Grieving the Loss of a Loved One

Garden 097Some of you may have noticed that I haven’t posted any new articles for a while. First and foremost, thank you for sticking with me. I haven’t forgotten about you, the readers and followers. The tortoises are fine, great in fact. They are growing right before my eyes. The garden is a little empty at the moment though. One reason for this is because the South Florida heat has returned for the year. I had some gorgeous peas growing for a while and within three days of the scorching heat returning, all of my beautiful green peas turned into sad, brown, crispy leaf litter. The green beans weren’t far behind. Right now the citrus and purple sweet potatoes are really the only plants thriving in this heat and humidity. I do have some strawberries that are struggling too though. We shall see how that goes.

The heat is not my only reason for being MIA though. About two months ago I received a phone call that one of my best friends had died. It was unexpected and tragic and it truly broke me. Then, just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse, exactly five weeks later I received a text informing me that another friend had committed suicide. Between trying to grieve for both friends and help other loved ones deal with both losses I’m sure you can understand why blogging about my garden and the tortoises roaming it became less of a priority.

The details of both of my friends’ deaths are irrelevant, and while it really has nothing to do with tortoises or gardening, I wanted to talk a little about death and grieving. Although at the moment I am grieving the loss of two humans, many of us animal lovers also grieve the loss of pets. For people like us, “animal people”, pets become members of the family. As a vet tech, I saw people who truly felt that their animals were just as much members of the family as any human. There was a couple at the first hospital I worked at who had a cat. They spent a lot of money and a lot of time at our hospital. This cat was a child to them. After getting to know them, I found out that they had tried for many years to have children, even going through fertility treatments several times. Adoption did not work out for them either. So this cat became their child and it was their version of a family. And it was a good, happy family too. Another couple, at a different hospital, had a dog with all sorts of health problems. They were in and out of our hospital almost monthly. This dog was the most important thing in the world to them because this dog had belonged to their recently deceased son, who was also their only child. This dog was the last living reminder of the family they once had.

A while back a good friend of mine had a pet rat that died. When I told “animal people” about the passing of my friend’s rat, you could see the heartbreak and empathy in their eyes. When I told “people people” about my friend losing her pet rat, you could see the confusion and judgement in their eyes. Some even went as far as to say things like “Eewww” or “Why would anyone have a rat for a pet in the first place.” What “people people” don’t realize is how incredibly hurtful comments like this are to an “animal person.” And even though “animal people” care about all animals and are saddened when hearing about the injury, illness, or death of any animal, these comments sting even more when people are referring to someone’s pet, or rather a companion or member of the family.

So what is this “animal people” and “people people” nonsense I’m referring to, you ask? If you’re not familiar with the terms, they’re pretty common among veterinarians, vet techs, zookeepers, exotic pet hobbyists, and most others who are passionate about ALL animals. “Animal people” don’t just love animals. Instead, animals are a way of life. All animals from the tiniest frog or mouse, to the largest bear or elephant and everything in between are often times more important than most human beings to an “animal person”. Caring for these animals, learning about their behaviors, becoming conservation champions for them, and educating the rest of the world about the significance of animals are life goals. And it’s something you know in your heart even as a child. Most “animal people” are not as social with other people, though there are, of course, always some exceptions.

Most “animal people” have a difficult time talking about anything but animals. Even if the conversation starts out having nothing to do with animals, it only takes a short time until the topic comes up. Once we start, we don’t stop. And we have no problem talking about feces, anal glands, abscesses, maggots, or any other gross topic during dinner much to the chagrin of the “people people” at the table.

Last year I lost my bearded dragon, Odin, to cancer. I’ve lost other pets over the years including cats and dogs, but Odin’s death was particularly hard for me. I can’t explain it, but I was very attached to that little lizard. Though it’s been several months now, I still sometimes come home and find my eyes have immediately gone to the direction of where his enclosure used to sit. And I still find myself wanting him to hang out on the couch with me when I’m watching TV. And I still find myself looking behind me to see if he’s following me around the house like he used to do all the time.

Odin was surrendered to a local reptile rescue that a friend works with. She had him for literally about 5 minutes when she brought him to me. I took one look at him and decided he needed to come home with me. The only bits of information we knew about him were that he was nine years old and his name was Odin. I knew he was older, but decided that even if he was nearing the end of his life, he deserved to be loved and cared for as much as possible. The first 10 months were wonderful. He was the sweetest old man in the world.

He went into brumation and everything seemed OK. When he woke up a couple months later, I noticed a lump on his jaw. It was about the size of a pea. I watched it for a couple days, but it was getting larger, so to the vet we went. It appeared to be an average abscess. Odin_2The vet drained it and gave me some antibiotics to administer at home. At first it seemed to help, but then the lump came back. The vet drained it again, but it still came back. The vet recommended doing surgery to remove the abscess pocket to eliminate the problem. I agreed to the surgery and hoped for the best.

