Reptile Husbandry

Small rats aren’t that much bigger than large mice, right? I think I remember Dr. A saying he was eating rats. Yeah, put the heating pad under one log and keep the lamp shining on the other. It’s not warm? Is it sticking to the tank ok? Maybe the adhesive is worn out.

I can only imagine what my side of this phone conversation sounds like to innocent bystanders. I’m racking my brain to recall the general specifics of keeping Python regius, the Royal Python, alive. On the one hand, it doesn’t take much. Occasional rodents and a happy stasis of humidity and temperature. On the other, this ease makes them rather easy to forget, or at least for us to forget how rodent sizing works and whether 83 or 85 degrees is a good ambient temperature for their enclosures. They are so pedestrian for pythons that we’ve largely phased out their blue-blooded name in a cold-blooded gesture. Most everyone knows them as Ball Pythons, so named for their defense-mechanism-cum-resting-state that results in a tight serpentine ball that you could play pok-ta-pok with.

I stress that the frozen rodents must be thoroughly thawed and warmed, NOT IN THE MICROWAVE (they’ll explode) before being presented to Slinky, the six-foot-long Ball Python. Pythons have heat sensors that run the length of their faces above their upper lips which give them that ponderous stair-step appearance. It’s not motion or fur that looks appetizing to them, it’s warmth. Whatever we can do to make those sterile, lab-rat-white, mousesickles warmer looking increases the odds that the snakes will eat them so we don’t have to buy the particolored living versions just across the aisle at the local PetCo.

Slinky takes well to mousesickles which makes me happy. As it stands, my python eats a lot more meat than I do. So does Alby, my bigenarian albino Leopard Gecko.  Albino reptiles are not pure white, but simply lack the dark pigments they are normally associated with. Albinism is surprisingly common, but rarely observed in the wild because they are such easy targets without their well-designed outfits to hide them. She, too, has been trained to consume a freeze-dried facsimile, as crickets’ expressiveness and strident, manic chirping make them both a sad and supremely annoying food source for the lip-licking lizard. Even though all of our meat is also pre-killed and pre-frozen, I have a harder time justifying grilling a ribeye steak than I do placing a serenely dead rodent in a Zip-Loc and a bowl of piping hot water (which you usually have to change halfway through to get it warm enough). I suppose we can’t teach snakes to eat Field Roast Veggie Sausages, no matter how warm they are.

I recklessly walk into my high school bedroom and flip on the lights. I’m greeted by gigantic and unamused pupils looking quizzically towards the offending intruder. Alby is lounging on her heated faux rock, soaking in the glory of the night. I wince and turn the overheads off, apologizing to my nocturnal friends. I stumble and stub toes searching for the bedside lamp. I leave it on its dimmest setting and watch Slinky perform aimless acrobatics in the jerry-rigged Seran wrap that covers half of his tank’s lid. He loops endlessly, making clumsy crashing noises and stretchy Seran sounds like some sort of Jungle Book sleep aid cassette. Alby nods at me in contentment and I smile remembering the days when I passed my dimly-lit nights ruining my eyes so my reptilian friends wouldn’t ruin theirs.

I wish I smoked cigarettes so I could lie on my bed and chainsmoke and watch them make their rounds. Snakes can be so edgy or so nerdy. Much depends on what you’re smoking. Leopard geckos are much less polarizing. The stuff of middle school science teachers who are too quotidian to correct the parents who refer to them as “lizards”, or worse, “newts.”

Reptiles have a unique quality among the animal kingdom in that they are completely mute. They have neither croaks nor squawks. No bark, just bite. You could share a space with them and offend their greatest need, even starve them to death, and still they’d stare silently, perhaps unblinkingly.

We could learn a lot from this most admirable asceticism. Left to their own devices, reptiles don’t raise a racket, they simply act and move on, seeking neither accolades for their adaptability nor pity for their plight.

Their amphibian cousins can be tricked into an awful tolerance, the ol’ frog-in-a-slowly-heating-pot trick, but they also raise all manner of self-indulgent hell when the rain comes or whatever unknowable changes goad them into cacophonous collaboration. You can go years without seeing a frog or a toad, but if you live where they do, you’ll surely hear them.

The caged bird rarely sings, and so it goes for the caged tree frog. Legs and Kermit, my childhood White’s Dumpys, made no noise but their clumsy thudding as they leapt after crickets in their vertical terrarium. Their generically-gendered names were most amusing when I often discovered them stacked, one clinging to the glass and the other to its back. How anything clung to that cold, moist skin is beyond me, but how anything climbs glass is, too.

On a warm night in Puerto Rico, the coqui reminds us that the world isn’t really ours as they serenade with that syncopated refrain. Co-qui. Co-qui. “If you build a hotel here, expect us in your showers and swimming pools and patios.” Co-qui. Co-qui.

