they could try reconstructive surgery, but even if successful, “he won’t be the same Gizmo that you’ve known.” She outlined the costs, which would climb into the thousands.
We were horrified at our collective ignorance. However unintentionally, we had done this to poor Giz. As Gizmo’s true owner, it was up to Michelle to request the euthanasia. Except she didn’t.
“Could we have a few minutes outside,” she asked?
The three of us stood on the sidewalk, each one lighting a cigarette.
Michelle took a deep draw on her smoke, looked from Mike to me with tears in her eyes and asked, “What do you think?” The question was flabbergasting to me. In retrospect, it very well could be that Michelle was offering us an opportunity to take part in the decision, a generous demonstration that Gizmo belonged to all of us, and not just her.
Michelle’s tears. The way the vet so lovingly stroked Gizmo from head to tail. The very fact that reconstructive surgery was even discussed. And what exactly was it about his personality that would become so altered afterwards? Was I missing some key element of caring, some special insight into this animal that everyone could see but me?
I realized then that I didn’t have to feel what Michelle was feeling, only that I needed to accept it, know that she was in pain, and be the best friend I could.
I said, “Well, the vet said Gizmo would never be the same…”
We said goodbye to Gizmo that day.
So, here I am in the park with the man with two lizards. I don’t need to understand why he cares for them, but I understand that he does.
I admit, my enthusiasm is false. Does this make me a phony? Seeing his posture move from concealment to openness. Seeing his smile and the pride on his face when I ask to take a picture. Phony or not, this has to be a good thing, right? An ethical thing?
“Thank you for letting me take their picture,” I say. “That’s so great your taking them out in the park today. Lizards need sun.”