I discovered my first Desert Horned Lizard in my father’s lunchbox. After two interminable days away, my dad finally came through the front door. Joyfully, I ran to greet him, lunging forward with a big hug. I took his coat and hung it up, glad it would stay in the home closet for awhile. Then, as routine dictated, I sauntered off to the kitchen to clean out his lunchbox. As I lifted the metal lid, I anticipated used napkins, food wrappers, and maybe some leftovers. But WOW! To my surprised delight a small, intelligent reptilian face was looking right up at me. In that instant, I fell in love with a wild horned toad.
When I was growing up, my father had a job flying a small airplane for the telephone company in northern Nevada. In those days, all telephone service was provided by one single cable that lay buried across the entire Sierra mountain range. Every long-distance relationship in the West was dependent on that cable; if it became unearthed and was cut, westerners would have their connections to each other and the rest of the world severedliterally. My dad’s job was to fly the full route of the buried cable every week, covering one bit per day, in order to make sure that it was still buried, intact and secure.
He observed that same vast area from the air every daylike a bird above its life-long territory, watching the land change. He noticed its colors and moods changing suddenly and swiftly through differing weather, and transforming gradually through the seasons and ever-creeping human ‘progress.’ He grew to know it with a rare depth of understanding and love.
Every Saturday, my dad would take me up in his Super Cub for a half-day of work. And every Saturday, I’d throw up in the little airplane barf bag, a trade-off which was entirely worth it. Every Monday, he’d fly straight east and, because the route took him so far in that one direction that day, he’d stay overnight in Elko. The next morning, he’d continue on to Utah, make the loop, and then fly back to Reno in time for dinner with his family on Tuesday evening.
On his way home, my father would land somewhere in the eastern Nevada desert to stretch his legs and have lunch. The predominant quality of the Great Basin Desert that far out feels like silence. No human settlements exist nearby; no machine noise, aside from the occasional airplane passing overhead, assaults the ears. The federal government has justified their choice to locate nuclear waste in Nevada by viewing this sort of land as barren, uninhabited, a ‘wasteland.’ But really, a lot happens there every moment; it’s just that it takes a softer, slower mindset to notice. At first, one hears or sees very little in such a landscape, especially if accustomed to the noises of human colonies or the riotous colors of lusher regions with their innumerable shades of what we simplistically call ‘green’. But after awhile, the senses become more sensitive, and this land’s subtleties more tangible. The hills, perhaps at first seeming only clad in tones of dull brown or grey-green, after some quiet contemplation suddenly contain purples, golds, blues, pinks; and all of these ever-changing with the moving sunlight. Many nonhuman peoples live there: coyotes, rattlesnakes, small burrowing owls, piñon pines. In a thunderstorm, juniper trees and sagebrush lend a wonderfully overpowering scent to the air; the same refreshing incense used by the native Washo, Paiute, and Shoshone peoples for purification before spiritual ceremony. Being alone out there can feel renewing.
Once in awhile, after he finished eating, my dad would look around for a Desert Horned Lizard or two. He’d catch them and bring them home to me in his old-fashioned black steel lunchbox with the rounded lid. This provided the source of much surprised hilarity when my mother went to clean out the lunchbox and would find, instead of the expected used sandwich wrappers, a little face looking up at her. The lizards would only stay with us one week, and then back into the lunchbox they’d go for the return trip to their desert habitat.
I was delighted with the “horny toads,” as we called themwhich are actually lizards sporting flattened, pudgy, somewhat toad-like bodies. Their tiny, wild otherness awed me. They were so prehistoric looking, ferocious yet so delicate, with their softly articulated limbs, little clawed hands, the pebbling around their eyes, and their elegant subtle colors. Although their backs and heads were covered with spikes like a small dinosaur, their bellies were very soft. Their tongues darted out like lightning. They maintained a constant silence. Because of their rotating numbers, I really got to notice each one as an individual. Each was very different from her or his fellows. Some were huge, some were wider or flatter than most, some had more vibrant colors, some looked wise, some had a feisty temperament.
Beautiful HornedToad quilt made by Susan Cranshaw
Their eyes look quite a bit like ours, with light brown irises and round black pupils, but they could shoot blood out of their eyes, and shoot it far – up to five feet away. Horned lizards’ first defense lies in the visual realm: invisibility and distraction. When threatened, they’ll freeze in place in an attempt to become invisible. If that fails, they’ll run a bit in weirdly angled directions, stopping in spurts and angling off in some other direction, in an attempt to confuse the watching predator. If that doesn’t work, their second defensive strategy is to seem dangerous. They’ll puff themselves up in order to look bigger and pricklier, making their spines stick out in a ferociously cactus-like manner that screams “I Taste Bad and Go Down Hard.” If actually grabbed, they might hiss, bite, or try to stick the assailant with their spines. Finally, if all that fails to deter the would-be lizard muncher, they will squirt an aimed stream of blood right into the assailant’s face. They do this by deliberately constricting the blood flow from leaving their eyes and heads, which increases the blood pressure there so much that the tiny blood vessels around their eyelids burst. This spurt of blood not only surprises and perhaps even temporarily blinds the would-be predator, it’s also reputed to taste terrible. It’s easy to imagine how this would put anyone off their meal.
My friends all wanted to see the lizards spurt eye blood, but I generally refused to entertain in this way. The Encyclopedia Brittanica my folks had bought from a door-to-door salesman said it was a sign that the lizards felt severely threatened, and I wanted them to be happy while they were with us.
Lizards deserve the best. My dad built a terrarium hotel for them out of a flat metal oil-changing tub. It stood about 6” tall and 2 ½ feet in diameter, and was topped by a Plexiglas lid complete with drilled air holes and bolts to fasten it in place. We filled the hotel with dry sand and a water bowl, and as their nominal caretaker, I was charged with capturing food for our reptilian guests.