Slinky is dangling from the Seran Wrap by his midsection, looking up awkwardly like he’s been caught in some sort of act. I am carrying a Styrofoam cup full of hot water with a frozen rat in a small Ziploc bag thawing inside of it. It is dinner time for Slinky, of no one’s accord but my own, and once he frees himself from his bizarre indulgence, I’ll slide open the cage and make an air drop like a C-130 over the parts of the world that we’ve decided need to be fed from ten thousand feet.

I have no regard for how the food lands. No matter. He’ll eat it. It’s warm and furry and smells of rat. I am the benevolent dictator, the not-quite-invisible hand that inserts food and water and removes shed skin and excrement and hopes I don’t get nipped when I clumsily reach for the water bowl.

Royal pythons regally laze about in the wilds somewhere in northwestern Africa. More famously, they are relegated to designer pets named after their defensive position and sold for truly absurd prices depending on their coloration. Patterns that would spoil their perfect camouflage in nature are most prized in captivity. Some go for dozens of thousands of dollars, rivaling only orchids as expensive terrarium-bound mortal investments.

As my tenth grade honors chemistry teacher and infinitely trustworthy good steward of everything, Dr. Aldridge was perfectly qualified to take semi-permanent custody of my reptiles as I abandoned them for college on the west coast. They crossed my mind often, sitting there in that classroom that never got fully dark, being gawked at by younger mes while I was out doing anything but being responsible for the lives of others.

Dr. A placed labels on both tanks, glorifying Slinky as a Royal Python and noting that Alby is indigenous to the unfathomable region that is Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan. I remember being young and wondering how many of her cousins were killed by drone strikes.

When I got the news that Dr. Aldridge had dropped dead while teaching an SAT prep class for promising students from area public schools, I was in the middle of assuaging an ex-girlfriend’s concerns about something pedantic. I was forced to swallow the horrifying news in silence and wait for the inevitable call about my reptiles. I never got to cry for the unfairness of the world or receive the comfort I so needed from someone I was comforting solely to have that facsimile of companionship.

The call did come, of course, and that is why I was coaching my relatives on reptile husbandry from fifteen hundred miles away. When I got home and saw the tanks I had picked out over a decade ago with labels Dr. A had placed on them a few years prior. Alby regarded me with the genial gaze she always has. Slinky stared leerily from his preferred half-log hiding place.

When I flicked on the lights the first night I shared my space with them again, I felt a million thoughts shatter my synapses as my pupils raced to catch up. I turned off the lights for my sake as much as theirs. Every time I’d cautiously traipsed through my own room, a prisoner of my nocturnal roomies, every time I’d forced my parents to drive me to some suburban hotel lobby for a herpetology convention, every late night phone call or contemplation they’d ever been audience to. The fact that Dr. A’s demise was captured by those very eyes that looked at me now, without complaint in spite of the luminous disturbance. They knew him better than I did. They knew me better than anyone else does. They don’t even need to shed light on things to see them.

I recently dropped Slinky off in a subsidized Catholic charity housing project on the west side of Fort Worth with a chainsmoking Vietnam veteran who’s found his peace in pets. I met him at PetCo when I inquired if he knew anyone who could provide a great home for a ball python.

We carefully hauled Slinky’s massive haunt through the remnants of a December snow storm, Jerry’s cigarette in the middle of his mouth filling in for the jacket he did not wear. I worried for my snake’s lungs and wondered if he would bear witness to another untimely demise, or meet one himself.

“PetCo pretty much saved my life,” he said as we set the sixty gallon glass tank on his dining table. A cat lept up to survey its new roommate. A chameleon watched us with one eye while following the soap opera on TV with the other. “I don’t have many friends anymore, ‘cause most of ‘em are dead or still drunk and homeless. But these guys are all my friends.” He gestures around his modest one bedroom, which is full of terrariums and cigarette smoke. I walk away, unsure of what I have left behind, or why. I was sure to tell Jerry that Slinky prefers medium rats, thoroughly warmed.

2 Comments

  1. OH JOHN I COULDN’T READ ALL OF THIS….I REMEMBER THAT CREATURE IN YOUR ROOM, I AM A WOOSE?SP? JUST TOO CREATIVE IN YOUR DESCRIPTION FOR ME TO READ IT ALL. YOU PROBABLY DON’T REMEMBER BUT I WAS WITH YOU IN THE FTW ZOO AND HAD JANET AS WELL AND I WAS SKIPPING THE HERBA TORIUM SP? AND YOU PICKED UP ON THAT RIGHT AWAY AND LET ME KNOW “MIMI, MIMI OVER HERE OR THERE IS WHATEVER YOU CALLED IT” I WAS NAILED AND WE WENT IN OF COURSE…….OY VEY. THAT IS ONE MEASURE (NOT HUGE I GRANT YOU) OF HOW MUCH I LOVE YOU……LUAP

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