However, the news I got was pretty bad. Once the vet had Odin under anesthesia and was able to do a full examination, she found a tumor growing on the inside of his lower jaw and she was not able to remove it. Over the next nine months, I frequently drained the abscess at home and administered antibiotics because the tumor was causing the abscess to recur. Odin was such a trooper through it all. He was always spunky and in good spirits. He never seemed to let all of the poking and prodding bother him. He even liked to go visit my other dragon, Matilda, and do push-ups and show off for her every day.

Finally the day came though. When I got home from work one day, I could tell by the look in his eyes and his body language that it was time. The spunk was gone. We went to the vet hospital and I stayed with him the whole time. Saying goodbye to him was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do (until recently).

While my lizard and my friend’s rat may seem small and insignificant to many people, what those people tend to forget is that those animals are like family members to us. We spent months and years caring for them while they were healthy and dedicated even more time and love to them in the weeks and months that they were ill.

What I have found both with the passing of animal and human friends is that people are uncomfortable with grief. People who are grieving are afraid to show their feelings for many reasons like embarrassment or fear of showing weakness. Many people are also uneasy around a person who is grieving because they don’t know what to say or do. I am no expert by any means, but I will give the following advice:

For those of you who are grieving the loss of a loved one (human or animal), it is OK to feel whatever feelings you are having. And it is OK to express those feelings. Find someone to talk to and who will not judge you. For those of you in the presence of someone grieving, most importantly, do not judge the person. Everyone grieves differently and for different reasons (even if it’s for an animal). You may not understand the reasons, but you don’t have to. Just be there and listen. Don’t tell someone how he/she should feel or that they need to just move on or get over it (especially if it’s a pet since people tend to be less understanding in those situations). If you feel like you need to say something, just say “I’m sorry” or “I’m thinking of you.” Trust me, those words help more than any advice you could offer.

So if you are currently grieving the loss of a pet (or human) or have in the past, I truly am sorry. And please just always remember to be kind and don’t judge. Even the rat (or lizard) that may totally disgust you, may be the light of someone else’s life that has just gone out. Remember that that person is hurting and you can either be the person who helps or the person who hurts someone even more. It’s up to you how you react and respond.





Responsible Pet Ownership: A Big Job That Everyone Needs to Do

Having a pet can be one of the most rewarding and fulfilling experiences in life. You can form bonds that can literally last a lifetime, especially if you have a tortoise or other long-lived species. Opening your home and your heart to an animal is wonderful. However, it is also an enormous responsibility. Being a responsible pet owner doesn’t just consist of making sure your pet has food and water. In fact, responsible pet ownership should begin before the animal ever comes home with you.  360

The first step to becoming a responsible pet owner is planning. Do you already have a specific type of animal in mind that you would like to have? Or perhaps you are looking for some type of companion animal, but are not really sure what type of animal would best suit your lifestyle? Either way, one of the most important aspects of the planning process is research. Every animal has different care requirements. Even different dog breeds have different needs.

Before you decide to get a pet ask yourself the following questions.

  • Do I have time to care for an animal? For example, if you work or travel a lot, it probably is not a good idea to have a dog or bird or other animal that requires a lot of attention. Some animals need more attention and affection than others. It is not fair to the animal to be deprived of that because you are unable to give the necessary attention it needs. In some cases, lack of attention can even lead to behavioral problems, which let’s be honest, you probably won’t have time to deal with that either.  If you lead a busy lifestyle, there are plenty of lower maintenance pets out there that you can still form a bond with, but are also still happy to have their alone time while you are out and about.
  • Am I financially stable enough to pay for food, veterinary care (both preventative and emergency), toys (or other types of enrichment), and any other regular maintenance items the animal will require? PETS COST MONEY! Period. Food can be expensive. Veterinary care, especially anything unexpected, can be very pricey as well. If you are not independently wealthy and instead live on a budget then you need to decide how you are willing to spend your money. Is the animal’s care more of a priority than going out to dinner or buying a new pair of shoes? Can you afford decent pet food that will provide proper nutrition and still be able to pay your bills?  Do you have and are you willing to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars if your pet requires surgery or sustains a severe injury?  You should be willing and able to provide any reasonable amount of care that your pet may need.
  • Do I have enough space for the animal?

    Hubrecht is slightly larger than my thumbnail.

    A great dane or a full grown sulcata tortoise will obviously need much more space than a bearded dragon or a cat. Make sure everyone can have a comfortable living space.

  • Will the animal grow significantly? This is mostly relevant to reptiles. A newborn sulcata might weigh all of about 15-20 grams. A red tailed boa might be a few inches long as a hatchling. And then they grow up…
  • Are there any specific habitat requirements that the animal will need such as temperature, sunlight or UV exposure, humidity, access to water for soaking or bathing, hiding areas, specific substrates, a water filtration system, etc? Herps are the perfect example for this question. Bearded dragons, crested geckos, and chameleons are all lizards and all have completely different habitat requirements. My electric bill is outrageous. I keep the house cooler for my frogs (especially the tinc), but to compensate for that, I have high wattage heat lamps on the tortoises and bearded dragons so that they are comfortable too. My torts, turtles, and beardies all also require UV light. Since I can’t have them outside all of the time, they also have UV lamps on top of their enclosures. All of these lights are on timers since my work schedule varies. At one point, I had to stop taking rescues because I had no more available electrical outlets in my home and if I had plugged in one more power strip, my circuit breaker probably would have exploded. I even had frogs in my kitchen because space was so tight (BTW, I ate out a lot during that time)
  • What type of energy level does the animal have and will I be able to give the animal enough exercise or room to run/move? A monitor lizard needs to move around much more than a pac man frog. A border collie generally has more energy and needs to run/exercise more than an English bulldog.

