Chapter 10: The Little Lizard Eats BIG

One day over lunch, I asked Scott what the biggest challenge was for him in zoo medicine.

“Too many different anatomies,” he said. “From a half-ton rhino with worms, the next call can be a half-ounce lizard. And at the zoo, you can bet that any disaster that can happen will happen.”

Then Scott told me about one of the most challenges calls he’d ever gotten.

“It’s not eating,” the keeper complained.

“It was a fat-tailed gecko from North Africa,” he told me. “They are about four inches long, have huge eyes, a fat tail, and in this case – a belly ache.”

“No tiny Tums for lizards?” I asked.

“Nope, it’s usually just surgery. I palpated its belly and I could feel something hard in there. They had been feeding it crickets.”

“Crickets are not on the gecko’s normal menu?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “They’re too big. It had an obstruction. I would have to operate.”

“How do you operate on a four-inch gecko?” I asked, picturing a tiny operating table.

“Very carefully,” he said. “I made an anesthesia mask out of a straw and some scotch tape. I used the smallest scalpel I could find. It was intense because her intestines where like a tiny bowl of spaghetti.”

I hesitated, my spoon over my bowl of soup. Not that I had a weak stomach. We had grown up listening to our father discuss his surgeries over dinner. I was just glad we had decided against Italian.

“Something large bulged out of one of those tiny strands,” he continued. “It was shaped very distinctly like a cricket’s head.”

I grimaced.

“The real trick was how to slice through something that was essentially the size and shape of a strand of spaghetti and be able to sew it back up again. When I finally got it open, the cricket’s head popped right out.

”
He stopped to eat some chili and I envisioned a partially digested cricket head flying out of a severed gut. I swallowed, hard.

“But it turned out that the hardest part was actually sewing it up. I used the smallest needle I had and stitched the wall of the intestine together. It had to be sewn so carefully that the opening was still big enough for food to pass though or we would be right back to where we started with another obstruction. So I had to make these minute, little stitches. Plus, it was slippery and kept sliding around between my fingers. Really frustrating. Finally it was done and I stitched her belly closed.”

Maybe I was imagining it, but it seemed like the tables near us had suddenly decided to take their food to go.

“She was okay?” I asked.

“Remarkably, yes. Just fine.”

“Why remarkably?”

“Lizards, especially small ones, don’t always do well with anesthesia,” he told me. “Despite everything we do, they still die after surgery sometimes.”

“But it was okay?”

“Oh yes. They did a little article in the zoo newsletter about it. They nicknamed me the ‘Lizard, Gizzard, Wizard’.”

“Good one,” I said. “Did you start wearing a pointed hat?”

“Only at home,” he said, not missing a beat. “The dogs call me master.”

I rolled my eyes.

“And the gecko started eating again and everything?” I continued.

He nodded.

“Something better than crickets?” I asked.

“Oh yes,” Scott said.

I smiled and started eating again.
He waited until I had taken a large mouthful of soup and was just about to swallow.

“Now she only eats fat, juicy maggots.”

“Yum,” I croaked after the coughing stopped.

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About Sheri Amsel

Sheri Amsel has degrees in Botany and Zoology from the University of Montana 1980, a Master's Degree in Anatomy, Physiology and Biomedical Illustration from Colorado State University 1987. Ms. Amsel interned at the Smithsonian Institute in 1983 in Scientific Illustration, taught anatomy and biology at three colleges from 1990 - 1997. In addition, Ms. Amsel has published more than 15 nonfiction children's books, two field guides for adults, and illustrated a myriad of books and interpretive displays on nature and science topics. Ms. Amsel has done science programming at more than 300 schools nationally, developed more than 20 educational nature trails in New York State, and coordinates school visits to local nature trails for environmental education programs for the Eddy Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to conservation and habitat preservation. Ms. Amsel created the Exploring Nature Educational Resource website with the hopes of sharing her science and environmental education knowledge and experience with science educators and students worldwide.