Coming home from the Philippines was a whirlwind of emotions. I miss my family so much in the Philippines and I can't wait to go back again. However, my arrival back to the Bay Area was somewhat shocking. I learned that my dear Waldo passed away on Christmas Day while we were gone.
Both my bearded dragons were boarded at a reptile boarding facility during our absence. I am sure that they received the utmost care that can be expected from reptile experts. As some of you may remember, Waldo's veterinarian detected two abnormal masses in her abdomen this past summer. Little information was gleaned from extensive barium testing - was it in the digestive tract? Reproductive? She lost some weight for a short time, but then regained it. She never once lost her rather healthy appetite or her goofy personality. Based on the inconclusive barium testing results, lack of affordable additional diagnostic tools beyond prohibitively expensive exploratory surgery, and her undiminished vivre for life and food, I decided to not go through with the suggested surgery. We did not know if she had weeks, months, or years.
Waldo was my first introduction to how wonderfully endearing reptiles can be as pets. She taught me that they can be sweet (albeit a little spiky) cuddling companions and could also be as opinionated and independent as cats. When I first got her, a previous rescue, she was scared and nervous from little handling from her first neglectful owner. Over time, I would often cradle her chubby tummy in one hand, like in the attached picture. Her little legs hanging, she would lounge in my palm and look at me expectantly for food. Far more unpredictable and independent than Weldon, she had definite opinions on where she wanted to go and what she wanted to be doing - you could not pose this dragon! I compensated for her voracious appetite by making her run across the living room chasing food, which she accomplished with an odd (but always very determined!) skip due to her short tail, which she waved and wheeled around in the air like the rudder on a boat. She was also an extremely coy dragon that kept Weldon on a fishing line as soon as he realized he was a male dragon. Strutting about voluptuously with her little butt wagging straight up in the air, she would occasionally pause to slowly bow, then wave her little arm and hand delicately at a ravenous black-bearded Weldon. Life was never boring with this little in-apartment romance.
I will also never forget how her affinity for food almost put me in shock. While eating her favorite hornworms a little too fast, she slowed down and then paused. Without warning, she started thrashing violently and throwing up half-eaten worms all over my room. Terrified, I scooped her up, only to find her completely limp in my hands. I had just recently moved to San Francisco and I didn't know the types and kinds of veterinarians that lived here. During a rare moment of clearheadedness that sometimes happens in the middle of a panic, the memory of the Emergency Vet Hospital sign flashed. I walked passed it to UCSF everyday - it was only 2 blocks away. I threw her into a shoe box and ran in my pajamas to the emergency clinic, where I came in crying incoherently about my passed out bearded dragon. She appeared on death's door - no lifting of the rib cage, and only the slightest of responses to corneal touch.
Although the vets in residence were were able to see her soon, they also told me that they were primarily dog and cat veterinarians and had very little experience dealing with exotic animals like reptiles. They took her into the back room and put her into an oxygen tank, with the hopes that the high oxygen environment would help stabilize her while she recovered from whatever shock she was experiencing. I learned later that this was the exact OPPOSITE of what you should do to a reptile that isn't breathing regularly. We (humans, and also cats and dogs) breathe in when the local carbon dioxide content is too high in our lungs. Therefore, a high oxygen environment improves the amount and quality of oxygen the animal receives from each breath, which compensates for when the animal is taking far fewer breaths when stressed. In contrast, reptiles breathe WHEN OXYGEN IS TOO LOW. By putting her in a high oxygen environment, my misguided but completely well-intentioned emergency vets were placing her in the environment that she would breathe the absolute least in. Since the oxygen level never got low enough for her brain to cue a new breath...she never did.
After an hour or so waiting in the front room for any changes, one of the vets came in and gave me the sad news. My pet had passed away and was no longer responding. They had taken her out of the oxygen chamber and had her body available for autopsy or burial. After some stormy sobbing, I asked for her to be buried, since I had no place to bury her safely myself. I had just about composed myself for my final goodbye when the same vet came in excited and told me that she was alive! I didn't know if it was some divine miracle or cruel joke - I started laughing and crying at the same time. Apparently the 10 minutes or so that she was out of the oxygen chamber while they were delivering the news of her death was enough time for her to start breathing again. One of the nurses that brought her out later said that they had "never seen anything like it" - for minutes, no responses at all, limp like a dead fish - then all of a sudden a great heave and cough and she was blinking and looking around sleepily. Within an hour, she was acting like her normal, puckish self, albeit a little groggy and confused.
I took her to the best reptile veterinarian in the Bay Area and he told me the reptile's story of the well-meaning but potentially fatal encounter with the emergency vets. He told me that if I ever had another bearded dragon choke again (which apparently is extremely easy to do, since the entry to their lungs is only a shallow open pit at the base of their throat with no epiglottal flap like our larynx), I only had to pick her up by her back legs, force her mouth open with a butter knife, and whirl her around my head like a toy until she threw everything up. Bearded dragons don't have diaphragms, or muscles that can be contracted to force air out of the throat to dislodge food like we can when we cough, so she likely passed out from a piece of food getting wedged into her throat. Her death-like throes were a failed attempt to remove the obstruction before she passed out. Luckily, the obstruction must not have completely shut the airway, but was moved (perhaps while I was running in my pajamas while crying to the hospital). However, the high oxygen environment delayed her recovery significantly. After that hellish experience, I always took Weldon and Waldo to the best vet that I could afford for their check ups. I also learned that the only exotics animal emergency ward in the Bay Area (at, paradoxically, Berkeley Dog & Cat Veterinary Hospital) is open here 24-7.
I don't want to completely relive the realization of her passing, but I do want to remove any final doubts that the boarding facility was the primary cause of her passing. Waldo was by nature a plucky dragon in the home and a nervous one outside of it. When she felt safe at home, her personality shined. However, she never truly outgrew her first year of neglect, and was never able to be fully comfortable outside. The rare occasions I took her with Weldon and I to sunbathe/read in the park were on days that I knew would not be too crowded...and definitely had no helicopters flying around. She would get big, saucer-shaped "crazy eyes" if she even saw the shadow of a bird or dog and spent most of it huddled next to her little carrying bag. However, she always came back from these excursions even more brightly orange and blue than before. Due to her fragile nature, it is understandable that being kept in a strange facility that was not her home where she felt safe, surrounded by people that had not spent months earning her trust, could have accelerated her already precarious internal condition. I only wish that she could have died at home instead.
Goodbye my dear Waldo. You were my first pet bearded dragon and Weldon's eternal muse. You will never be forgotten.