    Phoebe lounging on her couch. There are definitely animals out there with lower energy levels.

    A puppy or kitten is more energetic (and mischievous) than its adult counterpart. Also if the animal needs to come out of its enclosure for exercise, do you have time to spare for supervised play time or a space for the animal to exercise unsupervised?

  • Who will be providing the day to day care and maintenance for the animal? When I worked in the pet store, customers would constantly ask questions like “What would be the best type of pet for my five year old?” If you are buying a pet for your child, please do not be one of those idiot parents who think that they will never have to deal with the animal and that it will be a great way to teach your child about responsibility. Your kid is a kid no matter how responsible your little angel is and at some point you will end up having to feed, clean, and exercise the animal. If you are not willing to help your child with animal care and set a good example then don’t get a pet.
  • What is the life expectancy of the animal? A hamster lives about 2 years. A cat lives 15-20 years. A large parrot about 60-80 years. And then there are giant tortoises… If you’re a commitment-phobe, get the hamster.
  • Is anyone in the household allergic to the type of animal you want to get?  I can not even count how many times people have told me that they have to get rid of their pets because they are allergic to them.  Not to be Captain Obvious here, but that’s something you should find out BEFORE bringing an animal into your home. If you’re not sure or have never had exposure to a certain type of animal, go to a shelter, a pet store, or friend’s house and spend more than five minutes around the type of animal you’re thinking of bringing home.  The animal has no control over someone’s allergies and should not have to be bounced from home to home because you did not exercise a little common sense.

All of these questions should be asked and answered before bringing home any type of animal, even a cat or dog. Once you’ve answered these questions and have determined that you can provide proper care, then please obtain your pet responsibly. I am a huge proponent of adopting rescue animals. Most of those animals are in need of homes because their previous humans didn’t do any research or planning and ultimately decided that they couldn’t care for the pet for one reason or another. Other times, animals end up in need of homes because circumstances change (i.e. their humans passing away or becoming too ill to care for them).


I adopted Matilda through a friend from the local herp society

There are plenty of rescues out there. You just need to look for them. And usually you don’t have to look too hard. Almost every major urban area in the U.S. has a local herp society. Even if the herp society doesn’t have any animals for adoption, they can often point you in the direction of someone who does. Some shelters take in exotic animals too. Here in Florida, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission holds exotic pet amnesty day events throughout the state. People who have exotic pets that do not want them anymore can drop their animals off at a specified location with no questions asked. The animals are then examined by veterinarians. Once they are given a clean bill of health, the animals can be adopted. You have to fill out an application and be pre-approved to adopt from these events, but it is a great way to give a forever home to an exotic animal in need. If you are looking to adopt cats and dogs, there are thousands of rescues throughout the country, many even being breed specific.

If you decide to buy from a breeder, buy from a responsible breeder. A responsible breeder should be able to tell you who the animal’s parents are, exactly how old the animal is (birthdate, hatch date), specific care requirements, and any known genetic health issues in the animal’s lineage. Reputation is also very important when choosing a breeder. The herp community is especially good about giving feedback on the reputations of breeders. There are many outlets to find reputable breeders for the type of animal you are looking for. Check out a species specific blog or go to your local reptile show and ask around. Also be sure to buy captive bred animals. There are very rare cases for experienced herpers to have wild caught animals, but for the average hobbyist, you should not be contributing to the depletion of wild population numbers for any reason, especially the pet trade. Again, buy responsibly!

And finally, ‘tis the season for gift giving and pets make popular gifts. Giving a pet as a gift may seem like a grand gesture, and may initially be well-received. However, if all of the above information is not taken into consideration prior to giving a pet to someone, the animal and the new pet owner may end up in a very unhappy situation. Though impulse buying plagues the pet trade throughout the year, it is much more prevalent during the holidays. We want to see someone’s eyes light up at the sight of a new pet, but that initial reaction may not last forever. Reality sets in after a while when there’s poop to clean and maintenance costs begin to add up. Please make sure you buy the right gift for your loved one and make sure that gift will always been seen as a gift and not a burden.

I realize that I am being rather blunt here and perhaps even a bit harsh, but there is a reason why shelters and rescue groups all over the country are at maximum capacity.  We need to understand that these animals are relying on us for survival and that they are not novelties or conversation pieces that we can easily dispose of when we tire of them.  They are living, breathing, emotional creatures who deserve respect and the best care we can possibly give them.  Please remember that before choosing to take on such an important responsibility.


For More Adoption Info:

FWC Amnesty Day Events

South Florida Herpetological Society Adoptions

Reputable Bearded Dragon & Crested Gecko Breeders:

Allgood Dragons

Emily’s Geckos