I never wanted to own a bearded dragon. It seemed like the kind of pet Morticia Addams would have: a scaly reptile that hulked inside a tank, one yellow eye fixed on you with hostile indifference.
I preferred likeable forms of animal life, like dogs and kittens. I might, in theory, enjoy an exotic bird, but a lizard held no emotional or aesthetic appeal.
When I was a kid, the bearded dragon’s close relative, the horned toad, often darted across our front porch in the summer. Sometimes we’d catch one and see if we could make it shoot blood out of its eyes: an evolutionary trick to ward off predators. When a coyote attacks the horned toad, one writer explained, “a stream of nasty-tasting blood squirts from the lizard’s eyes, straight into the coyote’s mouth. The coyote steps back, shaking its head from side to side in disgust.”
It never occurred to me to bring one of these things inside the house. My room was a sanctuary of books, toys, and the flowery sundresses I favored. Lizards belonged outside where they would eventually get run over by a car, whatever. Now, where was my rose-patterned tea set?
But suddenly, it was 2020 and I had a daughter of my own. When school and sports shut down in March, she turned to animal shows to pass the time, including a charismatic YouTuber who talked about her bearded dragon, Fitz.
For a tween living under house arrest, it could be worse, I figured. My 11-year-old was not watching Kardashian makeup tutorials or listening to the unbelievably vulgar songs climbing the pop charts. (Seeing the lyrics, I stepped back, shaking my head side to side in disgust.)
Inevitably, though, she began lobbying for her own “beardie.” Though she’d always seemed like a laid-back Californian, suddenly she was giving commanding PowerPoint presentations, selling the idea like a dot-commer to a room of venture capitalist billionaires. She handed out summaries of her research and held Q&A sessions to address our concerns.
Basically, she wore us down. When we green-lighted her idea to buy a newly hatched bearded dragon from a breeder downstate, she burst into tears of joy. It had been a hard slog, but victory was hers!
We met the baby beardie at a FedEx center by the airport, where it had been shipped overnight in a small box. Vaguely jealous that it was still allowed to travel, we signed the papers and took it home. It was a tiny, slender thing, four inches long from tip to tail. We placed it in a well-lit tank, outfitted with its own furniture like a condo.
And so began a new phase of our lives: cohabiting with a reptile. In a stressful and contentious year, when everyone had reverted to their lizard brains, how bad could an actual lizard be?
In fact, the dragon was a model of poise and dignity. It spent a lot of time basking on a rock under a sun lamp. It ate coleslaw mix and live crickets, rousing itself from days of torpor to snap them up with astonishing speed. It often sat in my daughter’s palm or on her shoulder, and seemed to enjoy baths in the bathroom sink.
We could tell when the lizard was nervous because her white underbelly turned splotchy and black. Simple tricks — like papering over the glass tank to reduce visual stimulation, or leaving her alone to furtively poop in her food dish — cheered her up.
If only humans were so simple! Instead of changing color when stressed out, I dashed off angry letters and bought things I didn’t need on the Internet. Perhaps I, too, was overstimulated and should turn off my phone? Life in 2020 was unsettling to both me and the beardie, but her primitive emotions were easier to manage. She was a pro at finding satisfaction in the little things, like munching freeze-dried mealworms or watching the dog leave the room.
On my Zoom calls for work, people frequently asked about the lizard. Everyone was either getting a new pet or thinking about getting one, spooked by the ringing emptiness of their apartments or alarmed that their children spent 15 hours a day on screens. All over town, people were hauling home puppies, gerbils, parakeets, ferrets, snakes, and white mice and giving them 2020 names like Gaslight and Desesperación.
In a tough year, we found, living with animals was therapeutic. Lizards had been around 300 million years. To paraphrase a Victorian writer describing the Mona Lisa, our beardie was “older than the rock on which she sat.” As we humans gripped the rail of the roller coaster that was 2020, our lizard reminded us of a different reality: impassive, ancient, and unchanging. The natural world was not our silly world, and it took the long view.
So many things in 2020 made me step back, shaking my head in disgust, but when I look at our bearded dragon these days, I think: “She’s kind of cute.”
Featured image: ifong / Shutterstock