We quickly discovered that horned toads only enjoy live fare, so I had to go out several times per day to catch ants, the only insects I could reliably find. Fortunately, our locally plentiful Harvester Ants are caviar to Desert Horned Lizards. Yet unfortunately, I soon learned that humans are not really built to be ant predators. I suffered for weeks in my efforts to collect enough of them to satiate gluttonous horned toads.
Try this as an exercise in humility: Capture running ants, one at a time, between your fingertips. Pinch them hard enough to grab them, but gently enough to keep them unharmed and alive. Then get each ant into a transportable container without letting any of the others out.
It would take me at least an hour of ant-catching every day to keep the horned toads fed. Then one day my mother suggested that I find an anthill and use bait, like honey in a jar, to get them. It was with a combined relief and Homer Simpson-like “D’oh!” that I switched to the honey trick. It worked! Now, as the horned toads hid burrowed in the sand with only their heads peering out, they had scores of ants running all over their camouflaged backs, and I enjoyed many gruesomely fascinating moments watching them silently waiting… waiting… and then suddenly snapping up their unsuspecting victims.
Like many kids with pets, while I enjoyed the horned toads’ presence, I didn’t always pay enough attention to them. It snowed quite a bit during Reno winters, and on one such day I remember feeling elated and blessed with a visit from a glorious sun. Certainly, I thought, the current batch of horned toads must be homesick for the desert; they would no doubt enjoy a bit of warming up after a bleak few days trapped in the gloomy house (a bit of projection on my part, perhaps). So I placed their terrarium on the front porch, where they could bask in direct sun light to their hearts’ content. I went back in to read, or play, or draw. And I promptly forgot about them.
When it began to get dark, my mother reminded me to bring the horned toads inside for the night. I went out to get them, but to my horror, I found they were not the same. The sun’s rays had become super magnified by the Plexiglas lid, causing the temperature in the terrarium to rise to an intolerable level. The baby lizard had baked to death. I buried his stiff, dried-out little body in our yard, weeping through the entire ceremony. Guilt and grief co-mingled. The older one was still alive, but barely. We gently placed her in cool water and left the hotel lid open to the sheltered indoor air.
My father barely met my eyes. “That’s the last of the horned toads,” he said through a tight, set jaw. “If you don’t take care of them, you don’t deserve to have them.” I pleaded, “But it was only this once, and it was a mistake!” I felt terrible. Was my act so awful? It was an accident. I truly hadn’t meant harm to come to them; didn’t that count? Was this ban really to last forever? Thankfully, the large one grew stronger again, and my dad took her back home in his lunchbox the very next day. But he never brought another horned toad home.
My eyes opened to the fragility of life on that winter day, and the impact I, and my species as a whole, can have on these, our ancient relatives. They have lived as a species so much longer than we, and under extreme desert conditions of weather and water deprivation that would do most humans in; yet they are individually so soft, small and vulnerable. My one small act of unintentional negligence led to their torture and swift death. I felt guilty not only because of what happened, but also because I had caused it in the misguided name of love. Further, the mistake resulted in dire consequences for the perpetrator, too – no more horned toads for me, ever again. And I began to realize how we humans need to maintain a high level of observant vigilance about the effects of our actions.
The Northern Desert Horned Lizards that live in Nevada, Idaho, Utah, and southeastern Oregon are still pretty well-off. However, two of their southern cousins have state protection as ‘threatened’ species, largely due to loss of their primary food, the Harvester Ant. Increasing development reduces ant habitat, non-native ants moving in from South America make war on them and eat their queens, and overuse of agricultural pesticides kills them en masse. All of these factors combine to make the horned lizards’ primary food source very hard to come by.
Perhaps I want my entire species to help me atone for the pain I caused that one young horned toad. I want us to gain enough consciousness to stop causing this sort of agony on purpose, to stop sanctioning horrific deaths as ‘collateral damage’, and to stop destroying the homes of our other-than-human relatives for our own selfish purposes without batting an eyelash.
The history of colonization is replete with unconscious violence: theft of native peoples’ homelands, forbidding Paiutes, Aborigines, Hawaiians, and Irish to speak their own languages, and kidnapping Africans to toil as slaves on an faraway continent. We look upon these events with horror now, yet we are still perpetrating such crimes of the soul today, in an equally unthinking ways, against our non-human relatives. We capture wild birds such as parrots, some of whom live over 80 years and range for hundreds of miles of territory, to keep in sedentary cages as wing-clipped pets. We vacuum tropical fish up from their vast home in the coral reefs to languish and die in our tiny home aquariums. And we consider land to be ‘our property’, sellable and ‘uninhabited’ if it doesn’t have a human-built structure on it, giving us free rein to bulldoze it, pave it over, drop toxic wastes on it, and evict or murder the existing denizens, who now are considered ‘pests.’
Since the horned toad incident, I’ve pondered this question many times: “How do we foster respect for the other-than-human world?”
The lesson I learned when I inadvertently killed the baby horned toad was a strong one for a girl of eight, and I’ve never forgotten it: Care for the other-than-humans daily, and do it well and right, with proper attention and love, for you only get one chance. They’re in our lives now, but if we blow it, they’ll be gone. Whether as individuals, entire species, or even ecosystems, once these treasured elder relatives are gone, they’re gone for good. Consequently, an important human connection will be severed – severed far worse, and for much longer, than any phone line in the Sierras.
This essay by Tina R. Fields was first published in
Courting the Wild: Love Affairs with Reptiles and Amphibians
ed. Jamie K. Reaser, Hiraeth Press, 2009, pp. 67-74.
(Click the picture to see more or to purchase.)