About a year ago we said goodbye to one of the longest lived members of our menagerie. Rosemary the iguana arrived as a juvenile in my classroom more than twenty years ago and lived out the rest of her life under my care. The story of her early years, (Animals in the Classroom), can be found in my first book; Finding My Way to Moose River Farm. This excerpt is from my next book that will hopefully, be ready for publication next summer.
Rosemary…The diagnosis was a shock, although I had expected something was different for some time. What is difficult with animals is that as long as they are eating and excreting fairly normally it is easy to deny that anything other than old-age is afflicting them.
Rosemary had survived a long cold winter in the house that we struggled to keep above seventy degrees. Many mornings I found her stiff and ice-cold on the living room floor after having chosen to evacuate a cozy heating pad under the footstool. The bitter cold had arrived early: mid-November, and had lingered long into May, later than any year I could remember. Rosemary ate well but only if I hand fed her.
On sunny afternoons she sought warmth from sunbeams that beckoned through the long windows in the deck doors. Occasionally, I placed her out on the back doorstep where she benefitted from a dose of unfiltered Vitamin D therapy. It also enabled the parietal eye on top of her head to determine what time of year it was.
A lizard’s body fat and condition are observed at the base of its tail. As long as the animal is eating sufficiently, the tail remains plump with taut skin completely concealing the skeletal frame. Rosemary’s pelvic bones began to make an appearance at the end of the harsh winter. At first I talked myself into believing her age was at fault. I had been feeding her regularly. But why wasn’t her tail fat? By late summer it was hard to ignore the signs. First, she developed excessive thirst, plunging her snout into any potential water source, ie. her bath water or puddles on the outside deck. Reluctantly, I began to explore the internet. My heart sank. Renal failure, retained egg follicles, liver disease, and a plethora of lethal horrors kept me awake at night contemplating what to do. I worried incessantly about her. What was I missing? Why couldn’t I figure it out, apply the necessary treatment, and move forward into the next 21 healthy years of Rosemary’s life?
Eventually, my keyword search transitioned from iguana ailments to reptile veterinarians in central New York. Our regular veterinary clinic handled all of our animals except reptiles. For this, I was referred to an animal hospital over two hours away near Watertown, New York. My own search located a clinic much closer in Canastota, home of The International Boxing Hall of Fame. Once the appointment was made there was nothing left to do but wait for the moment of truth to arrive.
“Let me get my book and show you what a normal iguana’s body looks like first,” said Dr. Barbara Roach as she stepped out the door of the examining room, to retrieve a veterinary textbook on reptiles.
“This can’t be good if I have to compare Rosemary to a normal iguana,” I muttered.
My friend Vicky had accompanied me on the trip and into the examining room. Her lack of reply convinced me she agreed.
The image on Rosemary’s x-ray was as clear as the realization that my iguana was probably not going to live much longer. In comparison, Rosemary’s lower abdomen was full of a large opaque mass that was absent at the dorsal end of the torso in the normal image. This evidence proved that I could no longer blame Rosemary’s symptoms on natural aging. Awakened from denial, I listened sadly, as Dr. Roach professionally continued her diagnosis. My broken heart caught the emphasis on tumor, kidney failure, fluid in the abdomen, weight loss, deteriorating condition, forcing me to see the iguana for the first time as terminally ill. Under the weight of the prognosis, my emotions crumbled.
Rosemary lived in my house longer than any other animal we have ever owned. Only one horse, Windy, who lived in our barn for twenty-four years until his euthanasia at age twenty-seven, had been a part of our family longer. Rosie had belonged to a child who named her baby lizard in honor of a grandmother. When the child needed to find a home for the iguana a year later, she asked me if Rosemary could live in my classroom. I agreed, hopeful that Rosie might provide companionship for our two year old male iguana, Spike. She did. For almost a decade the two iguanas co-habitated. For six of those years they took up residence in my sixth grade classroom. Along with rats, hedgehogs and a veiled chameleon they helped me teach valuable lessons of compassion beyond algebra, grammar and the rise of democracy.
Six years of positive interactions with children swiftly transitioned into concern and allegations when a new superintendent came on board at our local public school. Rosemary, Spike and all of the other animal co-teachers that made learning and teaching in the classroom more stimulating were evicted. Rosemary and Spike returned to my home and lived a quiet existence until Spike passed away eight years later. After Spike died I wondered how much longer Rosemary might last. She did not miss him. They had been physically separated when it was made perfectly clear that she was not interested in his amorous trysts.
Yet, her life continued in good health through cold winters, hot summers and other seasonal fluctuations in which tropical species should find it difficult to thrive. Her beguiling personality and faint smile made her a hit among most visitors at Moose River Farm. Two friends of mine, Sherry Grimm and Star Livingstone always asked after Rosemary and took advantage of every chance they got to spend time in her company.
The iguana continued to entertain so many who oohed and aahed as she grazed on the lawn or plucked her favorite petunias buds from my planters. Children clamored to deck chairs and sat patiently while Rosie was laid in a towel across their laps. The iguana posed for hundreds of pictures. Most recently, she had been included in many “selfies”. Rarely did an encounter with Rosemary result in anything less than appreciation.
When my book became published I combed the internet for opportunities to promote it to animal loving readers. The book market is competitive with so many genre available and accessible. Attracting attention to one’s own title requires careful planning and creativity. At the Moose River Farm book launch I witnessed first hand the power that my animals had over would-be readers as they engaged with each other. After all, the book is about animals; the joys and sorrows they bring to my life and the lessons, (oh so many lessons), that they teach everyday through their pure honesty. My experiences with animals are not unique. Perhaps most animal lovers have not had the number of interactions with different species that I have but if they have ever loved a dog, a cat, a hamster, or a deer who frequently visits their backyard then they will connect with the stories I share.
Rosemary was no exception. She spent that first book signing event sprawled out on a table keeping an eye on activity all around the farm. Her presence gave me confidence to speak to people, engage them in conversation about their own animals and encourage them to scratch behind her ears...once they identified where her ears were. In the same way, my first horse, Promise had helped me build confidence during those awkward ugly teenage years so many decades ago.
Together, Rosemary and I became a marketing team. Taking her with me on book signings was not only a sure way to attract potential readers but it also provided us with quality time to spend together away from home. For hours I sat with her in my arms as hand after hand reached out to make her acquaintance.
When my publicist, Susan Schwartzman, arranged television interviews in Louisville, Kentucky, Rosemary did not attend. Rod and I combined the trip with a mini-vacation in the Bluegrass horse country. Since we traveled for several days, it was necessary to leave the iguana safe at home under the watchful eye of our phenomenal house-sitter, Robyn Craig and her family.
Without Rosemary I felt a bit out of my comfort zone. She was a wonderful diversion from the camera as she lounged in the TV host’s lap. I managed to survive the interviews without her but couldn’t help feeling that all would have proceeded more effectively with her presence.In the vet’s office I was forced to accept Rosie’s mortality. Emotions boiled over in a teary release. I turned away from the vet and asked her to give me a moment to compose myself. There was no use, I sobbed harder. The vet stepped out of the room again to get tissues for me while Vicky stood silently at my side. With sheer determination I wrenched the faucets behind my grief into the off position. Gulping for air like a stranded salmon, I forced my sadness down where it churned in viscera. When Dr. Roach returned I prepared for her to continue the diagnosis. To be continued...
Spike and Rosemary
This x-ray diagnosed the presence of more than 60 eggs.
Rosemary accompanied me to many book signings....
...and television promotions.