Our house has always been full of animals. Throughout the years we housed Snuffy Beagle, Smokey Dachshund, Mister Balinese Cat, Baby Mutt, Frosty White Hamster, Rosie and Rupert Parakeet, Carmelita Cockatiel, Sonny and Cher Bunny, Dodger Cat, Harold the pregnant cat, (long story), Juno the pregnant cat, Harold and Juno’s 11 kittens, Piper Terrier, The Fish Family, Mr. Frog, The Turtles, and the current dictator tenant Pinkerton Tuxedo Cat.
I believe pets teach children about empathy, responsibility, patience, and protection of the weak. Growing up with pets, I wanted my kids to have the same experience. I wanted them to learn about the cycle of life and making responsible choices. I wanted them to have a sense of reverence and wonder about nature.
My kids thought I knew just about everything you needed to know about pets. I knew what that cuttle bone thingy you hang in a bird’s cage is for, and where it comes from. I knew how to bottle-feed orphaned baby bunnies until they could get big enough to be released on their own. My kids thought I was The Animal Whisperer. Wise Woman of the Forest.
Until the Lizard Disaster of ’97.
Each fall we attended the State Fair. We gobbled fair food, rode some rides, but spent most of our time at the petting zoo, the livestock barns, and checking out 4-H projects. This particular year we ran across a display that got all three kids excited. Someone was selling anole lizards, commonly known as chameleons. As the chorus of ‘Please, Mom! Please?’ grew, I pulled out $5 and we gained a new family member. The lizard was christened Gamaliel.
Gamaliel was our quietest resident. He roamed his terrarium kingdom, hunting mealworms purchased from the pet store. The kids would encourage his camouflage ability by finding bright colors to place him on. He preferred staying green. He didn’t get handled much after that, but thrived in his terrarium. After a year I convinced myself Gamaliel was lonesome. I could tell by the look in his eyes. Gamaliel needed a friend.
At the pet shop I asked if there were any guidelines to having more than one anole in the same cage. They had plenty together in the shop. “Not really, except you have to make sure they are just about the same size. Their dominance is determined by size.” After looking at the lizards one looked a little healthier than the others. “We’ll take that one,” I pointed. Oldest Daughter, always the pragmatic one, spoke up first. “Mom, that one is bigger than Gamaliel. Way bigger. They have to be the same the guy said.” “I’m sure they are,” I dismissed. Middle Son agreed with his sister (probably a first). “He’s bigger than Gamaliel. What if they don’t like each other?” ” I’m sure they’ll be great friends.
By the time we got home, the lizard was named Paul. We put him in the terrarium and he began exploring. I got a little nervous when I saw the kids were right. Paul was twice the size of Gamaliel.
Paul and Gamaliel checked one another out. Then Gamaliel did something we’d never seen him do. He stuck out the wattle under his neck, and it began changing colors like a neon billboard. Paul did the same thing. “Oh, look kids, they’re saying hello to each other!”
Just then Dad walked in from work. “Dad! Come see our new lizard! He’s talking to Gamaliel!” They gathered around the terrarium. At that EXACT moment Paul decided to show Gamaliel how much he wanted to be friends. Paul had clamped his jaws around Gamaliel in an effort to EAT HIM. His jaw muscles must have been very healthy, because we couldn’t get them open to free Gamaliel. I panicked, worried my children would be traumatized. Instead they were fascinated. I wanted them to learn about the cycle of life and the wonder of nature, here it was in technicolor.
In a last-ditch effort, Hubby had the idea to force the air out of Paul’s lungs so he would have to take a breath and let go. I protested, but no one was listening to my animal advice now. He used the eraser of a pencil to gently press down on Paul. His jaw slackened, then both lizards crawled into corners where they proceeded to die. Oldest daughter crossed her arms. “I told you Paul was too big. You’re a lizard killer.” (Technically Dad and Paul were the killers.) She stomped off to leave me to the burial details.
I hated being wrong. I hated being a lizard killer, but there it was. I wasn’t Wise Woman of the Forest. I wasn’t Perfect Mom. I apologized. Would my kids respect me? Would they ever believe me again? Forgiveness came quickly and they moved on to more pressing problems (“Let’s catch all the monarch butterflies and have a butterfly zoo!”) They still loved and respected me, but they never forgot.
The event comes up regularly now. When I’m full of facts and advice, one of my adult children will manage to bring it up.
“Are you sure, Mom? Remember Gamaliel and Paul? We better double-check.”
I swear he looked lonesome. You could see it in his beady little eyes.
Kristin Nador is our blogger of the month for November. She blogs at kristin nador writes anywhere.